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Tribute bands becoming big business Bjorn Again, Queen Forever, Ziggy Unzipped & more

Sydney is enjoying a plethora of tribute acts at the moment from Abba, Queen, Elton, Bowie to the older Etta James, Leonard Cohen and John Lennon.

One of the greatest roads to success for the tribute band is the demise of the original. Once the original band no longer tours, or has lost its key members or has become too old, the tribute band comes into its own – bringing the beloved music to the fans who otherwise wouldn’t see it performed live by people who truly love the bands they are paying tribute to.

Bjorn Again, one of the world’s best-known tribute bands, was a business franchise that started in 1989.  They have just celebrated 30 years of performing – which is about three times more than the original band who stopped touring in 1980, having only performed concerts in Australia, America and Japan once each.

Abba’s first launch to the world was at Eurovision in 1974. The following year they were picked up by Countdown’s Molly Meldrum who played their songs on his show. This resulted in Abba winning a loyal fan base in Australia – their biggest per capita – and becoming one of the first destinations out of Scandinavia they toured in.  The band comprised two couples and the touring was particularly hard for the women, who preferred to stay in Sweden and look after their families.

Just over a decade later, Australia launched Bjorn Again to fill the gap that the band had left. From the start, they were popular – so much so that the original band which predominantly played Australia was asked to tour. There are now three Bjorn Agains touring around the world. One in Australia and Asia, one in North America and the other in Europe. Abba endorsed them and they became such a sensation that they sold out nights at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Manager John Tyrrell says “We gave audiences all that they wanted from an Abba concert but which Abba was not in a position to give them by that stage.”

Bjorn Again sold out the State Theatre in June for their 30th-anniversary tour. The audience was varied in age – from the 50-something women who experienced Abba in their youth to their children who had clearly been brought up on mum’s music, with those who had picked them up in between thrown it. It proved to be a riotous crowd.

I was a little too young for the real band but when Bjorn Again launched I remember running onto the stage at St. George Leagues Club to kiss ‘Benny’ during “When I Kissed The Teacher” sometime in the 90s. For me, as with many of the fans, the attraction of Bjorn Again was that they were the closest thing to Abba I would have the opportunity to experience. They played the old favourites, they camped it up a bit and they had the musical talent and voices to be worthy of the original band.

At the recent State gig, Bjorn Again was supported by the exceptionally entertaining Elton Jack – who has seen his star rise somewhat with the release of the successful Rocketman film about the life of Elton John. However, Elton Jack (aka Lance Strauss) says he expects to become busier once Elton John stops touring early next year. He says he has a few years left before he’s Elton’s age and would probably want to retire himself. Strauss first appeared as Elton on Hey Hey It’s Saturday’s Red Faces in 1987, singing “Benny and the Jets”.

Queen Forever, is another tribute band managed by Tyrrell. Lead singer Gareth Hill has been a huge Freddie Mercury fan since he was a teenager and the opportunity to become his idol onstage has driven him into the tribute arena since 2006.

Since the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody reignited a love for the band’s music – Queen Forever has been touring both nationally and internationally, appearing as far afield as the Rugby Sevens in Hong Kong. The band has a similar camp humour to Bjorn Again and is popular with all ages, men and women.

And there are solo acts such as Jeff Duff who are also active in the tribute space. Duffo has been performing is Ziggy Unzipped show since 2010 and recently performed a three-handed tribute to Bowie with fellow Bowie aficionados Steve Balbi and Iota at Sydney Opera House.

Other great tribute artists seen in Sydney are John Waters, (Through a Glass Onion – his tribute to John Lennon), Stewart D’Arrietta (My Leonard Cohen and a Tom Waits show), and Vika Bull (At Last, in honour of Etta James). Australia seems that have the market tied up with quality tribute acts, with the likes of the Australian Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones Shows doing strong business in the UK.