July 22, 2019
I have written before about what are called “Tribute” acts here in the UK. Tribute acts are – usually music gigs – performed by persons or bands who place themselves in the stead of the “real” musicians associated with the programme of songs being performed. Thus you have tribute bands named in ways like “The Bootleg Beatles”, “Fleetwood Bac”, and “The Counterfeit Kinks” and so on.
A week or so back I was in a small Welsh market town called Abergavenny, whereabouts I took the photo to the left here of Elvis marketing a mattress and furniture sale locally. On the same day in the same visit I met with a poster fly posted on a hydrant or a wall – I forget – and which announced a forthcoming gig by a man – I presume – performing a tribute act under the (astounding!) name of Elvis Orbison.
This name has a few things in it which I’d like to talk about here in this piece of writing.
Firstly, both the artistes it celebrates are deceased. Tribute bands and artistes do not have to celebrate famous artistes who have passed away; but quite often they do do so. This item, Elvis Orbison manages in a quite novel way, to have a single person celebrating two famous dead singer musicians simultaneously. You have to hand it to the guy who thought up the name for the act.
I have seen on posters which were advertising an appearance of Fleetwood Bac, Mick Fleetwood and Peter Green endorsing the Tribute act which was performing their songs. They had allowed to be written on the poster and accompanying their names words attributed to them such as “You’re doing a great job, lads. Keep it up!”.
Being cynical I could not help but think such “reviews” by Green and Fleetwood were at least in part disingenuously placed there by them, since of course, Green and Fleetwood and the rest of the band need only sit back (and probably also charge a fee for their endorsement and use of their names) and do nothing; and yet royalties and money from sales of songs to fans newly re-enthused by the Tribute act, will be rolling into their pockets, in return for them having suffered little or no scathe.
Be that as it may, the band members of Fleetwood Mac are still living, as are members of many bands who are earning via their Tribute surrogates. Which makes me wonder, since I myself have had first hand experience of how jealously the executors of the estate of Elvis for instance, guard and milk to the very fullest extent his memory and legacy, and will go to the greatest lengths to do so, and also to prevent others doing so, who are not in some way authorised by the estate. And of course this leads me to think that it is likely no-one gets endorsed to pretend to be Elvis on stage without them having agreed to a levy by the estate on their proceeds?
So let’s establish here that as with all things which claim sentimental and nostalgia value, or even all those myriad things which just sell themselves as “caring” and “there for you” products and services; the bottom line is always the money to be made, and to this Tribute acts are no exception.
(I want just to detour a little off centre here for a moment, since we are on this topic of sentiment and its general peddling by moneygrubbers. When I was 20 years old, Festivals, like those of The Isle of Wight, Woodstock, and Glastonbury, were pretty make do and mend affairs. You turned up, if you were prudent with a tent, and some warm waterproofs, and a stock of food, or if you were a roving member of the flower-power people, probably you just took your chances on getting little rain, warm nights, and foraging for food.
Even ticketed events could usually quite easily be gatecrashed or else enjoyed from a short distance outside the local farmer’s fields in which the concerts took place. You just made do with what you had and what you could rustle up.
Right now The Glastonbury Festival is well fenced and organised so that tickets go for considerable prices, in effect excluding the type of ordinary rabble who made up the bulk of the 1960s crowds. The grounds are very greatly better provided with toilets and amenities these days; all services tending to charge monopoly prices since customers are more or less a set of tied-in consumers whilst at the festival. Likewise the town of Glastonbury itself hosts many who go to the Festival at hotels and guesthouses, air BnBs and so on; also it is likely hiking prices for the duration. Shops and services follow suit I’m sure. There’s no bootstrap means to attend Glastonbury these days.
The fact is that the Glastonbury Festival, has gone the way of all things which at their origin were extempore and ad hoc events spurred to performance by enthusiasm over and above other considerations, and which endured as desirable items of leisure or recreation – it is now Big Business – part of what our government in Britain calls The Creative Economy – which is a misnomer since this hijacking of spontaneity and eagerness by consumerism always and very soon, once it has its teeth into them, it knocks every bit of robust healthy stuffing there was originally out of such extempore and joie de vivre occasions.
We have seen the like with the early “pirate” online music streaming sites; and long before them we saw pirate radio stations on ships in the Thames estuary. These were people interested in money yes, but just as much they were people enthused about new ways of distributing music, and with maybe a little idealism added in about making music free? Yet very soon you have the situation as we have it today where iTunes like a monolith takes the lion’s share and is close to monopolising the online music trade.
One can trace this encroachment toward ‘land grabs’ everywhere in the history of consumerism and capitalism; it is a constant and its extent ubiquitous. Tribute bands are just another “profitable idea” which has been caught, broken-in, harnessed, and saddled by entrepreneurs; and thereby any soul knocked out of it and then the ready cash squeezed out of its enthusiasts.
