LONDON, ONTARIO – When Elvis Presley died in 1977 at the age of 42, sitting on a Graceland toilet in dyspeptic agony after ingesting one too many deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, his imitators all of a sudden went from occasional, freakish novelty acts to entertainment mainstays. With the great original prototype dead and buried, pretending to be Elvis (if you did it well enough) could be the making of a fairly lucrative performing career. It would, however, be a career that came with a soul-threatening, Faustian catch.
Yes, you would appear before adoring crowds, the centre of attraction and adulation, yet paradoxically, none of that attention would actually be aimed at you. If you set out to improve or put your own distinctive stamp on any song in the beloved repertoire, your audience would feel betrayed because you weren’t doing it like Elvis. And heaven forfend if you dropped the camouflage for a minute and wrote a song of your own or put out a record under your own name. Nobody would want to hear it. I mean, other than Not-Really-Elvis, who do you think you are? Simultaneously you were top of the bill and a complete nonentity.
Once the King had passed on, I remember looking down with an undeniable dash of condescension at all his stranded fans who suddenly had nothing more to look forward to except catching an occasional pseudo-Elvis at the local arena or forking over their hard earned dollars for the latest RCA / Camden reissue of previously released material. What a shame, I thought, that they couldn’t cultivate an enthusiasm for the richness of the contemporary music scene in which I was so happily immersed at the time; a scene so prodigious and multifaceted that I knew I’d never be deserted like those sad old geezers without new music to love.
Well, my smug former self tagged along with me and the wife three years ago to the cordoned-off RBC Theatre of the John Labatt Centre (sorry, it’s an insipid Yankee brew; I will never call that place the Bud) to catch a performance by (ahem) Brit Floyd. And I must say the holier-than-thou turd couldn’t have been less pleasant company. Repeatedly throughout the concert he’d give me a dig in the ribs to mutter darkly, “I thought we weren’t ever going to succumb to this particular form of pathos,” or, “I think these chaps need to listen to that record a little more closely,” and, “These cowards aren’t going near anything before Meddle,” then bellowing, “Come on, you pussies, let’s hear Arnold Layne or Matilda Mother!” At that point my wife slapped him and told him to stuff a sock in it.
I hastened to point out to the overbearing twerp that these tickets had just fallen into our hands, and that even when we saw the original band at the PNE Coliseum in Vancouver way back in September of 1972 (and that shoeless, shirtless acid-head tried to force his way into our van after the show so we could drive him to Wreck Beach for a moonlight swim) they were hardly note-perfect in recreating their records and didn’t perform anything from the Syd Barrett period either.
Look, Brit Floyd do a more than credible impersonation of a Pink Floyd concert. They originally formed about ten years ago as a breakaway from The Australian Pink Floyd Show and are just one (and possibly the best) of more than a dozen such outfits bearing names like Ummagumma, Which One’s Pink?, Cirrus Minor and In the Flesh that are currently plying this slightly ghoulish and artistically thankless trade. And there are, of course, hundreds of other bands out there imitating The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, The Who, The Bee Gees and even Aerosmith who, arguably, started out as an imitation Stones band themselves.
Technically and instrumentally Pink Floyd was a very accomplished musical consortium. Nick Mason, Richard Wright and Roger Waters first met as architecture students and had some boldly original ideas about how to develop elaborate sonic structures. If you're talented enough to get that stuff down right (which for the most part, Brit Floyd is) then Pink Floyd is, I expect, more amenable to impersonation than most bands. Vocals were always secondary with Floyd and there was no real front man responsible for chatting up the audience between songs and trying to keep everybody happy.
Uniquely for the period, they consistently downplayed their personalities. They were a concept-heavy band who used images brilliantly but pictures of the lads themselves didn’t even appear on most Pink Floyd album jackets. In concert each member tended to keep to his own work station. There wasn’t a lot of mike-sharing or goading one another along and amidst their spectacular light shows and all those state-of-the-art projections – not to mention an occasional inflatable pig or screaming fighter jet zooming overhead – one wasn’t compelled to pay all that much attention to the half-lit and plainly dressed fellows noodling away on stage.
