WTF Island

The 10 Greatest Tribute-Band Gimmicks of All Time

In some small way, perhaps Mac Sabbath was inevitable. Just as Black Sabbath arose from the soot of Birmingham, England, to herald the end of pop’s peace-and-love ‘60s and usher in something altogether darker and heavier, now, too, has a Black Sabbath cover band dressed as funhouse-mirror McDonaldland freaks appeared, prophesizing the doom of the Golden Age of Fast Food.

Led by the corpse-painted Ronald Osbourne, the ingenious tribute act comprises the mammoth-tusked Slayer McCheeze on guitar, the drug-addled eggplant Grimalice on bass and the Peter Criss-inspired Cat Burgler on drums. Together, they turn Sabbath classics like “Iron Man” and “War Pigs” into “Frying Pan” and “More Ribs,” and the whole thing looks and sounds equally terrifying and hilarious. They call it “drive-thru metal,” and it’s just about the greatest tribute-act gimmick that we can remember. Houston will get its first taste of the sludgy pink slime oozing out of the group’s amplifiers this Saturday at Scout Bar.

Mac Sabbath isn’t the first tribute band to hit the road with a crazy theme, of course. Hell, just last year, Macauley Culkin — of all weirdos — toured the country with Pizza Underground, a similarly fast food-obsessed group reinterpreting the songs of the Velvet Underground. Remember them? It’s OK if you don’t; No one does. And maybe Mac Sabbath will join them in the dark oblivion of obscurity someday soon. But that sort of damnation is far from certain. Quite a few insane tribute bands have carved out super-sized careers for themselves with just the right gimmick. Just ask Weird Al! Some, like Mac Sabbath, have even gotten a thumbs-up from the originals. Others, not so much.

To get you into the mood for some artery-clogging classic rock this weekend, we've assembled this guide to the ten best tribute-act gimmicks of all time. They’re all pretty great; just don’t enjoy them every day — that can’t be healthy. And remember, there’s a limit of two dipping sauces per band, please.
I believe that it was the ancient philosopher-king Jeff Foxworthy who once said, “If you enjoy both Appalachian bluegrass and AC/DC, you’re for goddamned sure a redneck.” And you’re not alone. Hayseed Dixie has played to thousands all over the world for the past 15 years by cranking out hard-rockin’ tunes like “Highway to Hell” and “Big Balls” on mandolin, banjo and fiddle. They’ve gotten pretty damn good at it, too, branching out into covers of Queen, Pink Floyd, Prince and even George Michael. You can’t tell us you wouldn’t pay good money to hear a shirtless man in overalls sing “Careless Whisper” while the guy next to him is FIDDLING.

Apocalyptica has basically been living the tribute-band dream for the past 20 years. A few Finnish guys with cellos got together to jam on some Metallica songs, and an A&R dude heard them. At first, they were hesitant to believe that anyone would want to buy a record of instrumental Metallica covers by cellists, of all things, but they elected to take the money anyway. Wise choice. Apocalyptica made such as splash that now people pay to hear them record and perform original heavy-metal songs. Since ’96, they’ve put out eight albums’ worth of cello-thrash, and they’ve worked with singers like Billie Joe Armstrong, Marilyn Manson and even Ozzy Osbourne. Sure beats trying to squirm into an orchestra gig!
There are a lot of clever band names on this list, but the Red Hot Chili Pipers may have the absolute best. Since forming in 2004, the Scottish bagpipe troupe has added guitars, keys and drums to their traditional instrumentation to arrive at what they call “bagrock”: a seamless blend of rock and, uh, bags. Pipes, too. They’ve taken a crack at their namesake band’s music, of course, but they’ve also covered songs by Deep Purple, Coldplay and even Avicii, back when he was a thing. Best of all, naturally, they do it in skirts.

