Most bands start off learning a few cover songs as a means of establishing workable common ground before really creating. An old Elvis Costello tune or something by the Police to satiate fans while the band convinces themselves they can write their own. Becoming a full-time cover band is a whole different pursuit, something often written off as artless mimicry.
San Diego's El Vez and Pink Froyd have made names by using superstars' material, foregoing the latter steps of band evolution (Step 1: Learn other people's songs. Step 2: Write crappy original tunes. Step 3: Accept job at Kinko's. Step 4: Give up rock 'n' roll, buy minivan).
The Bay Area's Me First and the Gimme Gimmes have twisted the notion of bar bands to epic proportions, turning what is usually a locally based gig into a national touring act.
The Gimmes are the closest thing to a supergroup punk rock has ever had. Started in 1996 by Fat Mike Burkett (singer-bassist for NOFX and owner of Fat Wreck Chords) and Joey Cape (Lagwagon), the Gimmes set out on a mission of epic impotence.
"[Mike] and Joey had an idea," says Spike Slawson, the Gimmes' vocalist. "They just wanted to start a cover band-a low- or no-pressure band, because both their other bands were... causing them some degree of stress."
What was assembled would eventually turn into a who's-who from the Fat Wreck roster-including guitarist Chris Shifflet (ex- No Use for a Name, currently of Foo Fighters) and Lagwagon drummer Dave Raun, arguably one of the top five skinsmen in rock. Slawson, who had been working in the shipping department of Fat Wreck Chords, welcomed the idea of fronting such a slacker project with punk-rock heavyweights.
"That's the whole point of a cover band, you know what I mean?" says Slawson, who also plays bass for throwback punks The Swingin' Utters. "It doesn't require energy or talent or creativity or inspiration... just other people's material."
Such groups are often thought of as plagiarists, essentially cherry-picking fans from established artists without adding anything new to pop music lexicon. But the Gimmes turn the phenomenon of cover bands right on its derivative ass. Four out of the five members have already proved themselves in original bands, so now they can afford to do what they want. They don't practice, they barely rehearse, they hardly tour, and people can't get enough of it.
The Gimmes are at least as commercially successful, if not more so, as half the bands represented by the group's members. Not bad for a bunch of guys dicking around in bowling shirts.
The Gimmes have released more than a dozen 7-inch singles with titles like "Garf," "Billy" and "Denver"-tributes to artists they've hijacked. They have also released four full-length theme albums. 1997's Have A Ball covered the '60s and '70s, whereas Are A Drag punked-up showtunes. Their newest album, Take A Break, points the power chord in the direction of black artists, giving the Me First treatment to such classics as Lionel Ritchie's "Hello" and R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly," something that proved to be a challenge.
"It's nearly impossible [to make punk songs out of R&B songs], so you have to pick all the ballads," Slawson says. "Rick James and Earth, Wind and Fire and stuff like that... that's impossible."
Though they have appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and pulled a stint as the house band on Last Call with Carson Daly, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes is a side project, first and foremost. The fact that Slawson has achieved success as a cover singer hasn't soured his outlook in the least.
"I don't mind being a hack. Everyone else is a hack, but they just don't know it." ©
Me First and the Gimme Gimmes perform at SOMA's New Year's Eve show at the San Diego Sports Arena, 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 31. $24. 619-226-7662.