The post-Dire Straits Mark Knopfler is, in my opinion, producing the finest music of his career and capturing a fraction of the renown and sales that he used to command as the front man for one of the most popular bands on the planet. I caught him several years ago in the same RBC Theatre where Brit Floyd played. If he’d been fronting the Straits he would have sold out the whole arena. Knopfler knows full well the monetary attraction and the personal danger of keeping an act on the road past its sell-by date and succinctly depicts the dilemma in one of the cuts from his 2015 Tracker album:
“On the road again in cabaret,” he sings. “Grey hair and Fenders / Old ghosts revisited today / No original members . . . You’ve been faking it so long / Now you don’t know right from wrong / Or what the future has in store for you / In the terminal of ‘tribute to’ . . .”
On the walk home from that 2016 Brit Floyd concert, I tried to reason with my obnoxious alter-ego, letting him know that I wasn’t feeling musically stranded and still played music all the time by a few contemporary worthies as well as a smattering of oldies. “But most of all,” I told him, “I’ve moved onto classical music.”
“How could you?” he moaned. “Don’t you know that symphony orchestras are the original and the lamest cover bands of them all?” It so happened we were halfway across the Queens Avenue Bridge and so, enlisting my wife's help, we took hold of him by his tie-dyed ass and pitched the insufferable brat over the guardrail and, I’m much relieved to say, haven’t heard from him since.
So when I returned to the RBC Theatre last Wednesday night for the latest Brit Floyd appearance, I did so not in the company of my imaginary former self nor my wife but with the youngest of our actual genetic iterations; our youngest record-retailing child and my major supplier of complementary concert tickets. While her knowledge of music history over all may not be quite as encyclopedic as her papa’s, she’s getting there. She explores widely through different eras and genres and has developed a good ear for the genuine and the sublime. Thus she appreciates that a considerable portion of the glory of Pink Floyd – and an amiable ballast against the often chilly proficiency of their most popular platters – is to be found in that handful of early singles and their first five albums which are left so conspicuously uncovered by Brit Floyd.
Most concerning to us as we walked up to the concert was that this tour’s primary focus was to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the release of Roger Waters’ grotesque exercise in self-pitying bombast, misogyny and band-mate abuse, The Wall. We were right to be worried. Of course, every concert by Floyd or their imitators has to include the only two David Gilmour tracks that Waters allowed on his rancid, two-disc ego-trip; the magnificent Comfortably Numb and the pretty good Run Like Hell. But the rest of the album is unspeakably weak stuff. (Weaker and gloomier yet is the subsequent and final Waters-dominated album, The Final Cut; after which Waters departed in the mistaken belief that he had killed off Pink Floyd for good; failing to understand that a band which had rejuvenated itself after the departure of Syd Barret could overcome his exit as well.) After the main concert concluded with a rip-snorting take on Comfortably Numb, the air went gushing out of all four tires throughout Brit Floyd’s encore which was entirely given over to the ever-deepening, derivative twaddle of side four of The Wall.
Less would have been so much more in what was otherwise a remarkably generous, nearly two and a half hour concert with very little repetition from their 2016 playlist. One song I was particularly delighted to see them dig up this time out was the rarely-referenced and wholly admirable Fearless from Meddle. Clearly the boys in Brit Floyd revere the canon of their musical progenitors but there’s a good-sized slab of it they have yet to go near. Might I suggest that if they keep to their schedule of touring every three years and come back to London in 2022, that will be the 55th anniversary of the ur-Floyd's debut LP, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Go for it, lads. I realize it might not have the broad popular appeal of Floyd’s later material (except for The Final Cut which nobody, including Brit Floyd, ever references or covers). But if you highlight The Piper then I’ll pledge to do my bit to pump up your audience by fishing my alter-ego out of the Thames and dragging the caustic little twit along whether he wants to come or not.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
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