Entertainer keeping Beatles memories alive

By Graham Reid

The quiet Bootleg Beatle talks to Graham Reid about living in another man's music.

The feeling in Britain in the 80s was we'd had the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, punk and the New Romantics, so who needs the past? Photo / Supplied
The feeling in Britain in the 80s was we'd had the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, punk and the New Romantics, so who needs the past? Photo / Supplied

For the past 32 years Andre Barreau has travelled the world playing the part of another man, and for more than 11 years that man has been dead.

Yes, singer-guitarist Barreau has done other things - lead guitar on Robbie Williams' Angels, written soundtracks, appeared on albums by Wreckless Eric and others -but mostly he's been someone else: the late George Harrison.

After teenage years with the hard-working band Sunsly ("big around Oxford and Swindon, but punk ate us up"), Barreau joined the cast of the London stage show Beatlemania in 1980 and his career as Beatle George began.

"We played for about four months, but it didn't really catch on," says the 52-year-old Londoner.

"It was a weird time because the Beatles weren't as revered as they are now, all the members were still alive and doing things. So there wasn't that feeling of nostalgia."

After the show folded, the four leads formed the Bootleg Beatles with a touring show of Fab Four songs, replicating their look as much as being faithful to the group's changing sound. However, it wasn't easy because it was difficult to replicate many of the songs after late 1966, when the Beatles became a studio-based band.

"You also couldn't get the guitars, the boots or even just a black polo-neck jumper. The only easy thing was the haircuts. Everything else we had to search for. Now the guitars are remade as signature reissues and, because of the number of tribute bands, if you want a certain costume, someone will sell it to you. Back then we had to get everything made from photographs."

British audiences were also largely immune to Beatle music until the 90s when groups like Oasis started hailing them.

"The feeling in Britain in the 80s was we'd had the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, punk and the New Romantics, so who needs the past? But when Oasis were saying the Beatles were amazing and there wasn't going to be another in our lifetime, the feeling for them grew," Barreau says. "Then came the Beatles' Anthology collections, with the Free As A Bird single, and interest grew, especially among those nostalgic for the 60s and the generations who had never known the Beatles."

With better technology, equipment and costumes, the Bootlegs are able to replicate the band they pay tribute to and over time have brought in orchestral players to fill out the sound on complex songs like A Day In The Life.

"We did attempt to play that earlier," he laughs, "but God knows what it was like with just keyboard and guitar doing that [orchestral] build-up. I suppose people were amazed we would even try. Now of course we can replicate the actual track."

Barreau says Beatles' songs rise or fall in popularity - Lennon's Hey Bulldog and Harrison's Here Comes The Sun ascending recently - and when they played Glastonbury (opening for Oasis at their invitation) they played the thrashing Helter Skelter.

"People went, 'what? They're doing heavy metal'. The genius of the Beatles was how they dipped their toes into so much different music."

Over three decades, the Bootlegs - who have won rave reviews for the authenticity of their show - have played in more than 70 of the same venues around the world that the Beatles once did, including places in Liverpool and on the roof of the Beatles' Apple offices (in 1999, on the 30th anniversary of the final performance by the Beatles).

They've even recorded in Abbey Road's Studio Two.

They have met an approving McCartney, Beatles' producer Sir George Martin and - unnervingly for Barreau - Harrison, when they played a small 50th birthday party for Pink Floyd's David Gilmour.

"I was really nervous and thought I would just be the best George I can be and honour his George Beatle. Then we met him afterwards and spoke on and off for about five hours. He was on amazing form."

Harrison corrected them on some Free As A Bird chord changes and asked - Barreau doing this in a pitch-perfect Harrison accent, referring to the Beatles' manager - "So where's the Bootleg Brian Epstein? Because he's got all the money."

"George introduced me to his wife Olivia and [Harrison's former wife] Pattie Boyd, saying, 'and here's the Bootleg Olivia and here's the Bootleg Pattie'. I got home at 5am and couldn't go to sleep."

Unabashed Beatle fan Barreau co-manages the Bootleg's business with their former John Lennon ("confusingly called Neil Harrison") and designs the Bootleg backdrops and artwork. He's been "a Beatle" for three times longer than the originals were and has, as a Bootleg Beatle, played everywhere from Mongolia to India and Russia.

"What kind of band would I have to be in, and have how many hit records, to go around the world like this? To have that link with Beatle history and to record in Abbey Road? Amazing."

Who: Andre Barreau as George Harrison
What: The Bootleg Beatles and Orchestra
Where: ASB Theatre, Auckland, Oct 18-21; St James Theatre, Wellington, Oct 25-28; CBS Arena, Christchurch, October 30

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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