Because it's the beginning of a new year, there are few new albums being released -- most record labels generally try to unload their product by Christmas and then don't gear up again until spring. That makes it the perfect time to put out random odds and ends, notably "tribute" albums. The tribute tradition is a long one, stretching back to the '60s, when the Byrds paid homage to Bob Dylan with their debut, 1965's Mr. Tambourine Man. By the '80s, the concept of the tribute album had come to fruition with the Imaginary Records series that honored artists such as the Kinks, the Byrds, and Jimi Hendrix. By the early '90s, tribute records were coming fast and furious, and some, notably 1990's Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, set the template for future releases, as cutting-edge acts such as Primal Scream, Bongwater, and the Butthole Surfers covered songs by Roky Erickson, a great Texan singer-songwriter whose mental instability has undoubtedly contributed to his virtual anonymity.
Many tribute records are justified. The influence of a band like, say, Joy Division, is far-reaching, affecting electronic, punk, and alternative rock music. Now out of print, Means to an End: The Music of Joy Division (1995) displayed the range of the band's appeal, as acts such as Moby, Face to Face, and Girls Against Boys all made worthwhile contributions. Likewise, tributes to dobro guitarist Rainer Ptacek (1997's The Inner Flame) and even Cleveland's Pere Ubu (honored with 1996's obscure, two-disc Ubu Dance Party, which features renditions of Ubu songs by Cleveland acts such as Cobra Verde, Quazi Modo, and Gem) functioned to give credit where credit was due.
But tributes to some of rock's biggest artists have resulted in disasters: Hootie and the Blowfish do a disservice to "Hey Hey What Can I Do" on 1995's Encomium: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin, Train butchers "Light My Fire" on last year's horrendous Stoned Immaculate: The Music of the Doors, and Blues Traveler dishonors "Imagine" on 1995's Working Class Hero: A Tribute to John Lennon.
Cleopatra Records, an L.A.-based indie label, is particularly guilty of lowering the standards. Cleopatra has a history of doing this: It jumped on the tribute album bandwagon a couple of years ago, providing a platform for the shoddy Goth and industrial acts on its label. This month alone, Cleopatra and its subsidiary Deadline have issued tributes to Metallica, the Smashing Pumpkins, Judas Priest, Frontline Assembly, and Nirvana. And next month, it has plans for tributes to Nine Inch Nails, Ted Nugent, Mike Oldfield, and U.F.O., each album more repulsive than the previous.
"We have a working rapport with the bands who appear on these tributes, and/or they are in-house acts [already signed to the label]," explains Cleopatra publicist Ali O. in an e-mail. "The owner, Brian Perera, approaches and approves every act/musician who wants to submit their chosen track. Regarding who gets tributed: This is the really cool part. If someone at the label has a unique idea for a tribute, we run it up the flagpole, kick around ideas, and, if it looks good, we do it. The Cure tribute came to fruition because our royalty administrator worships the Cure. Our Pumpkins tribute came around because our computer tech guy here loves Smashing Pumpkins. In a sense, everyone here participates with the tributes in some way, shape, or form, whether it be who gets tributed, what the artwork looks like, and which bands should partake in the project."
With input from so many different sources, Cleopatra obviously has a problem with quality control. An Industrial Rock Tribute to Judas Priest, for example, features remixes of Priest songs with a variety of different singers taking lead vocal duties. Warrant's Jani Lane sings a straightforward version of "Hellion -- Electric Eye," and Ratt singer Jizzy Pearl snarls his way through "Turbo Lover," but neither captures Priest singer Rob Halford's menacing style. And giving Priest songs an industrial bent isn't a good idea, either -- the canned drumbeats and synthetic loops ruin the organic nature of the original music. A Gothic-Industrial Tribute to Smashing Pumpkins sticks to the industrial theme and features complete reworkings of songs such as "Disarm," "Cherub Rock," and "1979." Even if you find Pumpkin Billy Corgan's nasal voice annoying, these half-assed renditions of the songs are enough to make you crave the originals. A Tribute to Nine Inch Nails: Recovered in Nails 2.001 (yes, it's the follow-up to a volume 1) displays how easily Trent Reznor's rage is duplicated, as KMFDM's Guenter Schulz and En Esch's version of "Terrible Lie" and the Electric Hellfire Club's rendition of "Heresy" don't differ much from the originals.
A forthcoming tribute to the Circle Jerks that features Cleveland's Cobra Verde and a host of other acts, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Queens of the Stone Age, and Superchunk, bodes well. But for the most part, you can bet that a tribute record these days won't be worthwhile. A search on Amazon.com for tribute albums reveals some 833 releases, including homages to undeserving artists such as Britney Spears, 'N Sync, Ricky Martin, and the Backstreet Boys -- all of which suggest the idea of paying tribute has devolved into a meaningless, exploitive, and opportunistic endeavor designed to manipulate the gullible record-buying public.