Australia has unleashed upon the music world some of hard rock's shaggy-maned godfathers—AC/DC chief among them—and of late, has spawned some of rock's new faces, including the Vines and Jet. But while those bands have been selling records and packing concert halls around the globe, a lesser-known phenomenon has also been taking place amongst rock fans Down Under: the popularity of tribute bands. In an article for the London-based Sunday Times, Tony Barrell wrote that Australia has become the "main cradle of the tribute band" owing both to its geographic remoteness—which keeps headliners away—and the unembarrassed, Croc Dundee-like resourcefulness of Aussies in crafting homegrown versions of mainstream acts.
Enter Wolfmother, newly crowned Grammy winners for Best Hard Rock Performance and Oz's latest export to the global rawk scene. The band's sound is neither innovative nor original—if you heard Wolfmother's self-titled debut blasting from your uncle's room in the basement of your grandparents' house, you'd swear he was spinning his vinyl Sabbath or Zepp collection. On a scale of originality the band fares poorly, but to judge them by that standard would miss the point of Wolfmother. Yes, they're impersonators of a sort, but as one fan posting to a message board aptly put it, "Good music should be appreciated for what it is and not what it possibly mirrors. I consider it a chance to indulge in a style of music that we never witnessed firsthand." Though not a tribute band, Wolfmother is a window into the stoner-rock scene of the 1970s, a kick-ass live act playing the kind of straight-ahead 4/4 rock that was on FM radio during the Ford administration. Nothing wrong with that, mate.
Before vocalist Andrew Stockdale discovered his lungpower, he was a Donovan and Dylan fan who penned folky songs to play at jams with bassist and organist Chris Ross and drummer Myles Heskett. But one day, in order to be heard above his bandmates, he let out a hell-raising wail. The group immediately changed musical direction to take advantage of Stockdale's talents. Faster than you can say "vegemite sandwich," they secured a record deal with Sydney-based Modular Records, then spent much of 2005 recording their debut album in Los Angeles with veteran rock producer Dave Sardy (Marilyn Manson, Jet, Slayer). Wolfmother was released in April of 2006 to generally favorable reviews; the band has been touring to packed houses in Europe and North America over the past several months; and in February they capped a successful year by taking home the aforementioned Grammy Award, the first by a band from Australia since Men at Work 25 years before. The popular online pop-cultural mag PopMatters recently called them the "biggest rock band in Australia," which may sound like being called the best belly dancer in Anchorage, but it's high praise considering that the country is also home to Jet, the Vines, and Silverchair.
The '70s stoner-rock fingerprints are on every surface of Wolfmother—from Stockdale's Ozzy-like shrieking to the occasional Deep Purple organ to even, you guessed it, a Jethro Tull-esque flute solo. Stockdale's lyrics feature uncomplicated odes to the opposite sex (on the caveman-esque "Woman," he sings "Woman/You know that you're a woman/You got to be a woman/I got the feeling of love"), but also enter the mystical realms of fantasy that have been a trope of rock lyrics since Robert Plant sang about Gollum's descent to the darkest depths of Mordor in "Ramble On." Stockdale's stable of fantasy imagery includes white unicorns, serpents, eagles flying "in the misted haze"; the Australian version of the album contained a song called "Tales from the Forest of Gnomes" (which has been renamed "Tales" for the more giggle-prone American audience). Even the album art maintains the theme: The band chose an illustration by fantasy-art icon Frank Frazetta depicting, um, well, a bare-breasted goddess with a long tail who is floating above choppy ocean waves while snakes and reptiles cavort all around her.
It is the rare band that can successfully weave together the various strands of rockclichés that Wolfmother embrace, and on that basis alone, props should be awarded. The intersection of fantasy culture and rock, for one, is ripe for parody—think Spinal Tap's Stonehenge backdrop—and it's a testament to Wolfmother's sincerity that they pull it off as well as they do. Unlike a band such as the Darkness, whose ironic visage was worn on their sleeve until it eventually consumed the band and consigned them to novelty-act status alongside Weird Al, Wolfmother play it straight; their sound is an earnest tribute, rather than a cheeky parody. Still, one wonders about the long-term success of a band built on anachronistic musical formulas—throbbing beats giving way to flute solos, odes to gnomes—because it's hard to see where this sort of heartfelt kookiness could take them. The kind of fan-and-critic backlash witnessed by the Darkness seems unlikely—Wolfmother's sincerity insulates them, while the Darkness's irony seemed to invite derision—but still, fans may well conclude that an imitation of Sabbath, Zepp, and other leather-panted gods of '70s rock is just that—a copy. Resurrecting this sound for a new generation of fans is a great one-off, but down the road, Wolfmother might need to stop paying tribute to the past.