Photo: BETH WHITEWOOD

It's a long way to the top of the 'musical monster' hill

Longform

When you can't have the original, tribute shows are the next best thing. All they're asking for is a little R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Dave 'Rod' Patten stands on stage clutching a microphone. He is dressed in a navy military style jacket over an open red silk button-down shirt, with its collar popped, and layered with a black AC/DC t-shirt. With him are a female singer, Ali K, a guitarist and a pianist in a t-shirt with an Australian flag on the front. Patten is impersonating Rod Stewart, relying on his blond hair and large nose for the likeness. He emulates the gestures and mannerisms of Rod in this small pub for an audience of grey-haired men with their wives and groups of middle-aged men having after-work drinks. He compliments the audience: "This is the reason I come out here every Friday from Glastonbury."

By his second set at 10pm a younger crowd has taken over the dance floor. Patten steps away from his Rod Stewart songbook, singing:

Hey Hey Hey, good old Eagle Rock's here to stay
I'm just crazy 'bout the way we mooove
Doiiiiiin' the Eagle Rock

The audience, many singing along, beers in hand, cheer with appreciation. Tonight is evidently not one of his regular Rod Stewart shows, instead, in character as Rod, he performs with Oz Icons, a band that pays tribute to classic Australian rock music. Next on the set list: Funkytown, not strictly an Australian classic but covered by Aussie new wave band Pseudo Echo in the 1980s.

Based on the NSW Central Coast, this Rod Stewart is shorter than the original (who stands 175cm tall) and has a square weathered face with the classic Rod Stewart nose. He keeps his hair long and blond for the show and but for these two features he reminds me of Robin Williams. Sitting in a room off the main pub at Unity Hall in Balmain under a photograph of Merv Hughes, (another icon of the eighties), he reflects on his career in the industry. Patten manages to make a living as a full-time entertainer by keeping an eclectic timetable. He typically hosts a trivia event or game show during the week and plays in three or four different cover bands. These include several Rod Stewart shows, the Totally Aussie Eighties show, the AC/DC spectacular Long Way to the Top and a James Reyne act. He also does some lunch time seniors shows as Rod Stewart. These shows, called Morning Melodies are attended by retirees, many wheeled in by carers and coming from nursing homes.

Dave Patten has the nose and the dirty blond hair to carry his Rod Stewart impersonation.Photo: BETH WHITEWOOD

"They're so passionate about it. You jump up on stage. And I've had people say to me before 'Oh it's an old audience don't play Hot Legs or Do You Think I'm Sexy and I'm like 'Are you crazy?' They LOVE this stuff. Don't treat 'em like they're old, they want to live their youth through you. So get up there and sing that stuff! So I do Do You Think I'm Sexy and they pinch me on the bum as I walk through the crowd like AYYYY ROD!! They're having an absolute ball."

Patten's fans at Morning Melodies have lived through the birth of the tribute music industry. The industry emerged in the 1970s and 1980s though debate remains as to the specific spark that ignited the tribute flame.

Krissi Geary, of Southern Illinois University, marks it as starting in the 1970s with Elvis Presley. For Greg Thompson, who is both an Austin Powers impersonator and manager of the Sunburst Celebrity Impersonator Convention, it was the singing telegrams that initiated it. "It started in the early eighties when singing telegram companies and entertainment companies said 'Hey, we have celebrity lookalikes, people who look like Elvis or Marilyn Monroe or maybe James Dean. And then it just started growing from there."

'[Some] tribute shows will actually call up the venues ... and literally troll you. It's unbelievable!'

One dominant theory is that Australia was a breeding ground for these groups because it was not financially viable for European or American acts to make the journey. In 1997, Tony Barrell wrote in The Sunday Times the "main cradle" for tribute bands was Australia, casting it as the 'Frankenstein that created these musical monsters."

However, in Access all Eras, Shane Homan points to the cradle being first located in Britain with the emergence of the Counterfeit Stones in 1979 and the Bootleg Beatles in 1980. Back in Australia, the Beatnix, from Western Australia, performed for the first time in March 1980. Bjorn Again, perhaps the best known tribute band today did not emerge until the late 1980s, when they started performing locally in Melbourne, before exporting their show to Britain. This May the group kicks off a 30th anniversary tour across Australia.

The golf club audience join in when FABBA roll out crowd favourite "Mama Mia".Video: BETH WHITEWOOD

Patten has always known that he wanted to be a performer, after early experiences of performing in high school and exposure to the industry through his mother, who was a singer and pianist. As a young man, Dave had aspirations of recording his own music but despite his best efforts, never became a successful original artist. While he never achieved his dream career, he still experienced a wild youth as a touring musician.

