Becoming the Bootleg Beatles: From hardcore fans to tribute band

Jeanette Tan
Singapore Showbiz

The Bootleg Beatles have brought the experience of watching The Beatles live to audiences in more than 4,000 performances round the globe. (Photo courtesy of BASE Entertainment Asia)

There are some bands in music history so awesome that you want to kick yourself for not being privileged enough to hear them live.

Legendary Liverpool quartet The Beatles is without doubt one such band.

But fortunately for young fans of the band, four men are doing a bang-up job covering their life and music.

The Bootleg Beatles, who are in town for a four-day run starting Thursday, consist of four Brits who have dedicated their lives to perfecting and performing Fab Four songs to audiences worldwide since the demise of the musical Beatlemania in 1979.

Consisting of founding member and lead guitarist Andre Barreau (who plays George Harrison), 25-year-old Adam Hastings (as John Lennon) on guitar, vocals and keyboards, 44-year-old Hugo Degenhardt (as Ringo Starr) on drums and most recently, 43-year-old Steve White (as Paul McCartney), different line-ups of the Bootleg Beatles have brought the Beatles experience in more than 4,000 shows to fans young and old.

Speaking about how the group was initially formed, Barreau told Yahoo! Singapore, "The funny thing is it (the Bootleg Beatles) was going to be a temporary thing while we found other jobs to do... it wasn't quite temporary though; it turned out to be 34 years temporary!"

While members of the original lineup (Neil Harrison, David Catlin-Birch and Jack Lee Elgood) moved on to other pursuits and others took their place, specific things always remained the same in any Bootleg Beatles set -- the movements, quirks, habits, look, voices and above all else, the music.

Challenging transformation

Naturally, The Beatles were iconic as an entire package -- encompassing a multitude of unique habits and mannerisms that the Bootlegs had to spend much of their time learning.

It wasn't easy and each of the Bootleg Beatles experienced their own journeys of transformation to become as much like the Beatle they perform as possible.

25-year-old Adam Hastings plays John Lennon in the current lineup of the Bootleg Beatles. (Photo courtesy of BASE Entertainment Asia)

Hastings, who joined the Bootleg Beatles last year in the wake of founding member Neil Harrison's departure, said he studied as many Beatles music videos as he could to absorb -- and channel -- as much of John Lennon as possible.

"You watch a lot of videos, and listen to all the music, and from all the videos, you try to get every bit of movement and expression that they do; all the little quirks that they have, we hopefully recreate," he said.

"When you're at home, you don't just sit around all day and do nothing, you put videos on, stand in the mirror, look like an idiot and copy as much as you can and it helps, training and practicing yourself all the time -- we all do it."

He adds that the Bootlegs make it a point to record themselves performing and review them to ensure that they stay as true to the original as possible -- a tedious process.

"We keep trying that little bit more to get it closer and closer," he explains.

The process of "getting into" Ringo Starr took a hefty nine years for Degenhardt, who shared that he needed to change the entire way he played the drums for the role.

"He's (Starr) got a very distinctive set of mannerisms and techniques even, and I just immediately recognised that would actually affect the sound of the beats that he plays," he said.

Noting that Starr was a left-handed player drumming a right-handed kit, Degenhardt said it was one of the key features of Starr's style that was particularly difficult for him to follow.

"He's got this weird thing of playing a high hat with this sweeping motion, and I was kind of taught a different technique and I had to change that... there's a kind of dance he does behind the kit as well," he added. "I'm still working on the voice, obviously, as well -- he sings a couple of numbers too!"

Nine years after taking the reins from predecessor Rick Rock, Degenhardt believes he's more or less comfortable with the very unique body language Starr exuded behind his kit.

"I feel like I've kind of settled into it very comfortably; it's kind of second nature," he said. "It's not that there's not more work to be done, it's just the basic sound and feel is there, the basic dance is there."

A natural right-hander, Steve White had to change hands in his bass-playing to take on the role of Paul McCartney in the first Beatles tribute band he played with. He is pictured here with Hugo Degenhardt, who says he took nine years to master Ringo Starr's unique drum-playing habits. (Photo courtesy of BASE Entertainment Asia)

The pressure to change was probably the greatest for Steve White, who took over from founding member David Catlin-Birch just two months ago.

Before he first took on Paul McCartney's role in another tribute band in 2006, White had just three months to switch hands to learn how to play the bass on his left, the way McCartney did, and he pulled off the massive task with "a lot of perseverance".

"(Switching hands) was kind of strange, but it makes the image -- it makes the picture of The Beatles on stage look correct," he said. "It was always kind of a little bit 'wrong' being a right-handed player, so making a move to left just kind of completed the whole thing."

White adds that to "gain control" over his left hand, he spent time writing his name and doing other menial tasks with it, and went from not playing with his left hand at all to actually doing a show within that very short period.

"It was very quick, but it was very bad playing too!" he admits, but adds that his playing has evolved -- and improved -- over five years.

He smiles shyly when he admits that he is now ambidextrous, not simply in writing but more impressively both in guitar and bass-playing.

Staying true to the original sound, through four eras

The Bootleg Beatles show set consists of a range of four costumes that come from four key eras in music from The Fab Four. (Photo courtesy of BASE Entertainment Asia)

With the effort that the Bootleg Beatles have put into becoming as similar as possible to the Beatles themselves, their show promises a two-hour walk down memory lane for long-time fans, as well as a colourful discovery for younger-generation ones who would not have had the opportunity to see the Four perform live in their heyday.

The Bootleg Beatles show set displays looks, costumes and songs from four different eras in the original band's short-lived career together, from the Fab Four era of Love Me Do to the psychedelic explosion of colour in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and ending with their iconic solid-coloured suits in their Abbey Road years, re-creating their rooftop performance for Let It Be.

Having played in various parts of Asia and Europe as well as in America, and even in the Middle East, the tribute band uses replicas of instruments and amplifiers used by the Fab Four.

Barrau said they had the privilege of playing for George Harrison at Pink Floyd frontman David Gilmour's 50th birthday party, where he was told by Harrison that they "probably know the chords better" than him.

Over and above this, the four tour with an eight-piece ensemble that allows them to perform songs that the Beatles were never able to play live -- like I Am The Walrus, Penny Lane, All You Need Is Love and Eleanor Rigby.

Despite what a challenge all of it is, the four Bootlegs all say emphatically what an honour it is to be part of the experience, and to be responsible for bringing it to audiences everywhere.

"It's amazing... I mean, you fly around the world and you get this amazing response to their music," said Degenhardt.

"And the longer you do it, the better the ensemble gets, and it gets more enjoyable and more accurate as well... it takes on a life of its own even though you're playing the same music every night."

The Bootleg Beatles perform live at the Marina Bay Sands Grand Theater from 8 to 11 November. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.