He’s either here to rock you or sell you a Buick LeSabre.
Impact keyboardist Don Suite, headset microphone in place, has stepped out from behind his keys to throw down on MC Hammer’s 1991 classic “U Can’t Touch This.” In hipster circles, the sight of a forty-something white guy with a graying moustache and Dockers dropping mad rap skills over a borrowed Rick James riff would constitute high comedy. But on a Friday night in a packed-to-the-walls Club 90—a suburban Sandy hangout for Boomers with dance fever—he’s almost a rock star.
“This band is good, man. They sound just like the record,” comments the cologned dude in a stonewash denim jacket on the bar stool next to me, knocking back a light beer and brushing aside the beginnings of a handsome mullet. “Singer’s kind of a hottie, too.”
I ask if he’s referring to micro-skirted vocalist Patty Duglung, currently bouncing all over the stage like an aerobics instructor on a Red Bull bender and cooing “can’t touch this” back-ups to Suite.
“Well, yeah,” he answers, somewhat befuddled. “You’ve gotta be careful with assumptions, man.”
True that—like the assumption that cover bands (musical groups who play the hits of established superstars, or MC Hammer, for fun and profit) are all talentless hacks stealing gigs and money from Sincere Artists who sweat over their own original music instead of choosing the easy Top-40 route. This logic says that, if Band A weren’t hogging up weekend club stages with rote dance-floor anthems, Band B would be enthralling the very same boogying crowds with the powerful alterna-grunge-goth-industrial-jazz-metal epics they painstakingly penned in a dank rehearsal room about the injustices of their socio-economic strata and girls who are, like, totally shallow.
This, of course, is bullshit.
“I played with an all-original rock band when I was younger, went on tour, starved to death,” laughs Dave Glines, Impact’s drummer for 12 years and Suite’s partner in cover bands for over 20. “When I came back here, I’d had enough of being on the road, so I hooked up with Don to play a little and make a few bucks—it’s just never stopped.”
That was 1980. While the local music scene is stronger and more vibrant than it has ever been in terms of original music, and the club circuit for cover bands like Impact is decidedly smaller (Glines can rattle off a list of valley bars like Norwood, the Sage, the Sojourner and others long-defunct), nothing has changed in Salt Lake City. People want to hear music they know, they want to dance to songs they love and even marginal cover bands play more gigs and make better money than most original bands ever will.
Few volleys in the eternal tiff between cover bands and original bands have been more stingingly succinct than this 2002 letter submitted to Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, wherein a beleaguered cover-band musician finally fires back at cooler-than-thou detractors:
“Your show: Two people show up. You sing excerpts from your diary while staring at your feet. You end the song, tear on cheek, to clinking glasses. Your girlfriend stops talking to applaud alone. Our show: A crowd of 300 shows up. We play songs someone else wrote and the audience sings along. Girls run onstage to be spanked and flash their breasts.”
There were also some profound observations about setting aside hipster angst and just having fun while entertaining people, but the spanking and the breasts pretty much say it all.
Not that maintaining a viable cover band is all tits and giggles. “It’s hard to stay cutting-edge with a cover band; it changes every week,” says Guitar Czar music shop owner Eric Sopanen, who six-strings with classic/current-rock cover band Rockin’ Rhinos. “We stick with the Beatles, the Stones, Aerosmith. Also, newer stuff like Blink-182, that ‘Kryptonite’ song, and Tom Petty, Skynyrd, ZZ Top—big guitar stuff. Some of the newer songs are tough to pick up. It’s not just standard tuning anymore, the whole approach is different. … I don’t know what these kids are into anymore,” he says with a laugh.
Difficulty is one thing; sheer repertoire quantity is another. “You’ve got to be able to do the chameleon thing, walk in and evaluate the room—we’ve got an older crowd, or a younger crowd, or a country crowd,” Glines says. “And it takes about 300 songs at your disposal to be able to cover that. You can’t please everyone, but if somebody comes up and says, ‘I want to hear “The Rose,”’ boom! We can knock it out. If they want to hear Metallica, hey, let’s do it!”
“Well, we’ve played it before, didn’t seem to go over too well,” he admits with a chuckle. “Once you’ve got ’em up on the dance floor, you want to keep ’em there.”
Seven-year-old cover band Solid Gold, with its trademark over-the-top wigs and costumes, works on the urban side of the unspoken divide between suburban nightspots and downtown clubs. While their respective set lists aren’t drastically different, you’ll probably never see Impact at city venues like Port O’ Call or Liquid Joe’s. Likewise, you won’t see the wigged wonders at Club 90 or Totems—at least not for another generational cycle. Solid Gold earned its downtown stripes back in the 1990s heyday of college-hotspot The Holy Cow, holding down Thursday nights as the ’80s cover-band answer to the club’s Saturday-night Hollywood import, franchised ’70s disco kings Bootie Quake.
