These Aren't The Rock Hall Inductees You're Looking For

Apr 10, 2014
Originally published on April 10, 2014 11:32 am

The guitarist's face is painted white, save for some red lipstick and a big black star around his right eye. A hulking bass player dressed in armor and kabuki makeup stalks the stage behind him in 6-inch platform boots. A shouted challenge from the guitarist — "Is everybody ready for a rock and roll party!?" — is answered by a roar from the crowd, and the musicians break into a rousing rendition of "Deuce."

The band responsible for that song, KISS, is among those to be honored in tonight's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. I'm watching a different band: the KISS tribute act Mr. Speed, playing to a packed club in suburban Cleveland.

Fifty-year-old Rich Kosak, who plays the part of vocalist Paul Stanley, claims to have seen KISS 52 times since the late 1970s. He says he grew up with an older brother who was into the heavier sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Yes.

"When I saw this, I thought, 'Well, I don't like all that stuff that you have to think about so much,' " Kosak says. "I like this stuff that just makes me feel real good. We're fans, just like the people that come to see us, the people that go to see KISS. We're really passionate about what it is that we do."

Howard Parr, for one, is impressed with the effort Mr. Speed has put into its look and sound. As executive director of the Akron Civic Theater, Parr says he's seen the number of such performers explode in recent years — from the occasional Elvis imitators to a mini-industry of tribute bands. Many of them play what commercial radio now calls "classic rock," music from the 1970s and '80s. The trend has even hit concert halls.

"There are tribute packages that are being sold to symphony orchestras, for example," Parr says. "A John Denver tribute show was recently done by the Akron Symphony, where the Akron Symphony performed with this guy doing John Denver songs."

Every single one of this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees has its imitators. Majickat is among the Cat Stevens tribute acts. Hall & Oates have inspired the likes of Maneater and HmfO. For Linda Ronstadt, your choices include Different Drum, Just One Look and Heart Like a Wheel.

The members of Bleach — named after Nirvana's debut album — are a bunch of working-class Akron guys who channel the band's spirit on weekends. Bass player Nathan White joined Bleach after seeing them thrash though a set at a local club.

"It was inspiring, in a way, because that was the kind of dream I wanted to have — to be in a band with that much power," White says.

While some critics might dismiss tribute bands as musicians who aren't talented enough to do original material, UCLA music scholar Mitchell Morris says the ones he's seen tap into something deeper.

"I think it's a really basic human desire," he says. "You're playing. You're creating fiction. It's really the performance version of telling a story."

Though it has received the tribute treatment many times over, KISS is still touring. The real Paul Stanley says he can relate to the passion of emulating your musical heroes: "The adage 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' comes to mind," Stanley says.

But what happens when that's not totally clear? The Akron Civic Theatre's Howard Parr suggests, based on some experiences at the theater, that some fans may not know the difference.

"It happens all the time that we have people that want to get backstage on the tribute band shows," Parr says. "And you're like, 'Do you not realize that that's not Jon Bon Jovi?' And, you know, they don't."

Then, we've got a problem — especially when money is involved. "If it's done with the right heart, and as a fan, I appreciate it," Paul Stanley says. "When it becomes business, then it's time for us to talk about it."

In a new memoir, Stanley acknowledges that 40 years on the road are starting to take their toll on him physically, and he can see himself eventually stepping aside and letting someone else take over his KISS character. Rich Kosak of Mr. Speed, who will head to Los Angeles later this month to perform on the cable series The World's Greatest Tribute Bands, has been practicing.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This year's inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will be honored in Brooklyn tonight. It is quite a list: Cat Stevens, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, Nirvana, KISS and the E Street Band. With the exception of Nirvana, this year's inductees all came to prominence during the 1970s, and even those Seattle grunge-rockers traced some of their influences to '70s music.

That era of classic rock has inspired countless tribute bands. You can find them performing in bars and clubs across the country with a lot of passion. Here's David C. Barnett, from member station WCPN.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCERT)

RICH KOSAK: Is everybody here ready for a rock 'n' roll party?

