The Absolute Spit

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12/08/2021 | POSTED BY Pete

Beth Miller reveals the inspiration behind her life-swap novel, Starstruck

From the back you’d really think he was Bowie. My friends and I nudged each other excitedly, though we knew it wasn’t really him. Tiny venue, cheap tickets, session musicians on bass and drums, no way was it him. But on the other hand, it really looked like him: his frame, the stance, the way the jacket hung down.

The band tore into the opening bars of Jean Genie, and the main man finally turned round to face us. From the front the resemblance was less uncanny. He was rather fuller in the waist than the Thin White Duke, and his cheekbones wouldn’t cut you like a knife. Plus, his outfit was anachronistic, my pedantic mate Johnno pointed out: he was styled as Bowie from the Young Americans era, not as Aladdin Sane. Oh, do shut up Johnno, and listen! Because by god, the voice! He’d got the exact same voice! The absolute spit! Just thirty seconds and everyone was joining in with the chorus, knowing this wasn’t Bowie, and yet it also sort of was… all you had to do was close your eyes, or squint.

This wasn’t my first tribute act. As a student I saw Voulez Vous – very good – and the Bootleg Beatles, the granddaddy of tributes. The Bootlegs have toured for decades longer than the real Beatles and played thousands more gigs. I enjoyed their relaxed approach to time and space, with ‘John’ saying he couldn’t see the audience ‘because I didn’t wear glasses on stage till 1965’. Even with such fourth wall breaking, you could still think, on and off, and sometimes in a sustained way in the middle of an inspired riff, that this was The Beatles, even as you also knew it wasn’t. But the Bowie tribute was the first time I realised how much I loved the very notion of being a tribute. The doublethink, the whole sort of is/sort of isn’t vibe; the joy of hearing classic songs done live and accurate; the respectful homage of the entire thing.

Not to mention the puns. I love a good pun, and tribute act names are a goldmine. By Jovi might be my favourite, though I have a soft spot for rival tributes Noasis, No Way Sis, and Oasish. Ah, there’s so many: Proxy Music, Nearvana, Fake That, Stereophonies, Pink Fraud…

When I saw the BBC Arena documentary, Into the Limelight, my love for tributes crystallised into something rarer: the germ of an idea. The documentary (still on iPlayer) featured the Limelight Club in Crewe, now sadly defunct, but then home to all the tribute acts. There were several stand-out stars, including John Campbell, interviewed sitting on the sofa and chatting with his mum about how he channelled the spirit of Jimi Hendrix. But my favourite was Wayne Ellis of Limehouse Lizzy, whose thoughtful and melancholy reflections on a career pretending to be someone else stayed with me for years.

Where were the women tributes? I wondered. And lo, The Graham Norton Show answered. It presented an Adele tribute competition with a twist – the real Adele, unrecognizable in prosthetics, took part without the other competitors knowing. It’s an absolute masterpiece of television, which I watch once a month, I love it so. I well up every single time the real Adele steps on stage to sing, because it’s at that moment that it becomes completely obvious to all the other tributes that she is the real deal.

The plot of Starstruck was forming in my head. Adele pretended to be her own tribute act – but what if she swapped places with one of her impersonators? Would people be able to tell that the person playing the massive arenas wasn’t her? And what would it be like if she took the tribute act’s place, performing in little unglamorous venues…

Thus, Sally Marshall was born. Hardworking and gutsy, she’s been a tribute act for twelve years, performing as Epiphanie, the world’s biggest megastar. One ordinary day, she comes home to find Epiphanie – the real, actual Epiphanie – sitting in her kitchen. When Sally picks her jaw up off the floor, she discovers that Epiphanie wants to make her a life swap offer she can’t refuse…

Beth Miller

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