Sunday, 6 December 2009

Music: Angusband as Theatre

Rock'n'roll is dead. When it died is open to debate. Let's say, for argument's sake, that it was buried with Kurt Cobain. There's only so much you can do with guitar, bass, drums and the human voice. It's surprising it took four decades to occupy all available territory, given it's many practitioners. Jazz has far more permutations and ceased to evolve as both a popular and creative art form circa 'Bitches Brew'. Electronica fared no better. It had two decades of development ending in the mid-nineties. By then, its parameters were defined.

Which isn't to say good rock'n'roll won't be made again. It is being made every day. It's just that it is unlikely to be doing anything new while appealing to a mass audience; what it needs to be a social force as against an act of mere consumption. Any innovator that finds an empty niche is unlikely to set the charts alight. Instead, we'll get diminishing returns on karaoke. Which isn't a bad thing, because rock'n'roll is best enjoyed in a drunken crowd anyway. A listen or two and you've got all that is new from even the best of it. After that, the listening experience is mainly an exercise in nostalgia.

Yes, I know there are new bands. There are even new genres, although they're generally fusions of, variants on or revivals of what's gone before. Most of the young bands that have come to prominence in the last decade sound like music to wet your bed to to me, but then my incontinence years aren't far away. ACDC never made music to wet your bed to, although they are piss yourself funny on occasions, and best enjoyed pissed, the more pissed the better. They make back-to-basics riff-driven rock and that is all they've ever made.

The phenomenon of the tribute band is a relatively recent one. As a mass phenomenon, I suspect their emergence began around the time rock'n'roll as a creative force was on it's last legs. Bjorn Again bounced out of Australia in 1988. The Australian Pink Floyd Show, ditto. Infact, Australia is the home of the tribute band, probably because most world tours never get that far, and although Antipodeans have their own place in rock history, most of them had to relocate to England to make it, ACDC an honourable exception.

The tribute band is distinct from the covers band: groups who entertain club and pub audiences by playing the hits of the day. Many groups of note started out that way, The Beatles included. The history of Beatles tribute bands predates all others, going back to the birth of The Bootleg Beatles in Tiverton, Devon in 1980 but until 1990 the UK was disinterested, still considering the concept somewhat naff, and they earned their crust in Eastern Europe and Asia, also omitted from most tour schedules. Now they play the Royal Albert Hall. Tribute bands don't just play the odd song by an artist, they attempt to recreate the experience of that artist in their prime. In some cases, they endeavour to exceed it, wanting to live up to our fantasy of the true innovators of rock'n'roll live. The Beatles retired from touring before their most ground-breaking years in the recording studio. The Bootleg Beatles can draw from their entire oeuvre, wardrobes as well as tunes, complete with a vanity case of false moustaches.

Let me state it now: I have no problem with tribute bands. I have no problem with a contemporary theatre company putting on a Shakespeare play without the author playing the role of Banquo's ghost. I take no issue with hearing a Mozart symphony without Wolfgang Amadeus on the podium in his powdered periwig either, although I do think conductor and orchestra should be attired in period dress for my visual pleasure. And I see tribute bands as playing to a classical score in a different genre. Only rock'n'roll is not limited to notes being played in the sequence in which they were composed. The experience is multi-sensory. Ideally, a tribute band should ape the original in every aspect; their only creative input should be that of skilled mimics.

Angusband is a tribute band. At least, they are twenty percent of a tribute band. Their Angus Young hasn't just been playing along to ACDC CDs, he's been studying the videos. If I were him, I'd spend a bit more on my shorts - red velvet would be nice - and the nose ring is inauthentic - but he's got the hair - which is more than the original has now - he's got the riffs and he's got the moves. I missed the cannons and I missed the wrecking ball, but loved the spotlit solo from the balcony at the back of the hall. The lead singer fits both Bon Scott and Brian Johnson into his manly frame and does a good job on the vocals of both, although he looks like neither. The rest of the lineup are sidesmen: heads down, crunching riff replication. When they played the Phoenix on November 21st - all proceeds to Phonic FM, thanks lads - all they lacked was an audience ready to play their part. There was insufficient leather, denim and ACDC t-shirts on show for my liking; not enough long hair on the men or poodle perms on the women. Come on people - a tribute band is nothing without a tribute crowd.

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