An important thing here in consequence is that such hijacking of spontaneity always organises it and regulates it and in doing so sanitises it; so much so that the persons who attend say a Festival are now no longer required to have some self-reliance and a an amount of autonomous extempore decision-making faculty. Now as much as can be ‘laid on’ as standard or as ‘paying optional extras’, concerning accommodation, food, tickets, seats, shelter, ablutions, children, souvenirs – these are called ‘merchandise’ and merchandise is always branded to the bands playing or to the festival organisers or such – is all laid on as much as can possibly be pre-packaged and off the peg, ready made, and vacuum packed.
This means that those people who attend, and who pay a pretty penny to do so, are paying large amounts to be robbed of perhaps one of the largest parts of human freedom – their vigour, life, happiness and sense of self-worth, which is available to us all. This freedom consists of that quality of self-reliance, adaptation, foresight, prudence and most of all, of that shared and beneficent mutual assistance to one another demanded by conditions of an existence more commensurate with a grounded view of life, and less compositely and artificially and unhealthily sheltered over from the terms of actuality by sophisticated and somewhat degenerated smotherings forced upon us by this rabid service-ridden, avarice-ridden, all-embracing, all-asphyxiating, consumerist capitalism.)
Back to Tribute artistes. Dead stars have been “resurrected” in the ultimate of (capitalist driven) Tribute acts of late. Roy Orbison himself starred in a concert show last year; twenty or so years since he died! He was a hologram! Light focused onto the stage in various technically advanced ways gave the illusion that here before you performing was the man himself! Of course I expect it was a bit clunky; as was CGI and Harryhausen in the infancy of special effects; and that the illusion such as it was, was not utterly convincing to an audience. A show to go to, so as to be able to say you’ve been to it maybe, and to see what is possible at the limits of this art at this time?
Another show, a dramatic production, had live actors acting alongside a hologram of a dead once-famous actor – I can’t recall who it was but I think in London a year or maybe two back?
The hologram not only adds novelty and maybe eventually more authenticity to an ‘appearance’ than does a Tribute act; it also ‘cuts out the middlemen’ of the live Tribute personnel themselves; thus I’d imagine there is more profit to the organisers? It may be difficult though for a guy like say Mick Jagger to endorse the shade of Bryan Jones as hologram in a poster for a forthcoming show?
But the whole idea of Tribute acts; let’s consider this for a moment. They are a recently arisen phenomenon; before say 1970 Tribute acts were more or less unknown, except maybe in a TV talent show a guy would dress up as George Formby and sing with a ukulele in his hand, or a woman might sing White Cliffs of Dover dressed in forties fashion after Gracie Fields. But nostalgia became big in the late seventies or early eighties I think, and of course, once again it wasn’t long before the consumerists and capitalists took over the bandwagon and began a money-making machine out of the nostalgia kick.
Since then nostalgia has become an industry in its own right. We have here today vintage fairs and shops, some stocking vintage clothing freshly made imported from the Far East. We have elderly persons, some in mobility scooters or else getting unsteady but wearing the clothing and reliving the lives they gave up fifty years ago when they married and had kids to attend to. No second childhood in age but only a second teenaged romp.
Elderly women go about in skimpy and revealing clothes; made up and styled outrageously to look young; pensioner men wear pirate tied handkerchiefs on their heads and leathers with chains and emblems of the American Civil War and of classic Music Festivals (Woodstock is a favourite). This behaviour has become acceptable and has been normalised here - it has become so prevalent. It cannot but be related to nostalgia and to Tribute acts and to the huge industry in sixties and seventies memorabilia (merchandise) at large here. Even holidays in places like Graceland and Nashville packaged and production-lined are flourishing.
The States has its own customs of dressing like cowboys and dolls; and has had these for decades now. The influence of US culture here has been a large cause and help to the rise and growth and boom of the nostalgia and Tribute industries.
I want to leave aside the psychological side of oldies getting heavily into nostalgia and what this means for our society; I have written elsewhere on these areas I believe. I want rather to stress here the philosophical issues which such a world-view presents for enquiry.
I do know that in my own youth as a teenager of the nineteen sixties, an elderly person dressing up in the streets as Elvis or as Elton John would have been considered either a showman in show-business, or as an advertisement, or as a person with a weak mind, even insane. He or she would be noticed and talked about, laughed at by some, deplored by others but universally causing all around feel a sense of acute embarrassment to see them. They would be stigmatised then; and none of your liberal toleration and inclusive diversity in those days.
To many of us today my statements here would be living proof of social advancement and human progress; of our enlightened standing today. Where’s the harm – why not – live and let live - whatever gets you through the night etc, etc?
And of course the crunch – where’s the shame in it – how be or cause to be embarrassed?
And here is the core of the discussion – is this shame and embarrassment which would have been felt by almost every ordinary member of the public of fifty years ago, a value in itself or is it just benighted backwardness and of no account?
