Access All Eras: Book Review

Posted Monday December 1, 2008 by John Gunders in |

Homan, Shane (ed), Access All Eras: Tribute Bands and Global Pop Culture, Open University Press, Maidenhead, 2006. Publisher’s website

As Shane Homan says in his introduction to this fascinating collection of essays, “the tribute act has received little critical attention in popular music or cultural studies” (2) and attributes this to the suspicion with which the “inauthentic” is held within the industry as well as within the academy. A specialist subset of cover bands, tribute acts are those bands who “exclusively perform the recordings of one band or artist, and may even concentrate on a specific period of the artist/group” (5). This is the first collection of essays to deal exclusively with the tribute phenomena, despite the format gaining significantly in popularity (if not respect) since tribute bands first started appearing in the early 1980s, and connected no doubt to the surprising paucity of publications dealing with “pop” as opposed to “rock” music (again, that issue of “authenticity”). This collection deliberately steers a path between the rejection of tribute acts as merely formulaic mimicry, and a postmodern celebration of simulacra, and instead “seeks to understand contemporary thinking about pop and rock history as it is performed on a nightly, global basis” (14).

The 14 essays in this collection cover a broad range of issues and themes, from discussions of postmodern pastiche and parody, through analyses of the fans’ attitudes to tribute acts and their place in the global economy of popular music, to discussions of the way in which tribute acts challenge the dominant rock discourses of originality and stardom. The book is structured with a theoretical introductory section of four chapters, followed by eight case-studies of particular acts, and a final section looking at the tribute scenes in South-east Asia and Papua New Guinea. There is no definitive explanation for the popularity of tribute acts (as if there could be), but rather the phenomenon is examined from cultural, theoretical, popular historical, and industry perspectives, in order to provide a comprehensive analysis of this genre’s place in the popular music industry. These explanations range from the analytic—the denigration of cover bands in terms of Bourdieu’s construction of distinction (199)—to the prosaic—cover bands are cheaper and easier to see (23), but are always insightful. Holly Tessler’s chapter, for instance, on the uneasy relationship between the civic authorities in Liverpool and the city’s place in Beatles fandom is a good example of the way in which the book situates its discussions in specific cultural contexts. In analysing an annual music festival, she points out that its emphasise on tribute bands suggests that the “city leaders are indeed attempting to ‘normalize’ or even obliterate vernacular culture to make way for tourist-friendly, ‘destination’ or pilgrimage experiences of Liverpool” (63).

Embedded, as they are, within discourses of history and fandom, as well as the economic imperatives that are external to the issue, the tribute bands considered in this collection tend to occupy troubled locations in relation to their own particular histories, and yet this book manages to bring together insights not only into the role of tribute and cover bands within the music industry, but it offers a perspective on those things that are considered important within music cultures as a whole.

Review originally published in Media International Australia, No 127, May 2008

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