One group on this list that wouldn’t be caught dead in skirts onstage is the excellent Lez Zeppelin. This quartet of New York gender-benders has toured the world with their Zeppelin act, and when it came time to record an album in 2007, they worked with producer Eddie Kramer —the same man who engineered many of your least-hated Zep classics. Clearly, these gals ain’t fucking around. Their muscular sound has put them at the forefront of an all-girl metal tribute movement that includes other such notables as AC/DShe, Vag Halen and the Iron Maidens, and you really don’t want to know what they do to teenage groupies.
Ever wish your favorite ‘90s rockers would drop the angst for five fucking minutes and just croon? Well then, friend, Richard Cheese would like to shake your hand. Since releasing his first record in 2000, which featured lounge-singer takes on tunes such as “Rape Me” and “Smack My Bitch Up,” ol’ Rick has been subverting rock and roll by aping the swingin’ sounds of Frank Sinatra’s generation. He’s happy to throw in some rap and metal into the Vegas-lounge mix, as well, just in case Radiohead was never your bag. Money, baby.

Why didn’t someone think of it sooner? You start with the beloved music of the greatest rock and roll band in history, and then combine it with the music of the Beatles. What’s not to love? Beatallica still hasn’t answered that question, ten years into their career together. They’ve toured the planet playing Beatles/Metallica mashups like “…And Justice for All My Loving” and “A Garage Dayz Night” and put out a great string of records over the years — their latest being 2013’s amazingly titled Abbey Load.

Metallica is on record as digging the group, but Sony/ATV Music Publishing — the company that owns rights to most of the Beatles’ catalogue — sent them a cease and desist letter in 2005. For once, Lars Ulrich actually used his evil litigation powers for good and had his lawyers smooth things over with Sony. Beatallica’s first full-length, Sgt. Hetfield's Motorbreath Pub Band, was released two years later.

Remember what I said about the Red Hot Chili Pipers earlier? Forget that shit. The Misfats, without a doubt, have the best and most fitting band name on this list. And yes, they are exactly what their name implies: fat guys playing strategically altered Misfits songs, in full costume. Just like their namesakes, the Misfats are rather known for their physiques, as well! A couple of them are actually a tad slimmer and better looking than an old Misfit or two I could name, but that would be cruel. A Jersey boy’s ego is such a fragile thing, after all.

Dread Zeppelin are the OGs of the gimmicky tribute-band biz. For more than 25 years, they’ve criss-crossed the globe, skanking out rastafied Zeppelin tunes with a 300-pound Elvis impersonator on the mike. Despite what “D’Yer Maker” might inevitably lead one to conclude, Led Zep translates pretty darn well to a reggae feel, and Dread does it well enough to make a fan out of even Robert Plant. “They did ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ better than we did,” he told the press, which, actually, maybe wasn’t the highest praise he could’ve given.

Sublime with Rome may have the most original gimmick in the whole list: They’ve got a bona fide original member of Sublime in the band! Not bad, right? Well, yeah, it sort of is, actually. It was kinda cute when Sublime bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh decided to reform years after the death of Sublime’s leader and sole songwriter, Bradley Nowell. Problem was, they didn’t own the name Sublime, and Nowell had been explicit in his belief that Sublime shouldn’t continue without him. So the boys found themselves a Nowell copycat named Rome Ramirez, added a preposition to their name, and hit the road.

The album that followed was so embarrassingly insulting to Sublime’s legacy that Gaugh quit. Wilson should have, too, but he didn’t — he’s still out there milking it with his Sublime cover band. Fans must have to choke down quite a bit of ganja just to breathe amid the thick cloud of cynicism surrounding Sublime with Rome.

1. MiniKISS
Known to fans around the world as “The Only KISS Cover Band That’s Better Than KISS,” MiniKISS was practically born into their gimmick. It’s a simple one: four little dudes, playing the music of KISS in full regalia. It’s gotten them quite a bit of attention, too: They even starred in a Dr Pepper Super Bowl ad with the real KISS back in 2010. After band founder passed away the following year, MiniKISS had its own lip-syncing scandal when fans were disappointed by their pantomiming at the 2013 Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. Frankly, if you’re a tribute band in any position to have a “scandal,” you’ve done pretty damn well for yourself. 
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Nathan Smith
Contact: Nathan Smith