Next best thing’ topping the bill

EMMA OUTTEN When you can’t have the genuine article, how about the next best thing? Emma Outten looks at the enduring appeal of tribute bands.


It was 25 years ago that The Bootleg Beatles formed, but to co-founder Andre Barreau, who takes the role of George Harrison in the band, it seems like yesterday.

In 1980 there was little interest in a so-called 'clone' group. Beyond the odd Elvis impersonator, The Bootleg Beatles were second to none as a tribute act. "We were the first," confirmed Andre.

In fact, The Bootleg Beatles pioneered the tribute sub-culture and paved the way for acts like Björn Again, the tribute to ABBA.

A quarter of a century on and The Bootleg Beatles perform to sell-out concerts. Although Andre would acknowledge that they were not taken seriously at first, they have become something of an art form.

Andre's love affair with The Beatles remains as strong as the day his grandmother gave him a Twist and Shout EP. Andre said: "I was hooked even as a seven-year-old."

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Andre believes the fact all the members have been self-confessed Beatles fanatics from childhood has contributed towards the band's success.

Such fanaticism leads to attention to detail. They have put in years of work, studying records and video tapes, and using all their skills as musicians and actors to look and sound like The Beatles.

"The more you know the better you can make the show," said Andre.

They recreate the greatest pop group in history from top to toe, from Lennonesque quips to McCartneyesque gestures; from Ringo's unwavering smile to George's trademark 'Liverpool Leg.'

Andre said: "We are serious about the music, and we are serious about The Beatles, but we don't take ourselves seriously." He added: "I don't go round thinking I'm George Harrison."

He agreed that word of mouth played a big part in promoting tribute acts. "You have to have word of mouth that you build up over the years."

But with so many bands getting in on the tribute act, is there a danger that reliving nostalgia can harm live music? "People like to see something that they know," said Andre. "That's what tribute bands offer. It means that there's less creative music, but I don't really hear it being that creative in the current charts…" And, he added: "Tribute bands are a symptom rather than a reason."

Sadly, however, the band's scheduled concert at North Walsham Rugby Club this Saturday has been cancelled due to poor ticket sales.

Promoter Chris Bailey, of Norwich-based IML Concerts, said: "We were very surprised and disappointed. We'd put in a lot of hard work."

He blamed an increase in the number of outdoor concerts in Norfolk, rather than a lack of enthusiasm for tribute bands.

"Ten years ago there were just two classical concerts at Blickling. Now we've got five concerts there, three at Thetford Forest, and more at Sennowe Park and the King's Lynn Festival, but the audience has not increased tenfold.

"With tickets costing anywhere between £25 and £37.50, people can't afford to go to them all and are just choosing one concert a summer.

"Last year a lot of people got wet, so they're waiting for the last minute to buy tickets, which doesn't help promoters."

Chris, who also runs Norwich-based event management company Event Management Services, has promoted tribute bands at the last four Royal Norfolk Shows.

Last year it was the turn of the UK Beach Boys, who were privileged to be invited to join The Beach Boys on stage at Thetford Forest during their brief visit to the UK in the summer of 2003.

He said: "While budgets wouldn't allow the 'real thing,' the tribute bands offer a highly professional option and their enthusiasm for the event, mixed with the audience's participation, makes for as exciting an evening as if the real thing were performing."

The early 1990s really saw the emergence of look-alike, sound-alike bands.

Tribute acts had previously been poor currency in theatre land. Promoters and theatre managers alike were shy of risking money and reputations on imitations.

At the Theatre Royal Norwich, the first tribute act to appear was none other than The Bootleg Beatles, in 1994.

Press and programming manager Jane Walsh said Queen and ABBA tribute bands were the ones that generally sold out. She added: "I expect with Queen and ABBA that there is such a huge fan base for the original bands and their songs that people just love to hear the songs played live.

"I guess for a lot of people it is reliving happy memories and it is a special atmosphere when you are with a large crowd of other people who are all enjoying a show, rather than listening to music at home."

Nowadays tribute acts play festivals and stadia, as well as theatres.

And at the Hilton Norwich, tribute nights are a big feature on the events listings, with people making a night of it at the hotel with a three-course dinner as part of the package.

Tomorrow sees a double tribute combination of Robbie Williams and Frank Sinatra, followed by a Wham! tribute on Saturday.

The Corn Exchange in King's Lynn has a limited number of tribute bands each season as the venue is large enough to take 'original' acts.

Think Floyd, the Pink Floyd tribute, were one of the first tribute acts to play the venue back in 1997 and have been popular ever since, last returning in November last year.

Since the venue opened The Backbeat Beatles and One Night Of Queen have proved particularly popular - the latter, featuring Stars in Their Eyes grand final winner Gary Mullen as Freddie Mercury, always sells out.

The Princess Theatre in Hunstanton is a smaller venue but tribute bands have been playing at the theatre from around the same time as at the Corn Exchange.

Magic: A Kind Of Queen first played the venue in 1996 and have since become very popular. Voulez Vous, an ABBA tribute, also played at the Princess in 1996 and have returned many times since, most recently in January.

ABBA: The Show have been extremely popular over the past few years and this summer will play seven concerts as part of the summer season programme. Marketing assistant Duncan Ashwell said: "Tribute bands make up a much larger proportion of the programme in Hunstanton. The audience are particularly keen on them and will return year after year to see their favourite groups."

Having celebrated their 25th anniversary, Andre Burreau believes The Bootleg Beatles are as strong as ever, but there may come a time when they have to hang up their wigs.

Andre, who will be 50 next year, said: "We are trying to look like the young Beatles. It could get to the point where it gets a bit embarrassing!" But with the real Paul McCartney opening the recent Live8 event in Hyde Park with U2, Andre could still be playing tribute to The Beatles when he's 64.