Rock Stars Revisited 
by Mark Greenawalt

Originally published in Sonik Magazine, Year Four, Issue Six, (September 2004)

They are the mythological gods of the modern day, filling the airwaves with thunder through classic rock stations and I-pods. They are the rock stars whom have become legends to minions of aging baby boomers who were “there” and are on vintage clips shown to a new generation who wish they could have been “there”. Granted some of these monsters of rock are still touring the country, but things have changed since their glory days. Is it really Van Halen without Diamond Dave, AC/DC without Bon Scott, or Led Zepplin without Bonham? With tickets prices in mid $80’s, plus parking, beer, and a T-shirt that looks great until you wash it, there has got to be a better way. Thus the allure of the tribute band, groups that go to great lengths to emulate their idols and re-create that magic from yesteryear.

Arguably, BeatleMania got this whole train rolling. Paying tribute to the Beatles, this band toured the country playing the music of the Fab Four. But, unlike the countless cover bands that played a few hits penned by Lennon & McCartney, BeatleMania went a step beyond and wore the costumes from the Ed Sullivan show, Sgt. Pepper, and the Abbey Road era while performing two hours of Beatle’s hits exclusively. This tribute band went to the detail of using the same models of guitars and drums, authentic choreography, and full orchestration of such songs as "Yesterday," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Magical Mystery tour," "Penny Lane," "Let It Be" "Something," and many more! With the passing of John Lennon and George Harrison, this may be the only way, save time travel, to see the Beatles in concert. BeatleMania Live will perform August 18th through the 22nd here at Casino Arizona. The venue there is very intimate and tickets are still on sale at Ticketmaster for $22.50.

The 2001 movie “Rock Star” explored a Cinderella story of a tribute band. The band’s singer, played by Mark Wahlberg, gets a lucky break and gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sing for the group to which his band was paying tribute. The filmmakers claimed that the story was pure fiction, but there were undeniable similarities to a true story involving an Ohio based Judas Priest tribute band. Their singer, Tim “The Ripper” Owens, had a hauntingly similar voice to Valley resident Rob Halford, the screaming pipes of Judas Priest. When Halford chose to leave Priest after the Painkiller tour, friends of Owens sent his demo tape to the remaining members of the band. Coincidentally, this same thing happened in "Rock Star" and in both cases, they got the gig. Owen's twelve-year ride included two studio albums and a couple of live releases, but the original metal god, Halford, reclaimed his throne and Judas Priest hit the road with Ozzfest.

Many wonder why a musician with comparable talent would spend their time playing their idol’s music instead of attempting to make a name for themselves. Do they believe that they might one day get an opportunity like Ripper Owens? Although the chances may seem astronomical, Zakk Wylde who had a role in “Rock Star”, says that the movie could have easily been documenting his life. "I grew up worshipping Tony Iommi and Randy Rhoads,” says Wylde, “and look at me - I ended up in Ozzy's band." The wildly popular Atomic Punks, a Van Halen tribute band, can also attest to the fact that their founding guitarist, Bart Walsh landed a spot touring with David Lee Roth from 1999 to 2001. Then in 2002, Diamond Dave reached into the Atomic Punks talent pool again and took their new guitarist, Brian Young, on his tour with Sammy Haggar.

The Atomic Punks, founded in 1994, have gained enough momentum to continually tour the country playing the best of early Van Halen and nothing else. The Venue of Scottsdale (formerly the Cajun House) is a frequent stop for the Punks, who always attract a sizable crowd of devout fans. Whether Van Halen fans, Atomic Punk fans, or some combination thereof doesn’t really matter. Punk’s singer Ralf Saenz is quick to emphasize, “We are not trying to BE Van Halen. We just love their music and we love to play it,” Saenz says.  And they play it well. They were voted LA’s best tribute band three years in a row and even captured the attention of Michael Anthony, who has been known to jump on stage and play with them, and David Lee Roth mentions them in his book Crazy From The Heat. To continue the common thread, Ralph Saenz also appeared in the movie “Rock Star” as a singer trying out for the fictional band Steel Dragon. You can visit the official Atomic Punks website at or go see them for yourself at The Venue on August 28th.

There are dozens of bands in every major music market that cover the songs of the last quarter century, but there are only a handful that concentrate on a single band’s catalog. You won’t typically find tribute bands for the one-hit-wonders like Autograph, White Lion, or Frankie Goes to Hollywood. There is also a clear distinction between tribute bands and impersonators for solo artists such as Michael Jackson, Elton John, and of course Elvis Presley. There is definitely a niche market for impersonators, but they don’t seem to have that same beer-drinking-party-all-night vibe as the majority of successful tribute bands conjure up. Another constraint in selecting a band to pay tribute to is how long they have been cranking out hits, audiences need to know every word by heart. It’s much easier to garner the attention of an audience when they can sing along between shots of Jager throughout the night. So which rock acts from the past warrant a tribute? Here are the top 20 bands with the most tribute bands (per a very unscientific survey of internet websites).