He still recalls a night in his early twenties, at the end of a Queensland tour. After the band's final show on Bribie Island, they were all so homesick they decided to drive back to Sydney that night. Young, and feeling bulletproof, Patten's friend Sean, the keyboard player, drove as Patten nodded off.

He was jarred awake by the bus being thrown from side to side and looked up to see Sean fast asleep. "SEEAAAAAN WAKE UP," he shouted as the bus careened off the road, into the grass, towards the trees. Body check, gear check. Everyone was okay and the equipment was undamaged, so the band pulled handfuls of grass and twigs out of the wheels, dusted themselves off and got back on the bitumen.

Ten kilometres down the road they were pulled over by police. "Know anything about a bus driving erratically on the wrong side of the road?" Surveying the remnants of grass and shrubs all over the bus, the police officer asked: "Been doing some off-road driving have we?" They denied it, but Patten said, "we just thought, we could have been killed, that's crazy stuff."

Those days of invincibility are behind him but Patten said his ongoing commitment to the entertainment industry has come at a cost. "I've missed out for years. I've missed out on friend's weddings and parties because I'm always playing [on weekends] and eventually you don't get asked," he said.

Another challenge of the job for all tribute artists is the pressure to perform even when sick. Not having the star power of the acts they impersonate, there is little scope to withdraw from a performance due to ill health. "I've been close to death and still haven't cancelled a gig. There's a cost that comes along with all this stuff." he said.

When the real Rod Stewart was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2000 he stopped singing for nine months to give his voice the time it needed to recover. Patten does not have that luxury. He damaged his vocal chords on tour and has since needed speech pathology and therapy. "Singing through it and winding up with damage that's taken me two years to try and get over." He has also lost half his hearing due to the noise exposure of the work.

Despite the sacrifices performers make to participate in this industry, there is little respect from the broader community. Barrell characterises tribute bands as "naff", cruelly concluding "only a sudden attack of good taste can stop this whole business now". The Urban Dictionary entry characterises them as a "sad wastes of space". Many original artists stoke this animosity: Bon Jovi, Metallica and Led Zeppelin have all taken or threatened to take legal action against tribute bands (Blonde Jovi, Sandman and Lez Zeppelin respectively).

Patten suggests some of the perceived negativity stems from misconceptions that the work is easy, and that it is easy to be successful, when this is not the case. "There's 5000 bands competing for 100 venues, and that breeds a lot of competition. Unhealthy competition at times."

For Patten, however, the challenges are worthwhile and this line of work is valuable. "If you're honest about it, you're a real fan and you're there to honour the person that you're paying tribute to, and have fun with it." He is emphatic about the value of his shows: "If you look up the word tribute, it's honouring, you can't get out there and do a half-hearted job."

"I do this because I love to perform. I love entertaining an audience. I love seeing the smiles on people's faces. There's so much positive energy that comes from that, walking onto a stage and delivering a song and sometimes it's the songbook of people's life. You don't know that the song you're singing to them at that moment was their Mum's favourite song or someone near and dear to them. Or it was the song they first danced to with their wife, 40 years ago. Sometimes you can see people in tears… you're taking them back to a special moment in their life. That is the beauty of what we do.

"The ugly side is the business."

'Original bands are basically tribute bands these days, because they've only got one original member left.'

In some small way, this tribute goes beyond simply reminding the world of an artist's music. Bjorn Again, one of the most successful tribute bands of all time saw a mutually beneficial relationship between themselves and ABBA. "I think [ABBA] acknowledge the role we've had in their re-emergence," said Rod Leissle, one of the group's founders, in 2004. "We looked into it and found that ABBA Gold sells a lot more in towns that we tour, and so we can quantify that our tours promote their CD sales. It's a case of scratching each other's backs - but they don't need us at all."

Patten believes Rod Stewart experiences similar benefit. "The artists, I believe they benefit as well because you're keeping their name alive. You're reminding people how good their material is and quite often I've spoken to people who have said 'I saw your Rod Stewart show last week, I went out and bought his new album after seeing that'. It does support the original artist. It really does. It might not be big but it's paying respect and it's reminding people, 'hey these guys are pretty special'."

The relationship, unbeknownst to Rod Stewart, is mutually beneficial, with sales for Patten's upcoming show spiking after Stewart appeared on 60 Minutes last September.