“The first couple of weeks, we had about 30 people there. Then it doubled for a few weeks. After that, there was anywhere from 300 to 500 people in that joint every week. That went on for two years, until the Cow closed,” drummer Spence Dean recalls fondly. “We went to see Bootie Quake and, even though we were all busy with our own jobs and businesses, we said, ‘Why don’t we try a cover band?’ We were all musicians, but we didn’t have the time it takes to work on originals. It just took off, and we were getting a ton of work for three to four years straight. Obviously,” he adds with a laugh, “we’re really glad for VH1 and the ’80s making a comeback right now.”
Solid Gold’s extensive song list is made up of Reagan-era new-wave and rock hits, but these days the band leans more toward a hair-metal look—ironically, through club smoke and beer goggles, they’re ringers for vocalist Jeffrey Lee’s own original metal band, Lixx, back in the real ’80s. Fronting an immaculate contrivance of everything MTV in the late ’80s—Aqua Net, glitter and mascara shot through a pink Flying V and a Marshall stack—Lee wore the spandex and big hair seriously then, opening major rock shows at the Salt Palace, enjoying Next Big Thing buzz and eventually moving to the hair-metal epicenter of Los Angeles before Lixx imploded. The arena-rock pipes and showmanship are all his, the hair just comes off now.
“The wigs get disgusting and hot,” Dean says with it’s-part-of-the-job nonchalance. But the rigors of fake hair, he adds, are less of an occupational hazard than working up new covers that just don’t fly. “We try to add new songs every few months. We’ve got over 100 songs that we can play, but we always seem to end up coming back to the mainstays. If it’s not a huge hit the first or second time we play it, we usually drop it. It’s a lot of work to put in and then have people not get into it.”
Just as the ability to play an instrument doesn’t necessarily come bundled with the talent to write songs or put on an entertaining show (face it—most original bands aren’t really all that good; we just have more to choose from now), simply slapping together a cover band doesn’t constitute an instant ticket to big money and adulation. Cover bands pulling down decent green at bars, weddings and especially high-dollar corporate gigs all have a little something extra that sets them apart—though plans can sometimes backfire.
“Seems like every time we learn a song, another band has picked it up, too. But nobody else does this: We put about five Michael Jackson tunes together in a big medley—unfortunately, he just recently started getting noisy again,” laughs Glines, referring to Jackson’s recent round of self-damning TV interviews. “Oh man, just keep your mouth shut!”
Triple Trouble, another band in regular monthly rotation at Club 90, has its secret weapon in Michael Kendall Harris, a 25-year-old blind singer with a trick-bag of voices as deep as the twice-his-age trio’s catalogue of covers. “I do try to mimic the style of the original artist as much as possible because people like that,” says Harris, also a nationally competing karaoke champ. “The band heard me once at the Filling Station and invited me to come sing with them the next weekend at Totems. After that, they asked me to join the band. They were a three-piece for 10 years before, that’s why they were called Triple Trouble. For a while,” he says, laughing, “we called it Triple Trouble & Their Troubled Child.”
As hard as it may be to believe, though, Harris’ heart doesn’t lie completely in replicating timeless tunes like “Mambo No. 5” and “Boot-Scoot Boogie” for throngs of Sandy clubbers. “I’ve definitely got some other dreams,” he says thoughtfully. He adds with a laugh: “I don’t want to be doing just what I’m doing now forever—but I may. My other love is the old standards, the kind of stuff my grandfather listened to when I was growing up—Sinatra, Nat King Cole. I’m always wanting to try these songs with the band, but they’ll tell me, ‘No, not danceable enough.’”
“It’s meat-market music when you’re playing covers,” laughs Rockin’ Rhinos Sopanen. “Places like Club 90 are a social phenomenon—they just want to dance, and then line-dance between sets. The older crowds, of course, want to hear the older stuff, but you should hear ’em when we whip out Black Sabbath—yelling, playing air guitar and shit.”
The Rockin’ Rhinos’ niche is chops-heavy guitar rock, something Sopanen has become well acquainted with during his 10-years-and-counting stint with Salt Lake City Grateful Dead devotees Backwash. “They formed in 1978; I joined in ’92,” he says. “When I first got with ’em, they played three or four nights a week. Now, it’s just once every two or three months.”
But is it a cover band, or a tribute band?
“I don’t know—aren’t cover bands and tribute bands the same thing?”
If the Mark Wahlberg flick Rock Star taught us anything—besides the fact that men really shouldn’t wear leather pants—it’s that there’s a contentious difference between cover bands (who play everybody’s hits) and tribute bands (who stick with one artist or group). Wahlberg’s character was plucked from the obscurity of fronting a small-town copy of his favorite heavy-metal band to join the real thing, but not before emphatically informing his less-enthusiastic bandmates, “We are not a cover band, we’re a tribute band!” Say it loud, say it proud.
