When I moved to San Diego, I fell instantly in love with the local original-music scene. See, back in small-town Monroe, N.Y., in the early ’80s, there was only one bar that hosted bands, and it was always cheesy cover music. In contrast, the ’80s were a great time for original talent in San Diego. Thanks to artists like The Beat Farmers, Mojo Nixon, Dread Zeppelin, The Rugburns, The Paladins, The Jacks and Donkey Punch, I quickly turned into a gluttonous devotee of originals and, at the same time, a despiser of cover bands.
It pains me to say it, but for a good 20 years, I was a bona fide, card-carrying, dues-paying Original Music Snob (OMS). My hometown experiences had led me to believe that all cover music was cheesy, not realizing that A) that wasn’t true and B) cheesy music can be a crap-load of fun if you allow it to be.
It wasn’t until five years ago that I changed my mind. I was asked to judge an annual cover-music contest that Viejas produces. It’s called the Ultimate Music Challenge, and over a span of 11 weeks, 40 cover bands compete for a purse of 40,000 cash-money-liquid-wampum dollars. While judging this competition, something happened that I wasn’t expecting. I loved it! The event totally reversed my opinion of cover music.
So, while this issue of CityBeat is devoted to all the excellent original bands of San Diego (CityBeat staffers are notorious OMSs), I tip my hat to the red-headed stepchildren of the scene, and will hopefully change some minds to boot.
Ever since doing the Ultimate Music Challenge, my OMS friends have declined my invitations to witness the spectacle. When asked why, they typically responded the way I’d always responded: “Cover music is not art” and/or “There’s no talent involved.”
To the latter, I now say “Pfft!” It takes an enormous amount of talent and hard work to re-create the nuances and capture the essence of other bands. I know because I’ve seen hundreds fail trying. However the great ones, what they do—it’s a goddamn miracle.
In fact, I can make the argument that it’s more difficult to be in a cover band, because a cover band has to sound like—nay, become—another band, whereas original artists merely have to be themselves.
Is it art? Well, that depends on your definition. But here’s the thing: Why must it be art? Why can’t it just be, you know, entertaining? Must a hamburger be art in order for it to be enjoyed? This is what snobbery does to a person: It puts up a wall of superiority between us and the things we might otherwise fancy.
Ultimate Music Challenge obliterated my Great Wall of Snobbery almost instantly. I remember the first night. Of the five bands that played, three were spectacular. However, when I realized I was actually enjoying myself, the little OMS on my shoulder told me, “This is lame, dude! Get out now before you blow your street cred!” Then another little guy appeared on my other shoulder. It was OMG (Open-minded Music Guy), and OMG stuffed a rag in OMS’s mouth and said, “It don’t need to be art, ya old crank! It just needs to be great.”
Indeed, many of these bands are great (disclosure: some are friends)—bands like The Ultimate Stones, who look, sound and seem so much like the real thing that the original Stones are wondering how anybody snuck past their burglar alarms to pinch their DNA in the middle of the night.
Like Siren’s Crush—a fun-loving, talk-boxing, dance-party-pop group with some of the tightest, virtuosic musicians in the area and three sumptuous concubines taking turns on vocals, synchro-dancing their asses off, and changing in and out of a beguiling array of costumes.
Like Monsters of Rock, who play a variety of metal tunes by Maiden, Sabbath, Queensryche and others; form a wall of guitars that sound like two trains passing each other in the tunnel between here and Hades; and feature an ensorcelled singer whose high-pitched howls regularly shatter the windows in that Hell-bound train.
Like Alice and the Cooper Gang, complete with 11-foot albino python, functioning guillotine, bizarre stage props and quasi-violent stage antics such as beheading random audience members.
Like Geezer, who perform Weezer mash-ups in the character of old men. They hobble on stage with walkers, take occasional naps and gripe about their grandchildren.
Like AC/DC tribute Back 2 Black, featuring a Brian Johnson look- and sound-alike and a guitarist who channels Angus. Like Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!, who have a classically trained vocalist who sang for the San Diego and Lyric Operas yet rocks the Ramone voice at will. Like the Beatles tribute Help!, whose primary frontman is a ringer for John Lennon. Like Cash’d Out, a sickeningly masterful Johnny Cash replica. Like Three Chord Justice, who do a cover of “Jolene” that will make you weep. Like Electric Waste Band, who’ve been summoning the ghosts of the Grateful Dead since before Jerry died. Like Dazed and Confused, Clay Colton, Skynyrd’s Innyrds, Funk’s Most Wanted, Phil Diiorio, Stellita’s Groove, The Tighten ups, Firefly and 6one9.
All of these bands are still active, so I implore you, OMSs: Give cheese a chance. And when the guy on your shoulder starts talking shit, just shove a rag in his mouth and say, “Shut up, ya old crab! I’m trying to hear this.”