1. Beatles
2. Rush
3. Pink Floyd
4. AC/DC
5. Kiss
6. Abba
7. Doors
8. Led Zepplin
9. Greatful Dead
10. U2
11. Queen
12. Rolling Stones
13. Black Sabbath
14. Genesis
15. Judas Priest
16. Van Halen
17. Iron Maiden
18. ZZ Top
19. Metallica
20. Police 

Arizona boasts a handful of tribute bands that populate stages any given evening. It seems a prerequisite these bands name themselves after one of the albums or one of the significant song titles that their namesake created. One example is AC/DC’s album/song and now tribute band named TNT. Since April of 2000 the band TNT has done their AC/DC tribute at nearly every rock venue in the southwest, culminating at the Tempe Fiesta Bowl Block Party in front of 10,000 moshing fans. They nail the anthem “You Shook Me All Night Long” while guitarist Sal Cartagine donned the Angus school boy duds and singer Donnie Johnson wore the trademark cab driver hat worn by Brian Johnson. Since AC/DC was making a tour stop in Phoenix, the members of TNT were thrilled to meet them and share their story. The band did a studio recording of an AC/DC song that was only released in Australia as the B-side to Money Talks. The song, called On the Boarderline, was granted permission by the band’s publishers to be available for airplay and release. You can listen to the song on their website at or better yet, live on September 11th at Flagstaff’s Music on the Mountain along with other tribute bands Led Zep Again (Led Zepplin tribute band from LA) and Dream Police (Cheap Trick tribute, also from LA).

On July 31st, rock station KDKB presented a tribute band extravaganza at the Dodge Theater which included TNT, Dream Police, and relative newcomer Metal Gods who’ve been covering Judas Priest for just over a year. When it comes to costuming and stage antics, the Phoenix-based Metal Gods had their work cut out for them. Decked out in the leather and studs from the Screaming For Vengeance era, they romp around the stage delivering the goods. During the Dodge Theater show, one lucky winner took home the grand prize, a 2005 Dodge Magnum. Ironically, his name was Steve Morse, but isn’t the same Steve Morse of Dixie Dreggs fame.

Several other tribute bands have come and gone, some only surface from time to time, and another batch is working out riffs in somebody’s garage. A few of the more memorable Arizona acts from recent years include the Rush tribute band named Freewill, Scott Rowe’s tribute to Alice Cooper, Love Electric’s tribute to The Cult, and The Great Gig In The Sky, a Pink Floyd tribute band.

The Tempe/Scottsdale nightclub scene have become the proving grounds for “genre tribute bands,” a variation of the typical tribute bands. Not limited to playing the songs of one artist, they form sets with a common thread. At the forefront is Rock Lobster, performing 80's retro songs, cheesey by today’s standards, but irresistibly catchy to the crowds dancing the night away. They cover artist like the Cars, Devo, The Go-Gos, and even pay tribute to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s one hit. If you’ve been fondly reminiscing while watching VH-1’s Totally 80’s episodes, you will be glad to know that you can re-live those moments every Saturday night at Martini Ranch in Scottsdale with Rock Lobster.

Rock Lobster members John Colby and Gary Sanchez have taken the genre tribute idea and formed a new band covering the hairbands of the metal 80’s. This band is appropriately named Metalhead and their set list is basically the top 40 songs from the old Headbanger’s Ball on MTV. The singer, who simply goes by the name of Lucky, successfully covers every voice he tries to emulate from AC/DC to Bon Jovi, Quiet Riot to you-name-it. It’s generally standing room only every Wednesday night when Metalhead takes the stage at Tempe’s Library Nightclub.

The tribute bands, very dedicated to honoring their idols, hone their craft every chance they get.  Some original band members may feel like they are selling out and are little more than inferior cloned photocopies of the original. Club owners and event promoters, on the other hand regard them as a cash cow with guaranteed revenue unlike the untested original acts playing for a handful of friends. They are getting paid better than rival cover/original bands (from $300 to several thousand depending on the gig), are enjoying what they do, and they’ve got hot chicks dancing in front of them like the groupies did for their idols many years ago. Sounds like a good reason to dust off that old Gibson Les Paul, call up a few old bandmates, get a case of beer, and start practicing.

Mark Greenawalt 

Greenawalt is a freelance writer and musician who played in the Styx tribute band Equinox from Nashville, TN