To a certain kind of L.A. music fan, they are the “Holy Trinity” of bands: Depeche Mode, The Cure and The Smiths. If you grew up here in the ’80s, you heard them on KROQ every day and traded their tracks with fellow fans via cassettes and mixtapes. And this Friday, all three bands will be performing together. OK, not really — but it might feel that way.
The annual ’80s Holiday Hangover show, once held at the now-shuttered House of Blues Sunset and now making its debut at the Saban in Beverly Hills, is a showcase for ’80s-era tribute bands — those acts built around playing the songs of a single artist, often with such visual and sonic devotion to the original that it feels like you're watching the real thing. Friday's lineup will feature Strangelove, a Depeche Mode tribute; The Cured, whose source band you probably can figure out; Smiths/Morrissey tribute These Handsome Devils; and Electric Duke, a tribute to the late, great David Bowie — because, as Electric Duke's Bowie-channeling frontman Julian Shah-Tayler puts it, “He’s the spiritual godfather of those three bands.”
The company behind the ’80s Holiday Hangover is Music Zirconia, a San Diego–based agency that manages, books and packages tributes. When I interviewed the company's co-founder Brent Meyer earlier this year for a feature on tribute bands, Music Zirconia had a database of around 1,300 bands; today, Meyer says that number is closer to 1,500. The tribute phenomenon was once most popular on the coasts, Meyer says, but “there’s this growing proliferation of local and regional tributes in any densely populated area in the States now.” With that in mind, he recently moved to Austin to set up a second Music Zirconia office there, hoping to form stronger relationships with the best tributes in Texas, the South and Midwest, as well as create more opportunities for his existing tribute acts to book national tours.
In places like Texas, the mentality among local talent buyers can be, “Why should we bring in your caviar Beatles when we’ve got our local Big Mac Beatles?” Meyer admits. “So sometimes that works to my detriment.”
Here in L.A., however, the tribute scene remains as active as ever — and Meyer sees it beginning to shift away from the classic-rock acts that were once its lifeblood (think Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Heart, Black Sabbath) to ’80s, ’90s and even contemporary artists. Some of the most successful acts on Music Zirconia's roster, he says, are tributes to Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars and Linkin Park (the latter of which, sadly, saw a bump in demand following the death of Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington). They even book a Daft Punk tribute, One More Time, that he says is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. “They replicated the giant LED wall pyramid [at the same] scale.”
For ’80s Holiday Hangover, Meyer is not only the booker but also the talent. In Strangelove, he plays “Counterfeit Martin,” the Martin Gore stand-in. Shah-Tayler, pulling double duty, is also in Strangelove as “Oscar Wilder,” occupying the role Alan Wilder played until he left Depeche in 1995. Meyer's partner and co-founder in Music Zirconia, Michael Twombly, plays Robert Smith in The Cured.
Though neither is originally from Los Angeles (Shah-Tayler is British; Meyer grew up in Dallas), the Strangelove bandmates share L.A.'s deep affinity for the “Holy Trinity” of moody British bands who served as a kind melancholy antidote to the sun-bleached, pastel-colored image of Southern California in the 1980s — a much-mythologized hedonist's paradise where everybody partied by the pool to a hair-metal soundtrack. “That’s a very glib appraisal of L.A., isn’t it?” says Shah-Tayler, who's lived in L.A. for more than a decade. “Whereas I think there’s a very thoughtful [population here] that appreciates The Cure and The Smiths and Depeche Mode.”
Meyer describes Depeche as a “closeted, guilty pleasure” in 1980s Texas. “In my high school, it was Def Leppard, Journey, AC/DC. The kids who listened to my music got beat up by the kids who listened to that music,” he notes with a laugh.
What drew him to Depeche Mode's music then is what he still connects with in Strangelove to this day. “It was so unabashedly vulnerable and earnest and emotional and romantic,” he says.
While Strangelove, The Cured and These Handsome Devils all stick largely to faithful re-creations of their source bands’ classic material, Shah-Tayler's Electric Duke takes a more novel approach, recasting Bowie's music in mostly electronic, synth pop–inspired arrangements. “I did a couple of workshop shows where I was worried people would hate it and say, ‘Why have you messed around with Bowie’s genius?’” says Shah-Tayler, who also works as a producer and fronts both a more traditional full-band Bowie tribute, The Band That Fell to Earth, and his own original project, The Singularity. “But actually people really love it.”
Shah-Tayler says he sees the tribute band phenomenon only continuing to grow because when it comes to original rock and pop artists, “The good ones have all died,” as he bluntly puts it. “We’re not replacing Prince and we’re not replacing David Bowie. If [fans] want to get that diversity and range which the people from [back in] the day used to have, they have to go and see tributes.”
He points to recent Bowie-themed tours by the Thin White Duke's own collaborators and sidemen, including Mike Garson, Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey, as “big news in the tribute world” and an indication that the tribute concept is being seen less as a novelty and more as a legitimate way of preserving the legacy of great artists. Meyer echoes this, noting that some of Music Zirconia's acts now might include musicians who once played with the original artist. He recently put together a George Michael tribute featuring former Wham! bassist Deon Estus, and notes that with their Elton John tribute, “For an extra fee, you can bring in Elton John’s original producer/co-writer/guitarist Caleb Quaye. So the lines blur further.”
While there won't be any current or former members of Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Smiths or Bowie's old bands onstage at the Saban on Friday, one former Depeche member will be there in spirit. “Back in the day,” says Shah-Tayler, Alan Wilder gave Strangelove all his original Depeche Mode samples. “I have all the 'uhn-uhn-uhn!' from 'People Are People,'” he says, mimicking the stabbing synths that punctuate the chorus of one of Depeche's earliest U.S. hits. “I'm playing the original samples. It's pretty cool. They don't even have them in Depeche Mode now.”
The 10th annual ’80s Holiday Hangover with Strangelove, The Cured, These Handsome Devils and Electric Duke takes place at the Saban on Friday, Dec. 1.