(CHEERS FROM AUDIENCE)

DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: The guitarist's face is painted white, except for some red lipstick and a big, black star around his right eye. A hulking bass player, dressed in armor and kabuki make-up, stalks the stage behind him in 6-inch platform boots, as the musicians break into a KISS classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BARNETT: This is the Cleveland-based KISS tribute band, Mr. Speed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BARNETT: Fifty-year-old Rich Kosak plays the part of vocalist Paul Stanley, and claims to have seen KISS 52 times since the late 1970s. Kosak grew up with an older brother who was into the heavier sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Yes.

KOSAK: I thought: Well, I don't like all that stuff that you have to think about so much. I like this stuff that just makes me feel really good. We're fans just like the people that come to see us, the people that go to see KISS. We're really passionate about what it is that we do.

HOWARD PARR: They've certainly invested to make their show look good.

BARNETT: Howard Parr is impressed with the effort that the band has put into its look and sound. As executive director of the Akron Civic Theatre, Parr says he's seen the number of such performers explode in recent years, from the occasional Elvis imitators to a mini-industry of tribute bands. Many of them play what commercial radio now calls classic rock - music from the '70s and '80s. The trend has even hit concert halls.

PARR: There are tribute packages that are being sold to symphony orchestras, for example. So a John Denver tribute show was recently done by the Akron Symphony, where the symphony performed with this guy doing John Denver songs.

BARNETT: Every one of this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees has its imitators. Majickat is among the Cat Stevens tribute acts. Hall & Oates have inspired the likes of Maneater and HMFO. And for Linda Ronstadt, your choices include Different Drum, Just One Look and Heart Like a Wheel.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR RIFF, APPLAUSE)

BARNETT: Bleach pays homage to Nirvana, a group that 35-year-old guitarist Greg Polovick first saw on MTV in videos like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME AS YOU ARE")

GREG POLOVICK: As a teenager, I hated life. I hated everything about everything. And it was just like the perfect music to listen to, to say screw authority - screw everybody.

BARNETT: The members of Bleach, named after Nirvana's debut album, are a bunch of working class Akron guys who channel the band's spirit on weekends. Bass player Nathan White joined Bleach after seeing them thrash though a set at a local club.

NATHAN WHITE: It was inspiring, in a way, 'cause like - I mean, that's the kind of dream I wanted to have, was to be like, in a band with that much power.

BARNETT: While some critics may dismiss tribute bands as musicians who aren't talented enough to do original material, UCLA music scholar Mitchell Morris says the ones that he's seen tap into something deeper.

MITCHELL MORRIS: I think it's actually a kind of basic human desire. You're playing. You're creating fiction. It's really the performance version of telling a story.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCERT)

KOSAK: How are we doing so far?

(CHEERS FROM AUDIENCE)

BARNETT: Mr. Speed, the KISS tribute band, played to a packed club in suburban Cleveland this past weekend. They'll take the act to LA on the 21st, to play at a World's Greatest Tribute Band event.

KISS co-founder Paul Stanley says he can relate to the passion of emulating your musical heroes.

PAUL STANLEY: The old adage of imitation is the sincerest form of flattery comes to mind.

BARNETT: But what happens when that's not totally clear? The Akron Civic Theatre's Howard Parr suggests that some fans may not know the difference.

PARR: I mean, it happens all the time that we get people that want to get backstage on the tribute band shows. And you're just like, do you not realize that that's not Jon Bon Jovi? You know?

(LAUGHTER)

PARR: And, you know, they don't.

BARNETT: Then we've got a problem - especially when money is involved, says Paul Stanley.

STANLEY: If it's done with the right heart and as a fan, I appreciate it. When it becomes business, then it's time for us to talk about it.

BARNETT: In a new memoir, Stanley acknowledges that 40 years on the road are starting to take their toll on him physically, and he can see himself eventually stepping aside and letting someone else take over his KISS character. Rich Kosak, of Mr. Speed, has been practicing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCERT)

KOSAK: Rock 'n' roll!

BARNETT: For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCERT) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.