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After New Times ran a feature last year focusing on four of the biggest-drawing tribute bands in the Valley, their audiences grew. Even naysayers who pooh-poohed the idea of tributes (read: other musicians) found themselves wanting to form a cover band for any number of bad reasons. But there was an underlying sense that either audiences or the bands themselves would eventually tire of limited set lists and derivative stage struts, and the whole thing would peter out.
They didn't. It hasn't.
By wisely staying off the regular local grind, they've managed to maintain the novelty factor. Good word of mouth and calling-card Web sites did the rest. Far from petering out, all sorts of weird offers keep pouring in. Who'd have thought that early Van Halen tribute band Atomic Punks would play a fictional washed-up '80s hair band called Danger Kitty for a credit card commercial? Or that TNT, the Valley's own superlative AC/DC tribute band, would not only get to meet their heroes but also secure permission from AC/DC's publishing company to record AC/DC songs never before released for Yankee consumption?
Other tribute bands have been trying for years to record unreleased songs from their mentors and have had the door slammed on them. Cover bands can get permission to record any track as long as it's already been pressed and circulated. TNT found a loophole -- recording a song that was never released, pressed and circulated in this country. Getting permission was an e-mail shot in the dark that yielded a bull's eye.
Which is why we're here in Robin Wilson's Mayberry Studios in Tempe. The ex-Gin Blossom and Robbie "Lord" Watson (Cousins of the Wize, Sir Pie, Living Daylights) are producing TNT's recording of "On the Borderline," the Australian-only B-side of "Moneytalks" that was inexplicably bumped off the 1990 album The Razor's Edge in lieu of material of a lesser value.
"Normally, a recording session is fraught with tension, bands trying to nail down something that's been floating around their head for months," says Wilson. "But this is more like building a model ship inside a bottle. You're just trying to get it to look like it does on the box."
Adds Watson, "I've never had a situation before where the band has a clear path -- they knew exactly what to do. As opposed to when a band writes their material. Every band member's desires and wishes are wrapped up in a particular song, so there's some clashes. Here it's, 'Would Brian do that? No, he wouldn't.' It's been a breeze."
Four of the guys in the band have just finished laying in the last piece of the puzzle, belching out the outback-background harmonies, and are ready to hear the playback, when drummer Joe Lamia comes into the control room with a concerned scowl. For the first time today, he's refrained from addressing someone as "Booby." He's just heard something Phil Rudd would assuredly run the erase heads over.
"I can't mute the overhead cymbals without taking out the high hat," Wilson informs him. After some grimacing and fader floating, Lamia decides to drop out the drums completely for a measure and let the Angus Young chording stand alone, like it does in a million other AC/DC songs. "That's what Phil does in the background," he qualifies. It's not the first deviation "On the Borderline" has undergone.
"The original arrangement was too long," says singer Donnie Malone. "We cut it down to make it a little more immediate." It's now four minutes on the nose.
"She's an idle child of high society/Never pushed a broom yet physically/Her eyes look down on you, her nose is up/She never spills her whiskey when she fills her cup . . ."
Even out of 30-inch speakers, it takes a United Nations to decipher what the hell Brian Johnson is pushing out of his shredder on any given song, but Malone spells out that the lassie of this lyric "is living with a sugar daddy and likes the high life."
"When Brian does the pterodactyl screech, it's crotch rock," he continues. "You just grab your crotch and go for it. Bon's a little easier because it's closer to my real singing voice. When I do Brian, it's coming from the throat, while Bon's from the diaphragm."
When TNT was invited by AC/DC's road crew to meet the band backstage after its last America West Arena show, Malone and Brian Johnson had a Lucy-meets-Harpo Marx-in-the-mirror moment, with Johnson hugging Malone and quipping in his bastard English-Scottish accent, "You look like me bleeding brother."
Malone moved from Australia to the States at an early age and claims, "I learned how to speak American by getting my ass kicked." Being a kindred spirit to Johnson entailed more than a similar taste in black tee shirts and hats. Nods Lamia, "They even hold their beers the same way! It's like they haven't seen each other in 20 years. He said, 'If you guys aren't the shit, I'm gonna kick your asses.'"
Sadly, TNT's Angus doppelgänger Sal Cartagine didn't get a private audience with the man in short pants but seems well-adjusted about it. Maybe it's harder for the real Angus to snap out of character after being mum onstage for two hours. Similarly, Cartagine's Angus never speaks during TNT shows because "it helps the audience buy into the whole thing."
With no verbal bantering to the audience allowed, Cartagine relies on old-fashioned methods of winning friends like duckwalking and facial expressions.
