Do not let anyone tell you you’ll never see Zayn Malik live with One Direction again. Stephen Hawking was right. There exists a beautiful place where the self-prophesying album Four was never released, and Malik’s celestial pearl echoes around an auditorium. An ethereal world where fan dreams can still come true, and five beautiful boys never say die; the shadows of the past dance within reaching distance, with taut smiles on their faces and a cheeky wink for every Directioner in the front row. All of this and more is possible within the multi-million dollar industry of tribute acts.
Only One Direction became the world’s most popular tribute band in 2014. They’ve headlined festivals (not Glastonbury or anything, but you know), flown to Dubai, and, by their reckoning, played to over quarter of a million people. Apparently Harry Styles said of the group: “Their harmonies are angelic”. So you might even say they’re endorsed by the boys themselves.
But how close to the real thing can you really get? How satisfying can these fleshy simulacrum truly be? And, more importantly, how have a tribute band devoted to the biggest fan phenomenon in recent history managed to roll with the punches of a key member leaving? In search of answers, I headed to the bright lights of Fleet, Surrey, where the Only One Direction would play that evening.
Fleet is a satellite town like any other. It has all the basic urban essentials, like Greggs and a Subway, bog-standard housing developments with faux-pastoral names like Larkfleet and Edenbrook, and it’s home to families with 2.4 children and respectable parents who commute to their managerial jobs in the capital. At 4pm, I’m sat in The Harlington, an entertainment centre that feels like every local leisure centre you’ve ever visited, waiting to meet the five best impersonators of the five biggest boys in pop.
In a turn of irony that wasn’t lost on anyone, I’ve been told by their manager that Tribute Zayn cannot be photographed or named, because he’s landed a major label deal in real life and will hopefully be leaving the tribute band to launch a genuine solo career. Drawing any attention to his present circumstances could harm his future image, even though they have loads of pics of him all over their social media. Still it seems like Zayn has gone, and Fayn is soon to follow.
When the group eventually walk in, I just see four completely non-descript white boys. If you had sleep gunk in your eye, you might mistake 25-year-old Henry Allan for Harry, but disappointingly they look no more like One Direction than any Dalston pub smoking area at half time in the football. Of course, one elusive member is missing. “Zayn is coming,” I’m told by one of the boys. We wait for Fake Zayn. The star.
Out he comes. He’s taller, bigger. He’s blonde. He’s white. “You’re Zayn?” I ask and obviously look confused. I’d expected to meet the Zayn from the press shot. Where was he? Where was our sweet English-Pakistani prince? “None of us really look like our members,” says Louis.
Zayn collapses into laughter. “I don’t exactly look like Zayn,” he grins. I’m told Only One Direction aren’t a lookalike tribute act. What they are is a tribute band, giving the audience “the 1D experience” with a similar vocal performance. Looks aren’t imperative, apparently, and I start to wonder what teenage girls would have to say about that.
Truth is, the Fake Zayn I’d expected, who I’d seen in the Only One Direction press shots, was actually off doing another 1D show that day. What I was looking at, was a substitute Fake Zayn. In fact, I realised half of them weren’t the ones I’d seen in the press shots. Matt Ryan, 24, who plays Louis explains that rather than having just five boys in one band, they have loads of members chopping and changing depending on availability, usually with two bands out doing shows at the same time. I start to imagine a fire station type set up, just full of preened lads with great voices, ready to slide down the pole and dive into a tour van whenever a showtime emergency occurs.
It’s basically a 1D business; a huge franchise of its own. And being in the biggest tribute band in the world means decent money for someone. According to one site, their producer Anna Slater has earned a six figure revenue during the band’s lifespan and manager, Matt Brinkler called it “great money”. You can’t argue that as far as business ideas go, it’s a shrewd one.
Yeah, you can laugh at the whole cringeworthy concept of the tribute band that endures, but it’s becoming less and less of a joke in 2015. T.Rextrasy, for instance, are officially endorsed by the estate of Marc Bolan and the band’s leader and founder wears Bolan’s actual clothes on stage. Knot Slip sell out all the O2 Academies - venues almost as big as Slipknot themselves. To be honest, some tribute bands have far more enthusiasm than the real thing, who are now withered, jaded or insist on playing pallid new material. A good tribute band will perform with the enthusiasm and vigour of their subject’s heyday.
For the boys involved in Only One Direction, it’s certainly a better way to make money than taking on an extra shift at their shitty bar job. “It caters for out of work singers who need money, basically,” Harry shrugs. “We’re all doing our own thing so we wouldn’t be able to do it all the time – that’s why we need so many of us.” All of them are singers, ex-stage school students, musical theatre actors or dancers, cast for the band by proxy of being in a small circle of performers in London.
There’s definitely an air of embarrassment or awkwardness from most of them, and all were extremely insistent on it only being a side gig. But surely Zayn leaving was a shock, I asked. It must have highlighted the transitory nature of being in a tribute band? Not quite. As soon as Zayn left, they got packed with bookings over the summer. Upheaval in the actual band only translated into demand for the tribute act, the original unspoilt formula. It goes without saying, no bookers requested for the group to perform as a four.
But how did the other Zayn, the original fake one with the possible solo deal, take this hit to their precarious future? The boys snickered. “He’s used the publicity for himself,” said one. “He was everywhere,” said another. “I think a lot of people wanted to speak to 1D about the split and couldn’t get to them, so they came to us, the next best thing. He used it to his advantage and said, ‘Well, I’m a singer-songwriter and here’s my stuff.’”
This other Zayn is Jamie Searls. He spent the weeks after the split was announced appearing on radio shows, This Morning, BBC Newsbeat and Daily Mail. The promotion the boys talk about is for his new single, “Doing Time”. “He’s a bit of a character,” they laughed, side-eying each other.
Whether you see your place in the biggest 1D tribute band in the world as a hush-hush cash job or a career springboard, it’s a complex thing. You’re really promoting another star more than you are yourself. And by looking essentially nothing like them, they have to win an audience over. “99% of people enjoy the show. We do get a few crazy 1D fans who don’t,” one of them said. “They get angry because they think we’re trying to be them.”
But this is the biggest tribute band in the world. They have fans of their own now. Intense fans, too. “They have tattoos of us,” one says. I ask who their biggest fan is and they answer in unison: “Up All Night Sue”. ‘Up All Night Sue’ is a mum, Sue Watkinson, who brought her 1D fan daughter to one of their shows one night, and never looked back. “They let you know if they’re coming,” Matt Faul, 24, who plays Niall says. “Sue’s not coming today.”