A tribute, defined by the Oxford dictionary is: “An act, statement, or gift that is intended to show gratitude, respect or admiration.” A definition that epitomises the fascinating profession of tribute acts.
Tribute acts have been around for many years duplicating famous bands and singers to the bone, but always somehow with their own personal twist. The eclectic variety of tributes are what seems to make them so sustainable.
From pop to punk, the well and truly alive to decades deceased, The Beatles to Bruno Mars, the dream-like world of tribute acts recreate a significant moment in time for both audience and act.
Every possibility you can conjure up can come to life – Oasis in Oxford on Saturday? Madonna in Maidenhead on Monday? If you’ve been world-famous, then you probably have a tribute impersonator.
But being a tribute artist has its highs and lows, with many tribute acts perhaps feeling the celebrity pressure their beloved idol once felt.
Delving deeper into the lives of the performers behind the tribute, it is evident that in many cases, once the make-up is off and the stage lights are dimmed, all the Elvis’ and Amy Winehouse’s are just regular individuals returning to their everyday lives until the next performance comes around.
The Smiths, a band formed in Salford in 1982, altered the face of UK music. Urging misfit adolescents to rise up and realise that they are, ‘unlovable’, The Smiths shunned the shiny teenage norm and through tortured lyrics, dealt with the gritty tales of tormented teens.
Through this perfect storm, a cult-like following emerged with many worshipping the enigma that is their frontman, Morrissey.After four studio albums and even an attempt at Glastonbury Festival, The Smiths split in 1987 carrying with them the momentous few years that had allowed their devoted fans a sense of sweet release from the strangulation of societal pressures.
It has now been over 30 years since the break-up of the band, however their music still has a lingering generational resonance. Due to their popularity, The Smiths (as you can most probably imagine) have had many tribute acts following in their footsteps – The Joneses being one of the more popular among them.
Much like the formation of The Smiths, The Joneses blossomed when frontman Aidan met the lead guitarist or ‘Johnny Marr’ of the group, Matthieu.
Even though the meeting was not exactly parallel to a then 18 year-old Johnny Marr turning up uninvited on the doorstep of the Morrissey household in May 1982, The Joneses initial encounter, via an online ad, still sparked the momentum that would one day prevail a three-year long project, all for the love of The Smiths.
The pair eventually found their very own ‘Andy Rourke’ and ‘Mike Joyce’ in the form of Neil and Steve, both just as dedicated to The Smiths and the tribute scene. The Joneses, now a fully formed tribute act, had a platform that allowed them to live out every devout fan fantasy.
Tucked in the corner of Goldsmiths café, both attempting to ignore the gravelly commotion that is the coffee grinder, Aidan recounts the ingenious Morrissey quote that inspired the name for his tribute band.
“If I was a confused, tortured teenager hearing Panic for the first time, I would burn down a disco, I’d probably assassinate the queen, and I would definitely form a group – called The Joneses.”
Aidan, an undoubtable Morrissey look-alike, mingles Moz’ flowery shirted youth with his everyday style. With a delicate silk scarf hanging over both shoulders and a patterned button up shirt, Aidan brings an element of revised maturity to the Morrissey look, exuding cool.
He says he has always been affiliated with Morrissey: “Throughout my life, I have heard calls of Morrissey as I pass by […] even tourists have asked for photographs.”Upon first meeting, Aidan’s aloof nature reminds me of Morrissey himself. However, when reflecting on an “exhilarating canoeing holiday” that left him with a yearning sense of adventure, Aidan ignites clearly emphasising his passion for the project. This appetite for risk, alongside a Smiths-shaped hole that had been lingering since his initial discovery of the band back in the 1980s, eventually lead to the creation of The Joneses.
“It sparked a question, ‘Could I learn how to sing like Morrissey and bring a range of elements together to fulfil a quiet ambition?’ Something I later realised was a whole new part of me that has been lying dormant all my life,” Aidan said.
The Joneses’ dedication to tribute performing is evident. The passion that goes into each and every performance, alongside the hours of gruelling rehearsals, truly separates them from the drunken nights of Queen karaoke at the local on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.
“I took lessons with a trained opera singer Jamie Rock, I never asked if this was his stage name or real name,” his humorous twinge makes me grin. “There was a miraculous change within three lessons […] suddenly for the first time since I was an 11-year-old choir boy I could sing all the high-pitched hymns without hurting my throat.”