"If someone's not into it, I smile and try to bring them in," he says. "Or I'll jump off the stage. If I'm still not getting through, that's when I start taking off my clothes. Make sure they're involved. I've never seen a musician with his arm folded that doesn't go ooh and aah by the end of the show."
"Tribute bands get a bad rap, almost like used cars," injects Lamia. "The reason is a lot of the bands just get up and play and don't get into character. With the exception of one guy getting into character and the rest of the guys just standing there. I think if you're gonna do this thing, you should do it all the way so you get the respect. We get two different kinds of respect. One is, 'You guys are unbelievable. I feel like I just saw AC/DC,' and the other is somebody saying, 'Stop trying to be somebody you're not.' And I take that as a compliment because we made a big enough impact on that guy or woman for them to say you're going too far. If we just sucked, they could just walk out the door, but if they've got to come to my face, I've damaged their temple of worship."
"Stop trying to be someone you're not" is the major gripe of the infrequent anti-TNT e-mail the band receives. "We keep all our derogatory e-mail," Lamia says. "That's what AC/DC would do. Some people don't quite understand what tribute bands are."
What's rubbing some people the wrong way? The fact that TNT's CD single of "On the Borderline" is being racked with the real AC/DC CDs in Tower Records, Wherehouse and Zia? Well, various-artist tribute CDs get the same royal treatment and they sound nothing like the band they're supposed to honor. Since TNT is hardly making any money on it and is actually paying AC/DC royalties, that's still paying homage.
But what will the reaction be if the band goes forth with a plan of doing an album with four more unreleased-in-the-U.S. AC/DC cuts and some originals done in the style of AC/DC? Or that a director wants to make a documentary on rock stars that expired before their prime and has asked them to write an original tune that sounds like Bon Scott-era AC/DC? Is this some guy that wants to circumvent paying a higher royalty rate to the real band? Are any of these bandied-about ideas pushing a TNT agenda instead of paying straight homage?
Lamia brings up an even tougher question: "How do you play your own original material and dress like AC/DC? Either you do it with the stuff or without it. I say, you do it with the costumes. It's like KISS; it was always better with the costumes. It's a tough decision to make. We're just letting this thing take its own course and go in whatever direction it wants to go and not do it if it feels cheesy. We've been asked to appear on tribute-band compilations and refused every time because it didn't feel right. Everything we're gonna do is low-risk because we've all got families; we can't be screwing around.
"We do two to four shows a month. We try to make sure every month we're breaking ground in a new market. What I did was took AC/DC's old tour roster and said, 'They didn't go here, they didn't go here, they didn't go here and they didn't go here. Let's call these places.' San Antonio. Salt Lake. Boise. El Paso. Albuquerque. Tribute bands seem to do well outside the main cities."
Recently, the band incited a near riot worthy of the real deal when fans knocked over the barricades to get to the stage three times. The AC/DC-starved locale? Tucson, Arizona, where TNT played with Atomic Punks in a Monsters of Tribute Band Rock show at Kennedy Park, sponsored by KLPX. Another similar show is being planned closer to home at Cliff Castle Casino, possibly next month. Aping AC/DC will take TNT to Puerto Rico for five days and the Virgin Islands, places AC/DC never played.
Next summer: Japan, which will not be on AC/DC's itinerary anytime soon. Angus is 45. Phil Rudd is 46. Cliff Williams is 54 and Brian Johnson has rejoined his pre-AC/DC band Geordie -- who knows how long his larynx can stand the punishment of singing "What Do You Do for Money Honey" night after night?
Although AC/DC won't be able to retire on the royalties TNT will pay them, they certainly don't need the money. But it must be comforting to know that someone is spreading the word about AC/DC in uncharted territories while they needn't lift a finger. When Brian Johnson quipped, "There are some singers in these tribute bands so good I wanna kill them," Donnie Malone had to be at the top of his hit list.
Says Cartagine, "Last time out they kept being asked, 'Is this the last time?' They never answer the question. You may have to go to England or Australia for the chance to see them again."
As for the TNT single, which has sold 1,000 copies and is already being reordered, co-producer Robbie Watson sent off a copy to a friend at Universal Music, who played "On the Borderline" to a few people.
"They said, 'This is fuckin' great, but would AC/DC fans buy something that's not the real thing?' That was their question. I have no doubt about 'On the Borderline' being a hit record, but there's a Catch-22 on the marketing side of it. They're also worried that it would be taken as an AC/DC record on radio and then you'd get a problem."