I have written elsewhere about Arnold Wesker’s play drama called “Chips with Everything”. Briefly it is the story about the disdain and contempt of the officer corps in the British Army towards other ranks, the lower orders. Officers were/are career soldiers and largely from British Public Schools ( rich people’s children’s boarding schools) or were from better off Grammar Schools (run by the state but serving affluent areas of the populace). Other ranks, Privates, Corporals, Sergeants, were pretty universally derived in those days from working people and were called up by conscription (the draft). The social class distinction then was large and obvious; one set uneducated, poor uncouth, often sentimental and chummy; and the other well-off, graduates, plum accents, and higher, much higher rank and therefore in charge of the lower orders in the Army.
In the drama “Chips with Everything” Wesker sets up a Christmas Party in the Officer’s Mess to which certain lower ranks are invited to supply entertainment on a stage for the Officers. One lowly Private decides he will use an old guitar and mime some Elvis numbers there. (You’ll be getting where I’m heading?). Another, a Scot and with some class consciousness, sees his fellow Private on the stage ‘agonising’ and sweeping the guitar etc, and seethes with blazing anger at the officers in the audience with their gins and bitters extracting great dark joy and schadenfreude out of this Elvis performance, mocking and disdaining in great glee.
The canny Scots Private leaps onto the stage and hauls ‘Elvis’ away; and then the Scot begins reciting “A Man’s a Man for A’ That” which is a rousing poem by Robert Burns, who started life as a peasant farmer’s son.
Is there for honest Poverty That hings his head, an’ a’ that; The coward-slave, we pass him by, We dare be poor for a’ that! For a’ that, an’ a’ that. Our toils obscure an’ a’ that, The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.
What though on hamely fare we dine, Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that; Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine; A Man’s a Man for a’ that: For a’ that, and a’ that, Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that; The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor, Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord, Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that, Tho’ hundreds worship at his word, He’s but a coof for a’ that. For a’ that, an’ a’ that, His ribband, star, an’ a’ that, The man o’ independent mind, He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
A Prince can mak a belted knight, A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that! But an honest man’s aboon his might – Guid faith, he mauna fa’ that! For a’ that, an’ a’ that, Their dignities, an’ a’ that, The pith o’ Sense an’ pride o’ Worth Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come it may, As come it will for a’ that, That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that. For a’ that, an’ a’ that, It’s comin yet for a’ that, That Man to Man the warld o’er Shall brithers be for a’ that.
A noble poem. One showing much dignity. One to be respected. Intellectually and artistically. A clarion call for respect, honour due, worth and value, even awe, for the claim to having a rightful place within invaluable humanity for the common man, who is, among others, as Our Lord says “The salt of the earth”.
(Further Our Lord we are told “is no respecter of persons” – which interpreted is that He did not kowtow to or butter up people of rank, but He saw in everyone that measure of essential root human value; a person’s estimate in terms of innate dignity and his/her earnest for faith.)
You can see that I have invited into the discussion items of human value such as dignity, respect, honour due, and to add to these I can offer good manners, public standards, modest carriage, and what the great George Orwell called “common decency”.
And I will ask plainly; is there not a great decline in the practice of and adherence to these sets of values in our society in Britain right now? They are as it were “not on the radar” of so many of us today – oldies and youngies alike, many of us taking talking disrespect and being disrespectful in our thoughts and behaviour to others as normal and acceptable behaviour. Many of us will extol “Carpe Diem” and “Whatever the day brings; one day at a time” and all the buzzwords which act to justify us having abjured all standards of courtesy and conduct, manners, politeness, and worst of all cast aside much humankindness.
That saying of St Paul’s kicks in here: Indeed our watchword is “Eat, drink and be merry; for tomorrow we die”. Life has turned circus for so many of us; a ball, a theme park, a romp and a thing of no consequence of any serious weight.
Partly commercialism and its advertising, the powerful pressures of consumerism and the capital behind it; all these things have helped head us in this fruitless and nihilist direction; but our own abdication of our innate honour, innate duties and commissions has been gladly scooped up by us – hence we see guys in their late middle age, paunched and cheery, waving about and “bopping” as if just left school calling themselves Elvis Orbison and to all intents and purposes shaming all of us, and debasing our inheritance as God children in his image. And we ourselves experience and abide no shame from such performances; we flock to them. But I don’t want to get bogged down in Tribute acts only; because Tribute acts are merely symptomatic of our problems as a people.
Our problem is that we are desperate, even hysterical, for passing time busily doing nothing worthwhile; and instead we hurry being busy so as to avoid being unoccupied and so being able, made space for, doing something worthwhile. God help us were it that the radio and TV and the traffic and the roads and airports and the music had to stop, for long enough that we could sober up and take stock; that life is more than “Chips with Everything” and ourselves are not mere ‘walking dead men’ ‘carcasses not yet cold’ etc – that we have a modest self-esteem and a reasonable soul by which to guide our ways – towards others and towards God.
All this is very unfashionable stuff and probably mighty dreary to many people – who see in it the shadow of the valley of death – and so they shy away sometimes resentfully and angrily. I say one last thing. How much better to have attempted a life for others’ sakes, in the power of the little light God gives each of us, than to feel deep down that everything is worthless and of no lasting value and so the hell with it – let’s party ourselves blind and hectic and thereby put off to the furthest the evil hour?