Cover bands: inside the world of musical mimicry
Morrissey, The Beatles, David Bowie – we speak to three tribute acts about why they do what they do
This article is from 2016.
'We love melodrama. He loves it too. We have a twisted sense of humour. He has it too. Morrissey was a migrant. We are too. Well … immigrants. I think it is a match made in heaven.'
Imagine Morrissey's yodelling vocals pitched against mariachi horns, or his frantic dancing shot through with a cha cha rhythm. Sure, the romance between Morrissey and Mexico is a well-documented one, but before now nobody had thought to merge the two in a musical sense. Until, that is, musician and Grammy-winning producer Camilo Lara had a brainwave.
'We thought for some time about doing some kind of re-invention of Moz songs in a Mexican style. I just started calling people that I admire from Mexico's music scene. They joined me, naturally.'
'They' refers, specifically, to Sergio Mendoza, Ceci Bastida, Alejandro Flores, Chetes, Jay de la Cueva and Ricardo Najera, separately a range of high profile and award-winning Mexican artists, but together they are Mexrrissey, a motley, if tongue-twisting, Mexican-inspired Morrissey act. According to Lara, the pairing made perfect sense. Morrissey's tendency to stray towards the misplaced and the outsiders goes some way towards explaining why he was so readily embraced by Mexicans.
'If you replace the name 'Smith' for 'Perez' and the cloudy skies for sunny ones, you'd pretty amazed at how similar we are. Sundays here are just as boring as in the UK too.'
Their debut album No Manchester ('In Mexico City slang, it means “no fucking way”’) was released at the beginning of the month, and their upbeat interpretations of Morrissey's more popular number have gained radio play and a niche appeal. Not strictly a cover band or tribute act, of which, when it comes to The Smiths and Morrissey, there are many, Mexrrissey are just music lovers having a blast with their idols' work.
While Mexrrissey are happy to be themselves playing Morrissey's music, the other side of dedicating yourself to an artist can come in the form of tribute bands dedicating themselves to exactly replicating the sights and sounds of a band.
'It's not as simple as just watching a couple of videos or listening to the songs.' Steve Hill has been portraying George Harrison in The Bootleg Beatles since 2014. 'It can take years, and even then you'll realise you've been singing a certain word the wrong way, or playing a solo slightly wrong. It's a never-ending journey.'
Globally-renowned as one of the best tribute acts on the scene, the group have been around since 1980; Hill was 12 when the first formation came to life. 'When I first encountered them I was never going to be able join them, so I formed my own band, realised I wasn't very good, got a paper round, and forgot about the whole thing. Until about 20 years later.'
While Hill has only been in the Bootleg Beatles for a couple of years, the group's lineup has been surprisingly steady, given they've been around for 3.5 decades; currently they're on their second Lennon and Harrison and their third McCartney and Ringo. Bandmate Adam Hastings, who has been in John Lennon's Chelsea boots for five years agrees with Hill that being in a tribute band is a never-ending job.
'You have to constantly go back and check what you’re doing against the footage and recordings. It’s easy to settle into a comfort zone and think you’ve got it nailed, but you can’t allow yourself to become complacent.' Not a problem when you consider the reaction that the group sometimes receives: positively Beatlemania-esque in places
'[We had a] police outrider escort from the airport to Ulan Bator after we landed in Mongolia. The gig in the main square was pretty wild too!'
Hill and Hastings are unusual in that the musicians they've chosen to represent have both passed away. Although neither were in the group at the time of Lennon or Harrison's deaths, the situation is a strange one.
'On the anniversary of John or George's passing we will acknowledge it with a few words or play a song we might not normally do in the set. At the end of the day we wouldn't be doing it if wasn't for those fellas.'
The death of their tribute is something artists don't consider they'll have to deal with when they get into it, but it's more and more it's becoming a necessary evil of the job. Laurence Bowie, aka The BowieXperience was, naturally, troubled by David Bowie's death in January.
'It hit me hard, but it has left me with a determination to redouble my efforts to do justice by him and his work.' Bowie's passing has had an interesting effect on the way Laurence views his job and gives an insight into the nature – and future – of tribute bands.
'The odd thing about David dying is that before I would be replaying history, reporting on the present, and predicting the future, now there is only the history to relate.'
The ongoing cultural significance of tribute bands remains to be seen. While madly popular, the resounding response is that the acts appeal mainly to those who were fans of the band when the first time round. 'About 75% of any given audience is middle class and middle-aged,' Laurence admits, while Hastings ays, 'the demographic is firmly rooted in the baby boomers and a lot of people who saw the Beatles first-hand.'
What happens to the band when that first audience is gone? Simply put by Laurence: 'Any artist's career is decided by the appetite people have for it.'