Danger Kitty, playing every Thursday at Liquid Joe’s, is another Hollywood import that’s more or less a tribute to all things ’80s hair-metal, and is at least as entertaining as Rock Star’s fictional Steel Dragon. But the best local tribute band working in an oddly wide-open field is Sons of Nothing. If your only live experience with legendary space-rock pioneers Pink Floyd has been through late-night laser shows and/or headphone sessions accompanied with a bong, the Sons of Nothing’s spectacular FloydShow is nothing short of a revelation.
“The great thing about doing a tribute to this particular band is that the members of Pink Floyd have always been fairly anonymous,” says bassist Thom Bowers. “Their show wasn’t ever based on ‘rock star’ personalities, so we’re not—unlike, say, 1964 or The Atomic Punks—required to ‘be’ Floyd or look like them. As long as the music and the special effects are convincing, we’re free to be ourselves onstage. We do get some pretty intense reactions from the audience, though, especially when we’re playing the older psychedelic tunes, and they’re ingesting the appropriate chemical stimulants—not that we would endorse that sort of thing.”
Despite the workload of producing semi-regular FloydShows, Sons of Nothing are adamant about recording and performing their own music, as well. Fortunately, the band’s two sides compliment one another. “We were apprehensive about it at first,” Bowers admits. “The original plan was to keep them completely separate, with different names. But we found that the more attention we get for the tribute, the more people become interested in our original music. The FloydShow has turned out to be a great advertising tool, as well as a way to raise extra cash to fund our original work.
“We’re always trying to make sure we get enough ‘popular’ tunes in the set so the casual fans will enjoy it as much as the diehards. Right now, we have nearly five hours of music under our belts. We’re just a few more tunes—and a massive theatrical budget—away from performing The Wall in its entirety.”
Whoa. Any chance of getting too wrapped up in the tribute? “There was one time we opened with ‘In the Flesh,’ and when Tim [Hollinger, guitar] came out to front the band, he had completely transformed into Bob Geldof’s ‘Pink’ character from The Wall film—quasi-SS uniform, shaved eyebrows, the works—and he really leaned into the part. No one, including the band, had any idea he was going to go that far until we actually saw him onstage.”
Older crowds expect to see a live band at the other end of the dance floor playing four sets until last call, but what’s going to happen when younger audiences who’ve grown up with DJs as acceptable—and sometimes preferred—purveyors of the hits start filtering into today’s Boomer enclaves? Will cover bands be supplanted entirely by savvy one-man operations with the latest DJ gear and a box of CDs?
“I don’t think the human approach will ever be replaced,” says Lisa Marie Wood, lead singer of SLC funk-soul outfit Lisa Marie & The Codependents. “These things come and go in cycles. Right now, we’re kind of in a down cycle for live music, it seems. There are some great DJs, but live bands won’t go away—not the good ones, anyway.”
“It boils down to the budget—it’s tough to feed a five-piece band,” Glines observes. “You get a guy who walks in and says he’ll spin some CDs for $100, it’s easy. They just plug in and they’ve got a million songs. It’s kind of tough to compete with that; they all sound great because it’s a CD. A lot of the younger crowds don’t appreciate the different styles of music or a live band working their butts off—they just want to hear ‘boom, boom, boom’ all night. We’ve lost jobs because of it. It’s a gimmick, and you can con somebody with a gimmick.”
Maybe all it takes is a replay button. The money and instant gratification they still enjoy from dance-floor crowds can’t erase the biggest bane of even the most successful cover band’s existence: performing certain songs they swear will drive them to pick up the nearest firearm or blunt object should they be forced to play them one more damned time.
“‘Play That Funky Music!’” Harris shoots back before the question mark has even settled in. “I hate that song, but the crowds love it—that one and ‘YMCA.’ I’ve decided the dumber the song, the more popular it is.”
Exactly! ‘Funky Music’ would be my vote,” agrees Craig Cleveland, singer-guitarist of the city’s most well-known cover band, the Disco Drippers. “There are times I try and get through the night without playing that song, but it’s a crowd-pleaser, as they say.”
The staggering success of the Disco Drippers, who celebrated their 10-year anniversary last Halloween, is beyond even the erudite Cleveland’s grasp—and he’s been onstage front-and-center for the entire run. The story of how the 10-piece band came together as a one-off gag and—with no promotion or even a game plan—became a club-packing sensation that’s shown little sign of fizzling, is sort of a common-knowledge legend in local music circles. It inspires a bit of “artistic” jealousy, but not as much as some believe.