Matthieu, too, admits that he had “near zero band experience” when he met Aidan: “We were both in a similar situation musically, I was a very limited guitarist at the time, and Aidan, too, never sung in a band before.”
For the two initial members of the band, tribute performing not only allowed them to live out their “dream hobby”, but is also what inspired them to adopt a musical skill.
For The Joneses and many other tribute acts, tribute performing is a vocation that requires serious skill and respect. Drummer Steve says: “Having observed the growth, and often quite amazing quality, of the ‘tribute band’ scene, I became very interested in playing in a band that really focused on playing the music as faithfully and passionately as possible, rather than just knocking out old and new favourites in the pub.”
As well as the sense of professionalism, The Joneses believe tribute performing for themselves is a way to tap into a sense of sentimentality. Bassist, Neil says: “There’s an element of nostalgia, as I first got into The Smiths and Morrissey’s music as a student, I’m now 46, so there’s an enduring emotional connection there.”
The Smiths sense of ‘enduring quality’ is something the band have all emphasised. Many hardcore fans of The Smiths have now passed their music down to the younger generation, perhaps acting as an audible family air loom.
This sense of ‘emotional connection’ to the music glueing together parents and children. Steve agrees, saying the albums have a “timeless quality. We all have ‘favourite bands’ at different stages of our lives, and things tend to come and go, but for me, and obviously many others, the music of The Smiths seems defiantly evergreen.”
The Joneses performances delightfully duel with Smiths classics, delivering charming renditions of fan favourites. The band insist on flinging flowers into the audience, acting as flamboyant, floral party favours. In true Morrissey fashion, Aidan too, sports a couple in his back pocket, that “oscillate wildly” when entertaining on stage.
Aidan’s style on stage is not too dissimilar to his everyday wear, however, an extensive transfer tattoo stretching across his neck is the defining factor between his standard and stage self.
The plainly placed tattoo often states the word “frankly”, as an ode to the well-known Smiths hit, Frankly Mr Shankly. Admittedly, throughout the interview I couldn’t help but attempt to catch a glimpse of this tremendous tattoo, trying to verify its authenticity – an enquiry later cleared that up.Aidan’s stage presence takes the fully-fledged form of a young bombastic Morrissey: “Sometimes when I am in the zone of a song, I surprise myself with the mad things I do.” Aidan admits. “Not always to the approval of Matthieu or Neil, I bounce off them and I kick their pedals about.”
Aidan says his performance inspiration comes from the “unusual” dance style of Morrissey, however, declares his steps are “impossible to copy and therefore I pay homage but do not try to match his moves exactly. I love the wildness of his live performances and try to capture his spirit and agility.”
The Joneses place the popularity of tribute performers down to the accessibility they create for fans of The Smiths, both old and young. Matthieu says: “The Smiths will, in all likelihood, never reunite, and thus will never play live again together”, claiming that tribute acts can be seen as a “fan service”. He also credits the monetary reasoning, explaining that original acts concerts are often “£40+ a ticket”, which can “alienate a lot of people; often the youngest or the lesser affluent.”
To be part of a tribute act may seem the idyllic scenario, however, imitating certain celebrities can occasionally plaster them with unwanted baggage.
Maverick Morrissey has always been a contentious figure within the press, 2017 onwards perhaps being his most problematic years to date. Throughout his fractious career, Morrissey has released plenty of politically-fuelled statements and songs, leading to accusations that he was sympathising with right-wing agendas.
In June of last year, in an interview regarding the controversial far-right party For Britain, Morrissey expressed his fondness for the cause and party leader Anne Marie Waters, a self-confessed anti-Islam activist.
After declaring his opinion that she “is extremely intelligent, ferociously dedicated to this country, […] very engaging, and also very funny at times”, Morrissey was accused of racist behaviour. However, he has shot back at these accusations with the controversial comment: “Everyone ultimately prefers their own race – does this make everyone racist?”
Morrissey’s questionable beliefs have led many fans to feel let down, no longer wanting to be associated with such behaviour. However, the knock-on effect these accusations have on The Smiths and Morrissey tribute artists can, not only, be demeaning as a fan, but can, too, occasionally be detrimental to their act.
