Music: Bootleg Beatles keep Fab Four alive
Tribute band The Bootleg Beatles have nailed their rendition of Liverpool's finest over 30-plus years of pitch-perfect performances, writes Robin Lynam
This may be hard to believe but October 5 this year marked the 50th anniversary of the UK release of Love Me Do, The Beatles' first hit single.
The rest really is history. Within four years of cutting that record, The Beatles would become, as John Lennon calamitously put it, "more popular than Jesus". And within eight - having created one of the best known, loved and most influential bodies of work in popular music - would go their separate ways, never to reconvene as a quartet.
By contrast The Bootleg Beatles, who appear this week at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, have been playing John, Paul, George and Ringo's music for 33 years - about four times longer than the Mersey mop tops did.
As Andre Barreau, who plays and sings George Harrison's parts, explains, he and three other actor musicians were recruited in 1979 for the transfer to London's West End of a Broadway show called Beatlemania, in which they played the Fab Four. The show was not a hit. Finding themselves jobless but with a well-rehearsed act, they decided to take it on the road.
"I suppose we're the grandfather of the tribute band industry," Barreau says over the phone from New Zealand, where The Bootlegs are on tour. "We didn't mean that to happen, honestly. I think it was something that was just bound to."
Few tribute bands attempt anything as challenging as The Bootleg Beatles' performances, which include not only the repertoire the original band performed between 1962 and 1966, when they gave up touring, but also the intricate studio productions that they created later with no regard to whether they could be reproduced in concert.
"The show is split into four sets," Barreau says. "In the first half we do the early Beatles, and then The Beatles as they were when they toured America and played Shea stadium during Beatlemania. Then, after the interval, the third stage is Sgt Pepper, where we introduce the orchestra, and stage four is the Abbey Road era, with a very long-haired John Lennon and all that stuff. That's more like a fantasy, because we're doing songs that The Beatles never actually did live, like Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane and I Am the Walrus - but with real players. We don't have any synthesisers, and there are no shadowy figures in the background. Everybody is on stage."
Barreau says The Bootlegs play their own guitar, bass, drums and keyboard parts, and for the second half of the show are joined by a string quartet and a four-piece brass section. "We find with that instrumentation we can pretty much cover anything that The Beatles used an orchestra on."
There have been various line-up changes over the years. Barreau is the only remaining original member - "I was very young when we started," he notes - but adds that at the moment they have a "fabulous line-up" with a Paul McCartney lookalike who is not only able to sing and play his parts, but who, like McCartney, is left-handed.
"The guy doing John Lennon is the absolute spitting image of him when he's wearing the wigs. We do have a very full wig box, with lots of moustaches, and the Sgt. Pepper costumes and so on. Everything you'd expect," Barreau says.
The band also travel with authentic 1960s instruments, although the PA systems they use, unlike the primitive amplification The Beatles had to contend with, are state of the art and able to deliver studio-quality sound.
"We're sticklers for accuracy. We have about nine guitars - all the right guitars for every era. You just have to have those guitars to recreate the sound," says Barreau.
There is a lot more to it than just having the right instruments of course. Barreau has assimilated Harrison's evolving guitar style from his early rock'n'roll licks influenced by Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry, into the later concise but more melodically sophisticated solos.
He has also mastered Harrison's trademark slide guitar sound, which occasionally stands him in good stead for session work outside the group. That's Barreau playing the slide guitar solo on the Robbie Williams hit Angels.
The hardest thing for The Bootleg Beatles to get right, he says, is the vocals. The harmonies have to be spot on. "Apart from the odd 12 bars here and there, it's all singing. The musicians we have with us have to do things like the Bach trumpet solo on Penny Lane, which is incredibly difficult to play live. We have a brilliant trumpet player who gets that every night. It's in a very unflattering key for the trumpet, and she has absolutely mastered it."
He adds: "What's fascinating on that level is that we're like seven different groups because they progressed so much that every album is almost like another band. There's a different style on every album, so we have to go with that style and get the right feel to make that music convincing. We really work on that."
"Occasionally on a track like While My Guitar Gently Weeps we can extend a little bit at the end, to give a sense of The Beatles jamming through, but the aim is to recreate the music - not in a plastic way, but in a way in which people can hopefully get a feeling of what it would be like to see The Beatles."
In 1999, The Bootlegs marked the 30th anniversary of The Beatles' last public performance - on the roof of the Apple Building at 3 Savile Row in London - by playing the same set on the same spot.
They have played other noteworthy shows, including the Glastonbury Festival, Liverpool's Anfield Stadium, and in 2002 Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee celebration at Buckingham Palace, where they met McCartney who threatened to come to one of their gigs and heckle.
George Martin, The Beatles producer, calls their act "a terrific show", Barreau says.
"The first time we knew they knew of us was when George Martin was asked on a radio programme what the real Beatles thought of The Bootleg Beatles. We were thrilled when he said they were very happy, so long as the quality is good, because it helps to keep the music alive. Subsequently we met [the late] George Harrison at a party, and he was very friendly. He asked where the Bootleg Brian Epstein was because he'd have all the money."
The Bootleg Beatles, Academy for Performing Arts Lyric Theatre, Thur-Sat, 8pm; matinee, Sat, 2pm; Nov 4, 7pm, HK$350-HK$950 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288