“We have great original bands here; I always go out and see locals,” Cleveland says. “I never feel any animosity [from others] toward myself or my band when I’m out. In fact, they usually say, ‘Hey you guys are great,’ or ‘Thanks for coming to our show.’ It’s cool, I wear local bands’ T-shirts onstage sometimes.”
He might even be a little envious of the original bands. “I’m in-between projects of my own right now,” he says with a slight trace of disappointment. “With the Disco Drippers, a full-time job and being a single father, I just don’t have the time. It’s also hard to find the right people. I’m a big fan of Nick Cave, Tom Waits, that genre of music—that’s what I’d rather be playing, really.
“Playing my own music publicly is nerve-wracking, just putting yourself on the line. On the other hand, playing with the Disco Drippers is like acting, like being in a long-running stage production.”
Cleveland and lead guitarist Gary Turnier were there for the debut of the Disco Drippers (they don’t play strictly disco, “We only took that name because we didn’t think we were going to live past a few shows”) at the now-defunct Spanky’s Cinema Bar in 1992. The rest of the band—singers Lisa and Tamara Rogers, singer-guitarist Kenyon Christian, bassist Tosh Brown, trumpeter Josh Dickson, saxophonist Adam Leishman, percussionist Chris Snarr and drummer John “Hooter” Huettlinger—all came aboard a few gigs later. None were prepared for the frenzy that was soon to hit.
“We did three shows over as many months at Spanky’s,” Cleveland recalls. “Our first club date outside the Spanky’s circle was at the Dead Goat, and there was a line out the door all night long. I couldn’t see the back of the club, people were standing on tables and hanging from the rafters. It was one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had playing music.
“I think back then,” Cleveland continues, “there was this buzz about us that we were just this really funny, cool thing to go see. After that, we talked to the Zephyr because we figured we needed a bigger room. They wanted us to play on a Wednesday or Thursday night; we said, from what we’ve seen, if you give us a weekend you won’t be disappointed. They gave us a Friday. It was jam-packed, with a line down the block to the Chevron station. Can’t explain it. Didn’t ask for it; it was just a happy accident.”
Many a local cover band has tried to replicate the Drippers’ elusive formula; exactly none have succeeded. There are no wacky costumes à la Bootie Quake and other calculated franchise acts, no elaborate lighting nor stage effects, no corporate booze tie-ins nor giveaways, no self-promotion (still) nor anything else remotely obvious to cop from the business model. From all appearances, the Disco Drippers simply are what they are: 10 friends having a great time playing dance music with a campy wink. The only thing that’s changed over the last decade is the people on the other side of the stage monitors.
“I’ve noticed an ebb and flow of our audience,” Cleveland says. “The first couple of years, it seemed like more of the artsy, ‘cool’ community would come, people in other bands who thought we were funny. After a few years, I think that community stopped seeing the joke of it, the fact that we were just goofing off. The residual is the people who just want to party and not think about what they’re listening to.”
He relates more to the former: “Personally, when I go see live music, I don’t like to dance. I like to sit and watch the band, listen to what they’re saying and just hang out. If I weren’t in the Disco Drippers, I would maybe go see us once a year.”
Some struggling local original bands may have a beef or two with the Disco Drippers’ ongoing popularity, but it should be noted that Cleveland & Co. have shunned many an opportunity to really “sell out,” choosing to only play clubs a couple of weekends a month rather than cash in on every lucrative gig offered.
“We’ve found our niche at Liquid Joe’s,” Cleveland says matter-of-factly. “We’ve been courted by other bars, some we’ve tried, some we’ve declined because we didn’t think they were the right place for us. We also all have busy, separate lives from this band. Some of us would almost rather just play once a month, but we do Liquid Joe’s and now Port O’ Call every month, and occasionally a private function.
“We were getting offers to go to Korea at one point, just strange stuff. You start to think, what do I want to do with this band? Do I want to make it a business and be the sole proprietor? Or do I want to keep it the way it began, as just a group of friends having fun? Ultimately, that’s what we decided to do, so we formed a limited liability company. Every year we file a tax return; we have a Disco Drippers bank account, an LLC between 10 partners; everybody gets paid equally. We just set up a loose business to keep it all good.”
And any good business—even one that includes three guitarists wringing the neck of an ABBA tune, Molly Hatchet-style—hinges on the personal touch, which Cleveland happily obliges.
“I always talk to people as they’re leaving the club, thank them for coming; it’s part of what I think is good customer service,” he concludes with pride. “I like to be appreciative that people spent their money to come see us.
“We just want to have fun, not milk people for all they’ve got—after all, we’re only a cover band.”
Bill Frost plays lead guitar in his own cover band, ’70s funk specialists Money $hot, who are not above milking people for all they’ve got.