A long way from the top

Swedish pop group Abba last performed in Melbourne 36 years ago — the last of three concerts at the Sidney Myer music bowl with almost 15,000 fans per show and almost as many outside the fence.

But, in more ways than one, they never went away.

Nor did the fans. Take Trish England for instance, dancing and grooving to all the hits — Ring Ring, Mama-Mia, SOS, Fernando, Waterloo — here at, um, the Grand in Cathies Lane, Wantirna South.

Well maybe it's not exactly Abba, but for Trish and nine dedicated friends who've travelled from Wonthaggi, near enough is better than good enough. As the self-described Abba Groupies, they're at their 36th consecutive performance by the Swedish quartet's tribute band Babba.

No Babba show is complete, it seems, without the Groupies. Not only do they pile into a bus and pursue the act to every Victorian gig, they

synchronise their dancing and even their dress to what's happening on stage. When Babba has a costume change, so do the Groupies — into identical outfits.

Plastic musical instruments are also part of their routine and it goes without saying that there's an even distribution of blondes and brunettes.

Babba, one of the most successful of a number of Abba tribute groups, has the illusion down pat: the trademark hip-hugging sequined jumpsuits, the beards, the slick choreography, the soothing harmonies, even the effervescent Scandinavian accents.

"If you close your eyes, you would think they were Abba," enthuses Ms England.

The respect is mutual: band member Michael Ingvarson, who plays Benny Andersson, says they keep a close eye on the Groupies. "It's a sign we do a good job and they enjoy it and keep coming back. A lot of people over the years keep coming back."

The two pieces of mutual affection might illustrate why the phenomenon of tribute bands seems to be growing stronger and stronger, in Australia and overseas. It might not be the real thing but it's close — and familiarity breeds content.

There have been tribute acts since . . . well, since Elvis was in the building. In fact, Elvis tribute artists, or impersonators, are still probably the largest class of such acts. Possibly the first tribute bands — as opposed to impersonators — were those paying homage to the Beatles, such as the (unimaginatively named) Buggs.

The idea, of course, is to replicate, as closely as possible the look and sound of the originals, although the names are often appalling puns — the Fab Faux, ReGenesis and Fred Zeppelin. Most of the great names of rock over the past half century now have tribute bands or performers: The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Queen, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Madonna, Oasis . . . the list goes on.

But the tributes — and fans — spill into a range of genres and not all of them pop or rock.

At the Cardinia Cultural Centre over the next few months, for instance, there's an Englebert Humperdink tribute and others to Liza Minelli and Shirley Bassey, Doris Day and 'the Queens of Croon' such as Patti Page. That's on top of the Ultimate Bee Gees and Ultimate Rock and Roll Show with ersatz Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash as well as Time Warp, a tribute to the Rocky Horror Show.

And, while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, some acts add a twist to the tribute: Gabba performs Abba songs but in the style of the Ramones; there's Mini Kiss, a band made up of little people; and a range of distaff

versions, such as the all-female AC/DShe, Aerochix, the Iron Maidens and Lez Zeppelin.

Australia has long been an epicentre of tribute. In 1997 the Sunday Times in London called Australia "the main cradle of the tribute band". Journalist Tony Barrell claimed it was because "starved of big names, owing to their reluctance to put Oz on their tour

itineraries, Australians were quite unembarrassed about creating home-grown versions".

These days one of the original Abba knock-offs, Bjorn Again, and acts like The Australian Pink Floyd Show now regularly perform in the UK.

Babba had its start in 1994, partly, band members admit, because of their physical resemblance to Agnetha, Frida, Bjorn and Benny — but also to cash in on the wave of nostalgia sparked by the release of Muriel's Wedding and, earlier, the greatest hits record Abba Gold.

So before hitting the stage at the Grand, Michael Ingvarson pencils on a beard and straightens his hair to mimic Benny and he and James

Macdonald, as Bjorn Ulvaeus, slip into those Evel Knievel-like jumpsuits. Jacqueline Hamilton is a slim, tall brunette image of Frida Lyngstad and Kelly Wild her blond match as Agnetha Faltskog.

But that's not all. They seamlessly segue from Oz to Swedish accents. "We just slip into the characters when we go on stage," says Ingvarson. "It wouldn't make sense to go out there and speak in an Australian accent.

"It's not just a band, it's reliving the Abba experience. We're always refining our performance and trying to make it more like Abba. They were such great singers."

There's clearly a hunger for what they provide. About 450 fans flocked to Babba's first show at the Central Hotel, Richmond, in December 1994.

"Our manager advertised the first show almost like we were an international act," Ingvarson says. "By the third year we were doing 180 shows a year." Now the four have more than 2500 shows under their sequined belts and performed at the closing

ceremony of the Masters Games in 2002 in front of 45,000 people.

It's probably a 180-degree turn from Abba to AC/DC, but the latter's tribute band, Acca Dacca, is another of Australia's most popular substitute gigs. And lead singer Larry Attard was probably destined to front it.

In 1975 his band Snake supported AC/DC at two shows in Sydney and after the death of Bon Scott in 1980, the band's Malcolm and Angus Young were spotted at a Snake gig, checking him out as a replacement. He was called in to Albert Studios in Sydney, but the job went to Brian Johnson — so that's who Attard now plays in Acca Dacca. And loves it.

"No one can play AC/DC songs like they can, but Acca Dacca come damn close," he says. "People actually want to come and see us and the elation on their face afterwards is great. It may be the AC/DC factor, who knows?

"We don't really have to do very much extra. I am in a black shirt and cloth cap and the rest are in jeans and T-shirts."

Attard says keeping Acca Dacca's performances simple was vital. "We just play meat and potatoes rock 'n' roll really. We don't let our crowds down. We get out there and play it like AC/DC would."

In 2008 Angus Young paid Acca Dacca the ultimate compliment when he told German TV: "If you can't see us, see Acca Dacca."

Attard is incredibly proud of that. "He was virtually saying that AC/DC can't play everywhere, so if you get a chance go see Acca Dacca."

While AC/DC can't play everywhere, the artists Joe Piastrino pays musical tribute to, for the most part, can't play anywhere. He started off as an Elvis impersonator but decided there were so many of that original rock and roll ilk. Piastrino's repertoire includes Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Drifters and most notably Roy Orbison.

His first Orbison tribute was in 2006 and now includes many of the trademarks Orbison was known for — the dark glasses, slick, straight hair, tassels and dark jackets.

"If you are going to be impersonating him you have to be as close as you possibly can. I don't do Roy without the costume, it just doesn't work."

But it's the music, the singing that transports the fans. "When you hit those high notes on the head it's a real buzz."

Piastrino says the emotion he is able to evoke from his crowds has "blown me away".

"We've had ladies crying and men coming up to me saying that my song brought back memories. And that's what it is all about."

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