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Music: Ventura County

The Great Pretenders

Tribute bands capitalize on success of Led Zeppelin, the Doors and the Beatles.

September 25, 1997|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Be careful who you pretend to be because one day you may wake up to find that's who you are.--Ward Cleaver

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Pretending is a big thing in rock 'n' roll. Most groups at least pretend to be cool, and increasingly, many bands even pretend to be somebody else. These so-called tribute bands are everywhere, and according to John Cuda of Barra Cuda Productions, there are more than 100 tribute bands nationwide and about 40 in Southern California.

While Elvis impersonators are a mini-industry unto themselves, and the Boogie Knights and their many clone bands bring back the plastic, fantastic, bombastic days of disco, most of the current tribute bands fit into the classic-rock category.

Imagine your watch stopped in 1980 and the radio dial was set on KLOS when every other song was "Stairway to Heaven."

Some of these tribute bands fill a need, considering that original artists such as Buddy Holly or Jimi Hendrix won't be showing up to jam. But death doesn't make the difference it used to, since labels continue to release new music by dead artists. But dead artists don't tour; tribute bands do.

Wild Child and Morrison Hotel are a couple of Doors tribute bands. Sheer Heart Attack is a tribute to Queen. Randy Hansen spends most of the year in Europe, pretending to be Jimi Hendrix, and Cold Shot does those Texas blues in the Stevie Ray Vaughan style. Skunk Rose and Cubensis concoct endless, mindless and senseless jams for swirling Deadheads too stoned to find a Phish or a Blues Traveler gig.

Still other tribute bands emulate rockers that are still alive and well, have too much money, don't play much or have broken up. Sticky Fingers plays Rolling Stones songs. Hotel California, no surprise here, does Eagles' music, while Caress of Steel does love-them-or-hate-them Rush, and Power Age shrieks AC/DC songs.

The Atomic Punks bring back the David Lee Roth era of Van Halen, and Billion Dollar Babies does Alice Cooper. Infinity knows Journey, Aqualung knows Jethro Tull, Strutter struts KISS songs, and the Almost Brothers have heard the Allman Brothers before. There's even a Partridge Family tribute band.

What does it all mean? Well, more musicians are working. On the other hand, there are fewer openings available for those playing original music. A lot of these tribute bands are busy--real busy, according to Cuda, "the King of Make Believe," who manages several of the groups.

"I think people want to relive their childhoods. They remember songs they liked, and it takes them back to their youth. I think this whole thing started in the late '70s with the success of 'Beatlemania.' And later, when the Doors movie came out, there was a big demand for Doors music. Now, it's up and down."

What follows is the lowdown on three area tribute bands that re-create music by groups no longer with us. If you failed to get around to seeing the Beatles, the Doors or Led Zeppelin back then, you have two options left: albums or tribute bands.

Imagine does the Beatles; Wild Child, the Doors; and with a name like Led Zepagain, their idols are obvious. Neil Burg is Ringo, Dave Brock is Jim Morrison and Tracy Longo is Jimmy Page, and none of these guys ever saw their idols play live.

Wild Child

The Doors hit it big in 1967 with their debut album featuring frantic front man Jim Morrison groaning scary lyrics and backed by surreal music. A Bruin gone bad, Morrison, once a film student at UCLA, lived the rock star life a little too fully and died in the bathtub of a heart attack at age 27.

The Doors' performances tended to be either really good or really sloppy. Wild Child plays Doors' music as proficiently, if not better, than the originals. And front man Dave Brock has the look, the mannerisms and the voice, plus he's still with us.

"I was getting ready to start my last semester at Cal State Long Beach when I heard this commercial on the radio for Gazzari's, which was having a "Jim Morrison Rock Opera," said Brock, explaining how he got involved in Pretending to be The Door. "Since I was a huge Doors fan, I had to go to that one."

Instead of a concert, it turned out, he said, to be an audition for a Doors tribute show. Majoring in drama and marketing, Brock was more than prepared for the unreal world of real rock 'n' roll.

"They asked me if I was there to audition and I said 'Um . . . OK.' Later, they called me and told me I got the lead part. I had never been in a band before."

That gig lasted about six months, said Brock, "but it generated a lot of press. I started getting contacted by people who wanted to do a movie on Jim Morrison, so I kept the band going to promote this movie project, and we started to gain a following. Our first promoted gig was July 3, 1986, at the Whiskey [in Hollywood]--three sold-out shows. I did get a chance to audition for Oliver Stone's movie, but I didn't get the part."

So after all these years of pretending to be Jim Morrison, has Brock found that he has become Jim Morrison?

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