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Andrew Cowen's Big World of Rock: This might be mad -but it's only music.

Byline: Andrew Cowen

This week's bombshell that local tribute outfit Ultimate Madness are facing legal action from the brother of one of the members of the original '80s pop-ska band raises some interesting questions.

Apart from being staggeringly churlish, the claim for pounds 500, plus a further pounds 100 each time the tribute group perform Chas Smash's apparently patented 'nutty dance' opens the door to a flood of similar actions by bands who have a less-talented doppelganger.

In the dog eat dogfood world of the third division live circuit, a whole sub-genus of musical bottom-feeders has arisen taking advantage of the likes of U2 and the Beatles' unwillingness to play the Rock Cafe in Stourbridge. Many bands treat the existence of their own personal tribute act with a pinch of salt. Robert Plant is believed to endorse Black Country-based Led Zeppelin clones Fred Zeppelin.

Indeed, when a tribute band is at its most effective it combines the youthful zest which the original band long ago lost with a knowing sense of the absurd, sending up the real deal with a wit that punctures the arrogance of the stars.

Madness remain one of this country's greatest and best-loved pop bands. Their run of hit singles and innovative videos is part of our heritage now. With a massive live following and army of fans that worship their every move, the band still get back together once a year for a nostalgic romp through the past. A recent not altogether successful West End show based on their songs proves the depth of their following.

The fact that this action has been brought not by a band member, but by a brother with a gripe sort of puts it in perspective. Disgruntled with Madness over not getting what he considered was his due, Brendan Smyth decided to go after the minnows who were nibbling at his birthright.

The tribute act are naturally resisting the action which, if successful, would make their act financially unviable if they were to perform the 20 second 'nutty dance' on stage. Quite how you copyright a dance is not clear, particularly in the world of rock. The whole history of modern music is packed with artists whose trademark is their stage moves, wiggles, costumes and nervous ticks. They're part of rock's DNA and a vital reference point to any aspiring cover band.

In the same way that no impersonation of Frank Spencer would be complete without a beret and an 'ooh Betty the cat's done a whoopsy' so a tribute band would simply become a bad covers outfit on the pub circuit without recourse to the Madness walk or Morrissey gladioli dance.

The fact that Ultimate Madness only earn about pounds 200 a gig shows the economic reality of the current live scene and they're one of the more acclaimed troupes on the circuit. And that's before taking into account the premium charged by tribute bands who, if they're up to snuff, ought to be able to guarantee an audience of a certain size.

Indeed, a decent tribute outfit -Bjorn Again or the Bootleg Beatles -provide a night out that appeals to both diehard fans of the group which is no longer about and the casual observer, but apart from a handful of acts that have a national reputation, the pubs and clubs up and down the land are awash with chancers and jobbing musicians trying to earn some beer money.

Madness, being one of the bands with a strong live identity, are an obvious target for the tribute-minded muso. Other bands in this bracket include Pink Floyd who have dozens of symbiotic hangers-on, the Doors and Genesis whose '70s stage show has been resurrected, complete with lights and daft costumes, by more than one tribute outfit.

All these would be fair game if the Madness case succeeds.

The whole issue is confused further by bands apparently rising from the dead and hitting the boards again. Have a look at the listings for the Robin in Bilston and, among the inevitable tribute bands (usually pretty good value) are names from the past who either ought to know better or know no other way of earning a crust. Nostalgia is a strong force and it only takes a minor hit or down-the-bill appearance at an obscure festival to rekindle a passion which has laid dormant for decades.

Later this year, perhaps the most bizarre tribute band of all will roll into the cavernous National Indoor Arena when the surviving members of the Doors bring their show to town. Obviously obtaining the services of Jim Morrison is a no-no, so Ray Manzarek and co have enlisted the help of ex-Cult singer Ian Astbury to fill the dead frontman's leather trousers.

To most the very idea is anathema and sacrilege. Jim Morrison was and remains to many the very definition of a charismatic rock god. Ian Astbury, on the other hand, is that dork from a bad goth outfit which struck gold in the '80s by going metal and churning out every cliche in the book.

I, on the other hand, am positively salivating at the idea. The Doors are one of the most under-rated bands ever, Jim Morrison one of the most obnoxious individuals ever to tread the boards. The whole reunion business throws up the prospect of unlikely band alliances. I await Carol Decker fronting a reformed Big Brother and the Holding Company, taking the place of Janis Joplin or the Gallaghers joining forces with Paul and Ringo in a new-look Beatles.

For the beleaguered tribute band it offers a way out: rather than being a homage to one outfit, why not meld two to keep the lawyers from the door? Bjork Again could mix Abba with a quirky Icelandic singer or the Skapenters could tackle the middle of the road sounds of Richard and Karen in the style of Desmond Decker.

At the end of the day, it's only music and a good night out. Let's hope that Ultimate Madness win this one.


Steven Gale, lead singer for Fred Zeppelin, originally failed the audition to play Debbie Harry in a Blondie tribute band
COPYRIGHT 2003 Birmingham Post & Mail Ltd
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 28, 2003
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