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The Ultimate Superfans: Tribute Bands That Really Rock

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They're called phonies, posers, and knock-offs. But the hard-working fans in tribute bands deserve a little respect. Maybe after reading these tales of "fake" rockers who really rock, you just might change your tune.

Dude Looks Like a Lady

Just like a "real" band, a tribute act has to stand out from the crowd by offering the audience something unexpected. One popular novelty is a band made up of members of the opposite gender. For example, AC/DShe is an all-female version of AC/DC. Other hit all-female acts include, The Romonas (The Ramones), The Iron Maidens (Iron Maiden), and West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys). For some, the gender-bending twist allows the audience to overlook the band's lack of musical skill. But for others, they have nothing to hide.

Since forming in 2004, Lez Zeppelin, an all-female tribute to Led Zeppelin, has become one of the most respected tribute acts playing today.

They've played all over America and Europe to standing room only crowds, and to thousands of fans at outdoor festivals like Bonnaroo. They've been featured on MTV, VH1, CNN, and even graced the cover of SPIN. Pop culture philosopher Chuck Klosterman has said their "replication of these songs is 80 percent flawless and 99 percent awesome." He goes on to say they might be the most powerful all-female band in rock history. To further solidify their reputation as the real deal, the ladies released a self-titled debut album in 2007 under the guidance of Eddie Kramer, a legendary producer who has made albums with Jimi Hendrix, KISS, and five records with the real Led Zeppelin. Not bad for a knock-off band. Here they are in action:

But girls aren't the only ones who just wanna have fun. Rad Bromance, an all-male Lady Gaga tribute band with a rock n' roll slant, has been winning audiences over with their musicality and party-like stage show since they formed in December 2009. Although most acts' meat and potato gigs are at local bars, the members of this group couldn't get through the door; some of them can't even drive yet. The five young men, between the ages of 15 and 18, met while performing as part of The Paul Green School of Rock All-Stars, a hand-picked group of teenage musicians who tour the U.S. playing classic rock at festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. With their unique, tongue-in-cheek take on Gaga, the self-managed group is already selling out small venues and moving up to bigger shows across the east coast in 2011. Here's the band's version of "Poker Face":

Little People, Big Performers

If you watched Super Bowl XLIV this year, you probably remember rockers KISS playing alongside smaller versions of themselves in a Dr Pepper commercial. That little person band was Mini KISS, a groundbreaking act that's been around a lot longer than most people think.

According to founding member Joey Fatale, Mini KISS started in 1996. The inspiration came to Joey as he was packing up his apartment to move and came across his old KISS albums. Now, 14 years and over 20 band members later, Mini KISS is hotter than ever, appearing in the ad with KISS, as well as a playing a packed schedule, hitting music festivals, halftime shows, and private events across the country.


But like any great band, Mini KISS has had their personality struggles within the group. When the original drummer, Tim Loomis, was fired from the act, he started his own KISS tribute band in 2006, Tiny KISS. Of course this angered Fatale, who claimed Loomis stole his idea and the two groups have been embroiled in a feud ever since. Now, fours years later, Tiny KISS plays a regular gig as part of Beacher's Madhouse at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, one of the most popular shows in Las Vegas.

With both bands enjoying plenty of success, it appears the world is big enough for two little KISS bands. And there's still room for other little people groups, such as singer Terra Jole, who performs as both Mini Britney Spears and Mini Lady Gaga, The Black-Eyed Pee Wees, and the Little Legends show, which was a huge hit on the Vegas Strip a few years ago.

Keepin' It Real

For some, being in a tribute band is little more than a good gig until something better comes along. But for others, it becomes a way of life. And for a very select few, a tribute band can lead to the best gig of all - fame and fortune. Either way, the experience can forever change the lives of those who truly love the music they play.

In the UK, one tribute act's on-stage persona is so important to them that it has become their new identity. Joliet Jake Blues and Elwood Jake Blues, the stars of their own continuously-touring Blues Brothers tribute show, had their names legally changed to match the characters they emulate from the 1980 classic film. Their new names appear on their driver's license, as well as their passports, and they even got permission to leave their sunglasses on for their photo IDs, claiming the glasses were a "permanent fixture" on their faces. When their passports recently came up for renewal, they were told that new regulations will force them to take off their shades for their next photos. Although the duo are appealing on religious grounds as they believe they are "on a mission from God."


When lead singer Rob Halford left the pioneering heavy metal band Judas Priest in 1991, fans were devastated. Looking to pay homage to his favorite group, Tim Owens helped form a Priest tribute act, British Steel, a few years later. The band played with moderate success, but not enough for Owens to quit his day job as an office supply salesman. Then, in 1996, word came that the remaining members of Priest were looking to get back into the studio, so their search for a new lead singer began. A couple of fans sent them a grainy videotape of British Steel performing in a local bar and, the next thing you know, Tim Owens had become "Ripper Owens," lead singer of Judas Priest. Over the next few years he recorded four albums with his new bandmates, but then Halford returned in 2003, and Owens moved on. If this all sounds familiar, then perhaps you saw the 2001 film Rock Star with Mark Wahlberg, which is loosely based on Rippers' story.

While Ripper Owens' situation might be unusual, it's not entirely unique. For example, Tommy Thayer replaced original "Spaceman" Ace Frehley of KISS in 2002 when Frehley decided to leave the group. Before that, Thayer had played the part of Frehley in a KISS cover band called, Cold Gin. Benoit David was the lead singer of a Yes tribute band when Jon Anderson, lead singer of the real Yes, fell ill. After the group saw footage of David performing, they asked him to come on tour until Anderson could return. As Anderson's health has continued to decline, Yes has made David a permanent part of the band. They'll soon be recording their first album together.

Fight for Your Right to Party

Unfortunately, not all artists believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In April 2009, Bon Jovi's lawyers sent a letter to the all-female members of Blonde Jovi, demanding they change their name to avoid confusion with the real band. Rather than fight the power, the ladies changed their name to Blonde Jersey. However, the name change killed their momentum in the club scene and they disbanded shortly after.

Thankfully, Beatallica, a band who plays Beatles tunes in the style of heavy metal legends Metallica, had an unexpected guardian angel when Sony Records, the copyright owners of much of the Beatles' catalog, came a-knocking. Lars Ulrich, drummer for Napster-suing Metallica, came to the aid of the tribute band, even asking his band's lawyers to help mediate an agreement. Beatallica was allowed to stay intact and Sony lightened up once Ulrich convinced them that the small-time group was using the songs as parody, so fair use laws applied. Have a listen:

There are at least 40 known bands who pay tribute to ABBA, but if Universal Records had their way, that number wouldn't be so high. In June 2010, Universal threatened legal action against 15 tribute bands for sticking too closely to their Swedish roots. Groups like Abba Mania, AbbaDabbaDoo, and Abba Queens will have to change their name or close up shop to avoid confusion with the original pop act.

If it's not the original group suing a tribute act, it's a tribute act suing another tribute act. Just last week, Beatles tribute band The Fab Four sued Beatles tribute band The Fab 4 in federal court, claiming the numbered group was trying to leech off the reputation of the Four's 14-year career. The suit claims that ticket buyers could be confused, thinking they're buying tickets to The Fab Four, when in fact they're buying tickets to The Fab 4. You know, on second thought, this is getting a little confusing...
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If you were to start a tribute band, what group would be your inspiration? Ever been to a really great tribute show? Tell us all about it in the comments below.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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