When does a band become a tribute act?

Quite a few veteran acts touring with just one or two original members get accused, rightly or wrongly, of being glorified tribute acts. Yes are a case in point; since the untimely death of Chris Squire the band have been touring without a single founder member, and just guitarist Steve Howe remaining from the early 70s band that made their reputation. There is a noisy faction of their ‘fans’ who refuse to accept the existence of the band without Jon Anderson, going to the extent of creating a Facebook group called “2/5ths of Yes is not Yes”. Given that Yes have gone though many personnel changes in their long history, that attitude is rather silly.

But what about AC/DC? With Phil Rudd in trouble with the law, and first Malcolm Young and then Brian Johnson forced to step down due to ill health they’re down to Angus Young and a bunch of hired hands. The Guardian’s Michael Hann has made a good argument for the band to call it a day after finishing their tour, and I find it hard to disagree with that.

There are plenty of bands on the nostalgia circuit for whom the label “glorified tribute band” is entirely appropriate. Bands who have been playing the same greatest hits sets for the past twenty years with diminishing levels of passion, and have either stopped recording new material altogether or release forgettable albums that add little to their legacy. But that has little to do with how many original members remain. One might even put The Rolling Stones in that category.

But there are others for whom the opposite is true. Look at Hawkwind, for example. Dave Brock spends much of the set sitting down, plays a bit of rhythm guitar, and lets the guys who weren’t even born when he started the band do all the work. But it’s his presence on stage that makes it Hawkwind in a way the rival bands featuring assorted ex-members are not. And what about The Enid, set to continue without mainman Robert John Godfrey with Robert’s blessing?

And how do you classify Zappa Plays Zappa, led by Dweezil Zappa and playing the music of his late father? Early incarnations of the band included Zappa alumni Napoleon Murphy Brock and Stevie Vai, though more recent lineups are made up entirely of younger musicians who weren’t part of any of Frank Zappa’s bands. But the spiritual connection is obvious.

As death or ill-health claims more and more of the classic rock generation it would be sad if their music stopped being performed live. The dividing line between tribute acts and original bands with no original members is likely to become increasingly blurred; a lot of it depends on whether they revolved around larger-then-life personalities, or whether, as in the case of Yes, the music itself is bigger than the performers.

In the end does it really matter? Is “authenticity” more important than the quality of the actual performances?

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12 Responses to When does a band become a tribute act?

  1. Sam Lewis says:

    Interesting article. Some bands with a single original member, like Uriah Heep, are still great. They still make good albums and tour heavily playing varied setlists. Foreigner on the other hand have played the same set for years, even while releasing an excellent new album with the new line-up, and sometimes, through illness, Mick Jones doesn’t even play with the band.

  2. Tim Hall says:

    Uriah Heep are a rare case of a band surviving both the loss of their original frontman (David Byron) and their main songwriter (Ken Hensley) yet not only carried on but managed to reinvent themselves.

    With you on bands who do release quality new albums only to ignore them when they tour. UFO are bad offenders at this; they’ll play three or four songs of whatever new album they’re touring, and everything else will be from Strangers in the Night, which came out in 1979.

  3. Sam Lewis says:

    Yeah UFO, while good live, are guilty of playing the same old songs each tour. It is strange really, as there probably aren’t many ‘fair weather’ UFO fans who the band have to placate live with the ‘hits’. Magnum do it better, they always play lots of new songs, as do Saxon – but those bands each have two original (and other very long standing) members, so that may be the difference?

  4. Harold Pinkney says:

    I had seen every YES UK tour from 1971 until the last and current one; but I object to paying a large sum to see what has become a Steve Howe Band. In my opinion drummer Alan White just goes through the motions now as I witnessed the last time I saw YES at the Manchester Appolo.
    The fine YES Tribute band Fragile (especially when Steve Carney was the singer) I can see at the intimate Robin at club prices. In fact they were ‘endorsed’ by Steve Howe who I saw play with them 3 years running also at the wonderful Robin.
    The last Yes release – Heaven and Hell was hell to my ears!!!

  5. Tim Hall says:

    Last couple of times I’ve seen tribute bands have been co-headliners with Morpheus Rising – Heaven or Hell (Dio/Rainbow/Sabbath) and Iron-On Maiden (Imagine Iron Maiden fronted by Dumpy of Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts).

    Have seen Fleetwood Bac (who are excellent), but that’s just because I know Lisa Fury from her days in Karnataka. But I’d still rather hear her sing her own songs.

  6. Synthetase says:

    I read the article and found this at the end:

    “If they do play at London’s Olympic Stadium in June with a new singer, I will probably go. Just to see. To revisit my memories of one of my all-time favourite bands.

    But I hope they don’t. I hope, this time, they decide that AC/DC is too precious a thing to diminish.”

    That, I think, says it all (incidentally it’s one of the most watered-down conclusions to an opinion piece I’ve ever read). Why would Young call it quits if he knows people will turn up anyway? These guys do it because they can, and I find I’m okay with that. It’s not my cup of tea, but who cares?

    For the most part ‘authenticity’ is a marketing tool anyway. Used to sell everything from the blues to Kurt Cobain.

  7. T.J. Swoboda says:

    And then sometimes those who don’t know what they’re talking about will ask “are there even any original members?” in reference to a band whose original lineup is more or less intact. When people ask this about Rush, I respond with “Yeah, there *are* two originals, but it’s pretty much a joke without John Rutsey.”

    Well, I will use that response, if I ever have anyone else present to get the joke…

    Edited for typo

  8. Tim Hall says:

    Marillion were never the same after Diz Minett and Brian Jelliman left…

  9. Chuk says:

    Is a tribute act automatically a bad thing?

    I’d almost say the same thing about a band touring again even with all the original members if they are just going through the motions.

    Some bands really “are” one or a few of the members, though…is Queen any good without Freddy Mercury? (I haven’t seen them with or without him.) I have no interest in seeing the Dead Kennedys with no Jello Biafra.

  10. Tim Hall says:

    All boils down to how much are you going to see the performers and how much are you going to see the music being performed. It’s usually a bit of both.

  11. Mike says:

    I cannot accept Yes as it is currently configured. It is totally ridiculous and a sad way to treat the legacy.

  12. Tim Hall says:

    I haven’t seen the current Yes live, but will defer to those who have, and all the comments I’ve seen have been strongly positive.