The 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies take place on April 10th in a Brooklyn arena, honoring Cat Stevens, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, Nirvana and KISS. With the exception of Nirvana, this year’s inductees all came to prominence during the 1970s, and even the Seattle grunge-rockers trace some of their influences to '70s music. That classic rock era is relived every weekend in bars and clubs across the country. Ideastream’s David C. Barnett explores the passion of tribute bands.
The unmistakable sound of KISS comes pounding through the speakers, as the performers run through their set-list for an upcoming show.
But…they’re not KISS. They’re members of the Cleveland-based KISS tribute band, Mr. Speed.
50-year-old Rich Kosak, plays the part of vocalist Paul Stanley, and claims to have seen KISS 52 times, since the late 1970s. Kosak grew-up with an older brother who was into the heavier sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Yes.
RICH KOSAK: When I saw this, I thought, “Well, I don’t like all that stuff that you have to think about, so much. I like this stuff that just makes me feel real good. We’re fans, just like the people that come to see us, the people that go to see KISS. We’re really passionate about what it is that we do.
HOWARD PARR: They’ve certainly invested to make their show look good.
PETER KARAS: And they do a wonderful job.
Howard Parr and Peter Karas of Akron have been booking bands like Mr. Speed for years. Karas will be playing them this summer at the city’s Lock 3 --- an outdoor park and performance space, downtown.
PETER KARAS: I mean, they look like KISS, they sound like KISS, they’ve got the make-up and the whole nine yards.
Howard Parr is impressed with the effort the band has put into its look and sound. As executive director of the Akron Civic Theater, Parr says he’s seen the number of such performers explode in recent years --- from the occasional Elvis imitators, to a mini-industry of tribute bands. Many of them play what commercial radio now calls, “classic rock” --- music from the 70s and 80s. Parr says the trend has even hit concert halls.
HOWARD PARR: There are tribute packages that are being sold to symphony orchestras, for example. A John Denver tribute show was recently done by the Akron Symphony --- where the Akron Symphony performed with this guy doing John Denver songs.
Every one of this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees has its imitators. Majickat, is among the Cat Stevens tribute acts. Hall & Oates have inspired the likes of Maneater and HmfO. And for Linda Ronstadt, your choices include Different Drum, Just One Look, and Heart Like a Wheel.
Bleach pays homage to Nirvana, a group that 35-year-old guitarist Greg Polovick first saw on MTV.
GREG POLOVICK: As a teenager, I hated life, I hated everything about everything. And it was like the perfect music to listen to and say “Screw authority, screw everybody”
Bleach was named after Nirvana’s debut album. Greg Polovick, band leader Dusty Holt, drummer Shawn Moats and bassist Nathan White are a bunch of working class Akron guys who channel the band’s spirit on weekends. Nathan White joined Bleach after seeing them thrash though a set at a local club.
NATHAN WHITE: It was inspiring, in a way, because that was the kind of dream I wanted to have --- to be in a band with that much power.
While some critics might dismiss tribute bands as musicians who aren’t talented enough to do original material, UCLA music scholar Mitchell Morris says the ones he’s seen tap into something deeper.
MITCHELL MORRIS: I think it’s a really basic human desire. You’re playing. You’re creating fiction. It’s really the performance version of telling a story.
And Morris adds it doesn’t matter who wrote the story. The whole point is the performance. The enjoyment that we get from a tribute band is similar to the fascination of Jimmie Fallon doing a dead-on imitation of Neil Young, or a drag performer, precisely picking up on the mannerisms of Barbra Streisand. Mitchell Morris says, this also speaks to the kick of embodying your favorite singer on karaoke night.
MITCHELL MORRIS: Imitability is actually an underrated characteristic of really serious pop stars. That ability to be imitated is really what gives fans access to them. What you want is someone who is distinctive enough, so that they really can be recognized. It’s all part of what being a public figure in an age of mass mediation can mean.
Of all the tribute acts across the country, KISS has inspired dozens of imitators. There’s Destroyer, Alive, KISS Nation, KISStory, Love Gun, Almost KISS, Rock and Roll Over, Gods of Thunder, Kings of the Night Time World and one of the more unique incarnations --- four little people, decked out in costumes and make-up, called Mini-KISS.
HOWARD PARR: We haven’t done Mini-KISS, but everybody keeps asking about them.
PETER KARAS: It’s sort of funny. They do the complete make-up thing. (chuckles)
Mr. Speed drummer Andrew Sgambati has little patience for these diminuitive pretenders to the throne
ANDREW SGAMBATI: It’s unfortunate that they have tapped American pop culture, so that whenever you tell someone new, “Hey, I’m in a KISS tribute band,” the first word out of their mouths is, “Hey, have you heard about Mini-KISS?” They’re not paying tribute to KISS, they’re mocking it.” They’re a mockery of what we do.
Mr. Speed --- the Cleveland KISS tribute --- played to a packed suburban club, this past weekend. They’ll take the act to LA on April) 21st to play at a “World’s Greatest Tribute Band” event. KISS co-founder Paul Stanley says he can relate to the passion of emulating your musical heroes.
PAUL STANLEY: The adage: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, comes to mind.
Paul Stanley says that it took a while for him, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Kriss to come up with their distinctive characters.
PAUL STANLEY: We wanted to be the band we never saw, and we were very influenced by British bands. During the 60s, you had these great bands where they had an identifiable look. Bands tended to look cohesive. We wanted to take that a step further.
That “look” brought KISS a lot of attention. And that was especially strange for a person who grew-up with a deformed right ear, and was partially deaf. In a new memoir, Stanley reveals he felt very isolated as a kid.
PAUL STANLEY: Getting all that fan adulation was overwhelming. You have to realize, I was somebody who, for the most part, never got the girl, didn’t even know how to get the girl; was deficient in any social skills, and here I was, being chased. There are many times --- to this day --- that I choke-up on stage. It’s an honor to be held in that esteem.
But, Paul Stanley says he has mixed feelings about KISS tribute bands --- especially when there’s money involved.
PAUL STANLEY: If it’s done with the right heart, and as a fan, I appreciate it. When it becomes business, then it’s time for us to talk about it.
In his book, Stanley acknowledges that 40 years on the road are starting to take their toll on him physically, and he can see himself eventually stepping aside and letting someone else take over his KISS character. Rich Kosak of Mr. Speed has been practicing.