“Inevitably the occasional bashing trickles down on our social media channels, but overall never more often than the stigma attached to being a tribute band by essence,” Matthieu says. The Joneses, by association, have heard minor digs at their act, however, nothing that would deter them from continuing to support the band that is “Aidan and Matthieu’s baby.”
“We had a heckler at one gig shouting out ‘When do the racist jokes start?’” Aidan recalls. “But in general, people only come to our gigs if they like the music of The Smiths and Morrissey, so the main audience doesn’t have an issue with the politics.”
When dealing with these slight bumps in their journey, Neil says the band try to stay as far away from politics as possible: “As a band, we don’t endorse any political or personal views from Morrissey or anyone else.”
He too understands the difficulty of being a Smiths fan and how that has been potentially forever tainted by Morrissey’s scandalous comments.
“It’s fairly obvious that even the most loyal Morrissey devotees have become disillusioned with his outbursts in the last couple of years. It’s such a shame that Morrissey has spoiled his ‘national treasure’ legacy with this baffling display of career self-sabotage.”Celebrity scandals are not exclusive to The Smiths and Morrissey tribute acts. The 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland sparked a huge debate surrounding the late megastar Michael Jackson. The documentary followed two young boys, now in their thirties, who alleged they were sexually abused by Michael Jackson.
Uproar amongst die hard fans amassed, spurring on the social media hashtag ‘MJisinnocent’, that now accumulates over thirty-six-thousand posts on Instagram alone. But how have these speculations affected those who choose to live their professional lives as Michael Jackson?
David Boakes, Michael Jackson tribute performer since the age of five, explains his obsession with Michael Jackson is what drove him to take up tribute performing: “I always said when I was asked what I want to do when I was older: ‘Be Michael Jackson’, little did I know you could actually make money doing this on a full-time basis.”
With 110,436 followers on his Facebook page, television appearances in the UK and worldwide, and performing to over 20,000 at a festival in Romania last year, many would say David is living the dream. Having taken tribute performing and turned it into a profession, David explains that some of that celeb status has rubbed off on him.
“The media have even mistaken me for the real Michael Jackson when he was here in London 2009,” he tells us. “Nearly everyone wants a picture with me all dressed up and it can be very overwhelming at times and it gives me a glimpse into how it must have been for him.”Being in the public eye does not, however, discourage David from continuing his journey: “I can take off the make-up and you wouldn’t know me walking down the street,” a plus of being a tribute artist that many in the game would agree with.
Similarly to The Joneses, the fact that many fans of Michael Jackson have never experienced him live is one of the main attributes David associates with his popularity: “I suppose he now is not here, so MJ fans maybe cling onto me a little more to be closer to there idol once more.”Due to this, David emulates Michael Jackson’s stage presence as closely as possible, making sure not to shy away from extravagance, glitz and glamour, even if it doesn’t reflect who he is in everyday life. “I’m a very private man and lead a very simple life on the rare time I have off but on stage I’m in your face, confident and unashamedly bold,” he says.
Following the speculations of abuse, David admits it has not always been easy being a Michael Jackson tribute act: “[I] have to be very careful who I choose to work with given the bad coverage Michael was always given whilst alive, this now can even translate onto myself as a tribute artist,” he says. “Unfortunately most the media want to cover or mock my idol and I will always support him and not take a job on for the quick buck.”
Despite the accusations, David is sure of Michael Jackson’s innocence. “It’s a shame people don’t understand the real man and just want to drag his name through dirt, even when he went to court and was proven innocent,” he says. Like many fans, David is angered by the exposé of Leaving Neverland stating: “It was more of a mockumentary and you could clearly see it was the biggest money grab of the century. I was a big mover in the #MJInnocent movement and will always support Michael until the end.”
The reasoning behind the popularity of tribute acts differs depending on who you ask. Some put it down to the financial aspects and others, to the passion of the performers. UK based festival, Tribfest, dedicated to showcasing tribute musicians, attribute the popularity of this phenomenon to the range of acts available on the tribute scene.
Describing themselves as “the ultimate fantasy line-up”, spokesperson, Ed Falkner, says: “The line up simply cannot be imitated no matter how much budget you have. It is an impossible line up that’s made possible by tribute acts.”
Tribute performing allows the legacy of musicians to live on forever, freezing a sentimental moment in time for everyone involved.
Featured image by Phil Grosvenor.
Edited by Franziska Eberlein, Emma Jepsen & Kesia Evans.