vendredi, avril 08, 2005

The Counterfeit Stones

Gonna live for ever

No, it's not Mick'n'Keef treading the boards in Chelmsford; it's The Counterfeit Stones paying tribute

By Chris Mugan
Published : 08 April 2005

The Stones recently kicked off their new tour at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford. No, this is not a joke. It happened to be the first leg of the latest jaunt by one of the groups that make a living from playing the music of The Rolling Stones.

So successful are The Counterfeit Stones that one member, Steve "Nick Dagger" Elson, has taken on the job full time, while his compadres treat the band as their first income. They make up any shortfall by teaching guitar or writing for music magazines. Elson takes charge of publicity, a role that includes the direction of the video skits played at the gig as the band carry out their several costume changes.

These films show the Counterfeits in Stella-Street-meets-Spinal-Tap sketches that reprise (in)famous moments from the past of The World's Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band: the Redlands drugs raid, the Hyde Park gig and - new for this tour - the Stones' surly demeanour on Jukebox Jury, which, in its mild way, infuriated respectable England as much as The Sex Pistols' run-in with Bill Grundy.

The Counterfeits form a neat example of how tribute bands have become entrenched in British entertainment. Along with many such acts, they emerged at the beginning of the Nineties to cash in on the baby-boomer market for the classic rock of the previous two decades. They played pubs and rock clubs to crowds usually composed of middle-aged men.

One inspiration was a band formed in 1980 that had performed in the successful West End production of the Broadway musical Beatlemania. The Bootleg Beatles showed the way for other people, musicians and performers such as Steve Elson.

In a career that had already spanned 30 years, he had worked as a plugger, booker, promoter, session musician and in production, but then a new order seemed to establish itself. "When dance music took off, my production gigs dried up, so I put the band together. We were based around West London, where the Stones used to play, and we were all fans," Elson explains.

The Counterfeits were an instant success. A natural raconteur, Elson injected a sliver of humour into the act, with sly references to Mick Jagger's vanity or Keith Richards's drug intake. Bill Wyman had earned a reputation for pursuing young girls, so the counterfeit version became Bill Hymen..

"While the Beatles were always treated with a certain reverence, the Stones were seen more as cheeky chappies," says Elson. "They annoyed my mum and dad with their surly look, but they never fooled me. That attitude of has always been a bit of a joke."

Along with other bands, the Bootlegs and Counterfeits made a decent living, but it could only be described as comfortable when they made the step up from pubs to theatre venues. Now the production values could rise to include the costume changes that allowed groups to portray different eras of a band's existence, so the Bootlegs could sing "Please Please Me" in sharp suits, don psychedelic uniforms for "Penny Lane", then pull out kaftans for "All You Needs Is Love".

They were the first band to make the leap to theatres in 1990, but Elson attests that the circuit only became established with the arrival of the Abba revivalists Bjorn Again. This four-piece expanded the audience for tribute acts. "Now people didn't just come for the music, they wanted a laugh as well. Abba were seen as a joke, but Bjorn Again made it very kitsch, so people would go along in platforms."

While The Beatles and Stones were cool, it was still social death to express fondness for Sweden's contribution to pop music. Bjorn Again performed with a knowing irreverence that concentrated as much on intra-band relationships as songs and dance moves. With a show that was as much about entertainment as musicianship, the group opened up the idea of tribute acts to people more interested in fun than revival.

This was not just a matter of luck, for Bjork Again had developed their act in the latter half of the Eighties in Australia. The southern hemisphere received few tours, and they only took in a tiny selection of venues, especially given the size of Oz, so tribute bands there had a captive audience. In the wake of Bjorn Again, The Australian Doors and Australian Pink Floyd managed to fill proper rock venues rather than pubs.

Overnight, an industry was born, and agents began to search for local bands to match the acts imported from Down Under. One grunge tribute from Chichester even called themselves the Australian Nirvana just to make themselves sound good.

Arguably, one of the biggest tribute acts was another bunch of Fab Four copyists, and it is no surprise that the tribute phenomenon peaked in the mid-Nineties. This was when the Bootlegs supported Oasis at Earls Court, while Nowaysis hit the charts with their version of "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing", the song that inspired Oasis's single "Shakermaker". Such mania opened up the European festival circuit to the better UK tribute bands.

Then, last year, a Robbie Williams clone performed in front of 65,000 rugby fans at the Super League grand final at Old Trafford. Matthew Holbrook had been due to fly back from an engagement in Norway that evening, but the promoter was so keen to get in his chosen act that he paid for a new plane ticket.

While such excitement may be rare, there is still a reasonable living to be made. Somewhere this week, an Abba or Blues Brothers tribute is almost bound to put on a show. As Busted become a dim and distant memory, musicians have already memorised the handful of tunes by McFly, while some Robbies can double up as Rat Pack tributes. The market takes in lesser-known acts that tour chain bars such as Chicago Rocks, while more established acts such as the Counterfeits take in student balls, corporate events and theatres - some of which now rely on such bands to bring in packed houses to subsidise their dramatics.

There is a huge irony, though. Tribute bands began as a reaction to synthesised pop and out of a desire to watch people play instruments rather than press "play". Now guitars are dominant once more, a sizeable proportion of the gig-going population still prefers the safe environment of familiar songs and comedy rather than emotional sincerity.

Not that this is a new thing. The arrival of the cabaret singer Tony Christie at the top of both the single and album charts reminds us of a long-standing taste for light entertainment. The difference with tribute acts is that you get kitsch and favourite songs in one package. In that respect, you have never had it so good.

The Counterfeit Stones' 'Bourbon Jungle' tour runs to mid-June

© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.