Times Staff Writer

To the casual observer, tonight's show at San Diego State University's Open Air Theater would appear to be just another rock concert, with the usual ornate stage lighting, screaming fans and high-decibel music booming from mammoth stacks of public address speakers.

The anomaly is that none of the performers at this "concert" will play or sing a single note.

The acts on tonight's bill are air bands--groups that pretend to perform in sync with hit pop records. However, these aren't just shaggy adolescents strumming inaudible power chords on invisible guitars. These virtuosos have reached the rarefied heights of the Pepsi Classic San Diego Air Band Championship.

Beginning at 7 p.m., bands representing 18 high schools, from Oceanside to Imperial Beach, will try to replicate the moves and mannerisms of their favorite pop stars, copied meticulously from MTV videos. Accuracy is the main criterion for contestants, who will appear replete with wigs, makeup and real instruments to render passionate portrayals of everyone from '80s sex symbol Prince to the seminal '60s group, the Yardbirds.

"It's pure ventilation--you can just go publicly crazy for five minutes," said Jason Pimentel, 17, of "Twisted Sister," the band representing La Jolla Country Day School's lone air band. "It's a way for frustrated people with no talent to go up and do like their heroes do. It's a fun way to show off."

However, the air band phenomenon has gone far beyond merely providing vicarious excitement for would-be rock stars. It has become big business. Co-sponsored by Pepsi-Cola and local radio station 91-X, tonight's competition offers a $1,000 first prize for contestants and a ripe promotional opportunity for businesses catering to teens.

"The youth market is a vital target group," said Neil Croak, Pepsi's youth market and special events manager. "Pepsi and 91-X are going after that same key market. The kids here are a core group of high school students. They are the biggest consumers and they are also the future consumers. So, that's why we're jumping on it."

The evolution that carried air musicianship from solo appearances before bedroom mirrors to painstakingly choreographed group performances at a 4,200-seat amphitheater began four years ago in North County. Inspired by the then-nascent music video craze, officials at Oceanside's El Camino High School invited students to display their MTV mimicry at a modest air band contest.

As the popularity of videos grew, so did the numbers of people willing to pay to participate in--and even watch--air band contests. Last March, the North County air band competition drew 2,500 screaming fans to Carlsbad High School's football field.

Carlsbad High School student adviser Tom Robertson, originator of the North County contest and coordinator of tonight's show, attributed the success of air band contests to "the whole gimmick of the music, the dancing and the videos being such a large part of (students) lives."

"It's a way for kids who really don't get involved with school activities or go out for the sports teams to get involved with something that is really important in their lives and that's their music," Robertson said, noting that this year's Carlsbad contenders include a group emulating the funky rhythm band, The Time, which rocketed to stardom opposite Prince in the film "Purple Rain."

Last year's North County air band champions, a group of Oceanside High School students appearing as the Romantics, not only picked up a $150 first prize, but were also signed to appear on "Puttin' on the Hits," a nationally syndicated TV series featuring air bands.

"I guess professionally I'm an air band expert," said ex-Romantic Roland Garcia, 17.

This year, Garcia and his bandmates, Rachel Lopez and Hope Chavez are hoping to make it big again emulating Wham!, the popular British pop duo.

"We were thinking of a whole mess of bands, like the Go-Gos or Hall and Oates, but we decided on Wham! We watched their video, studied all their moves and just tried to act like each person we're posing as. Somebody asked me if we're going to do as well this year. I said, 'Yeah.' "

Although the air band craze has spread to high schools throughout San Diego County, it remains most fervent in the north, where more than 25 bands may vie for air band predominance at a single school. Administrators have come to regard the contests as a major source of revenue for student services.

"Oceanside High School, for example, had something like eight or nine days of air band prelims where they charged students 25 cents to get in," Robertson said. "They were probably making $200 to $300 a day just on the prelims. We had 1,500 people at our competition paying $2 a head."

Although advance ticket sales for tonight's competition have been disappointing, Croak said he is optimistic that a standing-room-only crowd will pack the amphitheater. He added that a successful air band show here could lead Pepsi to sponsor similar events nationwide.

"It's just in San Diego right now," Croak said. "I was in New York last week and they didn't even know what an air band was. We'd like to take it to different markets. If this goes well, the next step would be L.A."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World