Guy Morrow has written specifically on tribute artists in the Sydney area in "Selling out or buying in? The dual career of the original and cover band musician". He notes that many musicians who wish to pursue a career with their own original music will turn to tribute music as a means of gaining performance experience and also to make money, as the tribute industry in NSW is, he said, both more lucrative and presents more opportunities than that for original music. Patten and many of his friends in the business have attempted to release their own original music. "We all tried very hard, we wrote some songs, we supported a lot of major acts, we put the time and the effort in. But it gets to the point you realise it's not going to happen, and the next best thing is covers, or to choose someone to pay tribute to."

***

ANDY SUTTON manages a Repco Auto shop but plans to work as a full-time singer in 2019. He is a large man, completely bald with a round face and large ears. Sutton currently plays Barry Gibb in a Bee Gees tribute act and lead singer Brian Johnson in an AC/DC tribute act, Long Way to The Top. He acknowledges he doesn't look like his characters and even incorporates it into his Bee Gees performances: "I don't make a secret of it, I do this funny bit with - I hold my wig, no one thinks it's my real hair.'"

Sutton is well versed on the origins of his industry and the reason Australia is considered the birthplace of tribute artistry, saying "Back in the day of Johnny O'Keefe, the '50s and '60s, we were so far away from the rest of the world and we are such good mimics and do the tribute thing so well because we've always done it. In those days ... no-one would travel here. When you look at bands like The Easy Beats and Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs they were Australia's Beatles and the Rolling Stones."

In 1992, Sally Joy explored this Australian-born phenomena, asking 'Why are these Trocadero rock circus buffoons so popular? Why are most of them Australian? And why are they pissing so many people off?' Joy jested that, in Australia, tribute bands were as plentiful as kangaroos. She listed six reasons for the rise of the phenomenon:

  1. A dwindling teenage population;
  2. The audience's inability to keep up with excessive amounts of new music and reverting to the familiar;
  3. Appealing to an ageing population;
  4. A broad dislike for what was at the time largely techno music in the charts;
  5. Audiences just wanting to have fun;
  6. 'People are stupid'.

When talking about highlights of his career Sutton does not talk about the biggest shows he has played or the places to which he has travelled. Rather, he is effusive about meeting his idols, particularly Dave Evans, the original (before they were famous) lead singer of AC/DC. It came about after Sutton sent a video of their AC/DC show, Long Way to the Top, to the Melbourne TV program The Tribute Show. Their video aired the same week that former lead singer Evans was on the program. He later reached out and even ended up touring with them. It's a tribute artist's dream come true. An original musician touring with the band that pays tribute to their music and playing that music shoulder to shoulder with them!

"Dave [Evans] and I have become good mates. We still are to this day. We speak daily on Facebook and stuff like that. He's currently in England and he comes back and still does shows with me. And one of the really, really cool things to come out of that was we actually met in this pub one day. It was organised, and he took me around, as an AC/DC fan, and showed me all the old venues, and showed me exactly where the band started, told me the whole story of the band - it started in a little room in Newtown."

Sutton told me tribute performers are not impervious to the snide views of the broader community and struggle to manage the backlash their profession can experience. Dave 'Rod' Patten and Sutton talk on the phone most days, and often it is to support each other in the wake of negativity about their job. "At the end of the day there's a market for it, and the artists have died or passed on, and the next best thing is to see a tribute artist." Criticism won't stop him doing what he loves: "I'll never stop doing this because it's what I do, it's who I am."

***

JOINING Patten and Sutton in persevering through the tribute band negativity are FABBA's Anthea Johnson, Lisa Page, Chris Hunt and Tim Johnson. Created by Anthea Johnson in 1996 as a show about the ABBA women, it was and born out of her love of musical theatre. By 2006, they had brought in the men and it became the FABBA foursome with a full band. The current iteration comprises Anthea as Frida, her husband Tim as Bjorn (in the original group Frida was married to Benny), Chris as Benny and Lisa as Agnetha.

For Johnson, the stage performance bug bit at six. Wearing angel wings made from coat hangers by her mum she stood between two other angels in the nativity scene, sharing a microphone. Her mum watched from the audience, mortified, as her daughter edged her wings so the other two girls couldn't reach the microphone and sang at the top of her lungs. "I just sang my heart out and that was it. I just loved it. That was it. I just remember thinking that was the best feeling in the world."

