@ZackTeibloom An article on Cover Bands originally for FLYP Media that never ran. Since I’ve been in Phish album cover mode all week, I figured I’d let you read it.
“People would sooner pay $10 to see four guys pretending to be KISS than $5 to see four guys playing original songs nobody had ever heard before.” –Chuck Klosterman from his essay “Appetite for Replication” in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs
In the week prior to Michael Jackson’s death, Thriller sold 277 copies. The next week it sold over 100,000, as Jackson’s entire catalog dominated the charts. When an artist dies, or stops touring, fans clamor for their music. It’s why cover bands exist.
A band that hasn’t made it with originals can achieve an instant fan base by playing the music of a popular band that doesn’t tour anymore. There are exceptions, but most cover bands are around to turn fans on to classic rock legends who no longer tour like Led Zeppelin, Kiss, The Talking Heads and, most importantly, The Beatles.
Steph Paynes is the founding member of Lez Zeppelin, an all-female, don’t-ask-if-lez-means-lesbian Led Zeppelin cover band.
“You see a ton of Zeppelin cover bands that are middle-aged guys in dragon suits with their shirts open and that is not at all what we’re doing,” Paynes said.
Cover bands don’t need to look the part these days. While the Guns N’ Roses cover band Klosterman writes about tries to look like Slash and Axl, cover bands are making it big without having to subject themselves to becoming a carbon copy of the band’s music they play.
Who’s Who of Cover Bands
Dark Star Orchestra plays classic Grateful Dead shows, taking the set-list from one particular night and replicating it song-for-song in order. The Fab Faux plays Beatles songs from the early mop top days. The Easy Dub All Stars record covers of entire classic rock albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt. Pepper to critical acclaim.
Then there’s Joe Cocker, the king of covers. He’s the most successful cover artist of all-time even though he never even picked a band to cover exclusively, though he is known to cover three Beatles songs in a set. Not every cover band has the luxury of playing to headlining festival crowds like Joe Cocker or even Lez Zeppelin who played for 20,000 at Bonnaroo.
What it takes to cover accurately
Chicago-based This Must Be The Band plays to small clubs, works day jobs and doesn’t stray far from the Midwest, but in their quest to cover The Talking Heads accurately, they put everything into it.
Putting on Stop Making Sense wasn’t something This Must be the Band took lightly. Lead singer Charlie Otto says he watched the concert film approximately 200 times to make sure the details were perfect.
“It was like three months of my life. That’s all I did for three months,” Otto said. “At the end of the show they have nine people on stage. I had to learn everyone’s part.”
To recreate the classic 1986 concert, they pulled out all the stops from the big white suit to dancing with lamps to the full choreography.
Should it be identical?
“We try to hit it to a T. We feel like everyone’s looking for every detail,” drummer Ben Domhoff said. Otto “does a good job of channeling Byrne. He smiles a bit too much to be David Byrne. He definitely needs to stop smiling so much on stage.”
Otto responded, “I don’t know if I’m going to try to watch that. I’m sure there are a good number of people who think everything has to be exactly the same. I don’t think it would be fun to have to be exactly like them.”
Paynes shares that sentiment. She says when she hears the phrase tribute band, she thinks of an act trying to “trick the audience to think it’s the same thing,” but that’s not Lez Zeppelin.Especially after seeing Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page play live, Paynes knows she can sound like him without trying to be him.
“I’m so familiar with his nuance and his feel that I can construct a solo that will sound very Page-ian because I’ve been doing it this long,” she said. “But it struck me that I’m never going to play like him. He’s him. I’m me and you can’t really copy someone to that extreme. I wouldn’t want to.”
Putting a unique spin on the music is an important aspect of the cover. Easy Dub All Stars use a distinct reggae tinge that completely revamps the album they’re covering. On “Money,” from the cover of Dark Side of the Moon, they replace the cash-register noise with a bong bubbling and coughing. “She’s Leaving Home” from the cover of Sgt. Pepper has a female singer and steel drums.
Covering Pink Floyd and The Beatles makes sense. One could see Paul McCartney and Roger Waters in rare concert appearances, but the bands have multiple deceased members and no longer tour or make albums. Covering Radiohead is just fun. Easy Dub decided to cover OK Computer after hearing that Radiohead was playing their Dub Side of the Moon on the P.A. before their concerts.
The most puzzling cover of a cover is This Must Be The Band’s performance of “Take Me to the River.” They’re covering a Talking Heads version of an Al Green song, but as evidenced by Al Green’s recent Bonnaroo performance, the soul singer hasn’t lost a step. So what draws these bands to keep the covers going, even when the original is still there? Check out the side-by-side video to see the differences.
This Must Be The Band “Take Me To The River”
Talking Heads’ “Tame Me To The River” If you want the full effect, play this 4-5 seconds after the cover version and watch them side by side
As editor of Festivalcrashers.com. I was lucky to see over 100 bands in the last year on the music festival circuit. It was surprising that the two best shows of the summer (Phish at Bonnaroo and Neil Young at New Orleans Jazz Fest) ended the exact same way. Both bands closed their nearly three-hour sets with a one-song encore of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”
Besides the coincidence of both shows ending on the exact same song, the odd part is it’s a song The Beatles themselves never played live. Phish and Neil Young seem hell-bent on recreating a moment that never happened. It’s not just keeping the music alive. It’s creating an alternate universe where it can come alive for the first time. As the last line in the song goes, “I’d love to turn you on.”