On this night Johnson and the rest of FABBA are performing a sold out show at Cumberland Golf Club which is hosted by a close friend of the band, John 'Elvis' Collins. Collins works as an Elvis impersonator but tonight he is just here to introduce FABBA. They sit in a room the club has allowed them to use as a changing room, far above the standard of change room they have come to expect. It is not unheard of to be given a disabled bathroom or be told to change in the hallway.

On stage their "Elvis" MC wears a dark shirt with a blue paisley pattern, unbuttoned nearly halfway with black flares fastened with an enormous gold decorative belt buckle. His voluminous black hair and sideburns are his own, not a wig. He welcomes the foursome to the stage and thanks everyone for coming tonight: "Thank you, thank you very much".

FABBA takes the stage. Benny grooves gently behind the keyboard. Bjorn jams on a guitar embellished with a mosaic of shiny gold panels. Agnetha and Frida belt out some of ABBA's greatest hits to an audience of about 150 people. The audience is predominantly older, made up largely of women, with some men in tow, and a sprinkling of younger faces. Some are enthusiastic, others have plainly been dragged along by their families.

The Cumberland Golf Club is a far cry from London's Royal Albert Hall. Only a partition separates the audience from the adjacent den of poker machines. The ceiling is low, and, much to the frustration of the performers, the room has been set up so only one table in the room has a front-on view of the band, creating problems with the acoustics. The club has also opted for a cheaper package, so the four singers will not be accompanied by the bass and drums, having to make do with a laptop recording.

ABBA, in its time, was a child-friendly affair but this performance is generously peppered with sexual jokes and innuendos, largely playing on the real-life divorces of the two couples of which ABBA was comprised, Frida from Benny and Agnetha from Bjorn. "Frida" turns to the audience members at the side of the stage with the question: "Do you like my pussy?" gesturing to her silky white short- sleeved shift dress with a bright yellow cartoon cat on the front, a classic ABBA costume. "It's been a while since I've seen it", retorts "Benny", from behind the keyboard.

Later in the night, "Bjorn" says "Anna and Frida both said this to me last night," before he taps a key on the MacBook. There is a second's delay while the computer loads the opening beats to "Rock Me". They joke about budgie smugglers, Agnetha's penchant for silver foxes, and improvise jokes about eating a popsicle, after seeing the wrapper of a Golden Gaytime on a table. Between songs, "Frida" and "Agnetha" invite a man from the crowd up on stage to participate. "Vee haf to ask you for health and safety reasons, are you allergic to feathers? Orrrrr…. honey?" "Agnetha" asks. As they sing "Oooh, honey honey, how he thrills me aha, honey, honey," they wrap feather boas around Dom Fenlon, a prominent figure in the golf club, as his friends in the audience shriek in appreciation.

"Elvis" John cannot stay until the end of the show tonight. He works in events management and has to be in Cabramatta at 5am the next morning to set up for a food and cultural festival. All these performers have other jobs; Johnson works as an entertainment booker for venues and Hunt is the head of the music department at Central Coast Grammar School.

Despite these day jobs, the band has fitted in international gigs in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. Travel means extra time away from families in an industry notorious for unsociable hours. They say loss of family time and the cattiness of the industry are the downsides.

"[Some] tribute shows will actually call up the venues other bands are playing and say, 'we can do just a good a job as they can' and they literally troll you. It's unbelievable!" said Johnson.

There is a range of attitudes within the industry both in terms of integrity and performance style. FABBA and Collin's Elvis, like Sutton, inject some humour into their shows. Collins said "there's a difference between a performer and an entertainer, and I classify myself as an entertainer. These guys do everything down to the line exactly how Elvis did it, and can't really fall out of it. If you're that good, you may as well watch Elvis on video."

The tribute performers shrug off the distain the industry endures, suggesting even the great original artists of the past have become tribute artists these days. "Original bands are basically tribute bands these days, because they've only got one original member left … Chocolate Starfish is doing a whole tour [this] year and it's a tribute to INXS," said Johnson. She pointed to Cher releasing an album of ABBA covers after her appearance in the latest Mamma Mia film. Then there is the song by Jackie O that reached Number 1 in the iTunes charts. The radio presenter with The Kyle And Jackie O Show, by her own admission, can't sing, but by virtue of her fame topped the charts.

Tribute artists like Johnson and her colleagues insist they are not the problem with the state of the music industry. "The funny thing is, all of us still do it, and it's a tougher industry than it ever was," Johnson said. "There are less venues and less work but we just love doing it. It's so satisfying. It's like a hobby you get paid for."