Monday 18 July 2011

Paying Tribute to the Beatles: The Mersey Beatles!

Every Thursday night the Cavern rocks when the Mersey Beatles pay tribute to the Beatles. In 2009, Donna Jackson spoke to ‘John’ (Mark), ‘Paul’ (Steven), ‘George’ (Dave), and ‘Ringo’ (Brian), along with their ‘fifth Beatle’ (keyboard player and fellow Scouser, Tony C) to ask about their ten years of keeping the magic alive, and what the future holds for them:

I've heard you play enough to know that you're all great musicians. Why did you decide to be a tribute band? And why the Beatles?

Mark (John): The Beatles would be the only tribute band I would ever do! They are the one band I never tire of listening to.

Steven (Paul): We started out writing our own material. Then we got a covers set together with the idea of making a little money in pubs in Liverpool until we got the elusive record deal we were looking for. As time went by we realised that was a bit of a pipe dream and the covers gigs were coming in and taking a lot of our time. I think we just enjoyed it more when the Beatles songs came along in the set. I know I did anyway. The Beatles have always been my favourite band.

Dave (George): Original music is a tough scene. Playing random songs in the pub wasn't very interesting either so Ste had the idea to form a tribute to our favourite band with the existing members of the band (1999).

Brian (Ringo) : The Beatles were the obvious choice for us being from Liverpool and growing up with the music.

How did you get together?

Ste. Mark and Brian were in the same year in school as me. Dave is my cousin. We were just mates who loved the same music. Still are.

Tony (Keys) I was the DJ and compare at a venue in Liverpool called Coopers Emporium, (now demolished) I asked them to play at a benefit night for my two young nephews who were injured in a fire here in Liverpool back in 1999. The guys agreed to do that for me and the management of the venue were so amazed by their music that they gave the band a residency there and then. It was the start of them becoming well known in Liverpool. The two boys have since made a great recovery so it’s a success story for all parties. I became friends with them but it wasn’t until 2004 that I joined when they were branching out into Pepper and beyond.

Are you all Beatles fans? If so, why/when did you become fans?

Brian: Of course! Late teens as I started to get more interested in music.

Steve: I was a bit younger. I'm a massive Beatles fan but I didn't know much about them until I was 8. On the day John Lennon died, they showed Help! on TV as a tribute ... I think it was the same night ... and I was hooked. I remember asking my brother "What's that one’s name" and questions like that. I thought they were so cool. I remember my initial reaction was that I was proud to be from the same city as these cool fellas and that the songs were great but most vividly that Ringo was the funny one. I was only 8, remember. I was glad to find out that we already had the Please Please Me album in the house. Over the next week or two I wore that out on this old stereogram we used to have. It was a giant piece of furniture that sat under the window in the front room! I remember a couple of weeks later, on Christmas Eve, I couldn’t get to sleep and I could hear people coming home from the pub singing ‘Imagine’. I knew it was important to people. My brother got a "music system" which was really just a turntable with a built in radio and two big speakers and soon we had the Beatles “Red” and “Blue” and Lennon’s Shaved Fish. I just couldn't get enough of the Beatles.

Tony: I became more of a fan once I joined the band. When I started really listening to the songs I was asked to learn, it soon became apparent to me that The Beatles were talented guys and I was so impressed with the arrangements of the songs, the harmonies and the art behind their songwriting. It slowly but surely influenced my life in the last 5 years. I feel I'm a better musician and it has enhanced my reputation from being a local rock keyboard player from the ’90s, to the Wix Wickens of the Mersey Beatles, some may say Billy Preston, but I don’t mind being mentioned in the same breath as them.

Mark: I’ve always been a Beatles fan for as long as I can remember. Me and my cousin used to play Beatles songs at family parties from the age of about 8. It was my cousin who actually got me into them. He was in one of, if not THE first Beatles tribute band in Liverpool, back in 1982.

Dave: My parents owned 4 records between them when I was about 8 or 9. The Best of Simon and Garfunkel, something by Blondie and some rubbish like Now 82 and Beatles for Sale. I wore the needle out on the Simon and Garfunkel LP as I was just learning the guitar and they made the best sound that I'd discovered so far, although in retrospect the Blondie album was full of cool guitar riffs which I failed to appreciate back then. Even to this day there is no acoustic guitar on record that sounds as good as S and G's! Then came Beatles for Sale. That was when I decided to become a 'rock star'! The sound of the album and the Beatles was fresh, loud and exciting! To learn they were from Liverpool made them even more appealing. Then, you know, you ask your parents questions to get a bit of history on them. It was a marvellous discovery! George’s guitar on the album sounded great especially on 'Honey Don't'. Crazy rock and roll solos that were travelling at speed and screaming voices followed by 'I'll follow the sun', smooth and warm, then back to the electricity. This roller-coaster music when you’re young, understanding and 'getting' music is inspiring. Like millions of others I had started my journey into the Beatles abyss and made my mother buy me as many Beatles cassettes as I could beg for.

Are you able to enjoy listening to the Beatles, or is it too much like 'work'?

Ste: We still love to listen to them. We have them on in the van all the time. It's great to hear the songs live but there's nothing like those records. Their voices. I've never heard a tribute band come close. They sing ‘She Loves You’ like their lives depend on it. That's what makes it so exciting and elevates them above their peers. Even before they wrote meaningful or poetic lyrics they still sounded like they had something important to say on those early records. Bob Dylan said they're the only band who could sing ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret’ and not make it sound corny. I really get that. It was raw and unsentimental.

Mark: Listening to the Beatles IS now my work but it’s the best work I can think of doing.

Tony: I still enjoy listening to The Beatles, and I still learn something new each time such as a little piano here or orchestration there. People say "don’t mix work with pleasure" but to me, working with The Beatles music IS a pleasure!!

Dave: After 10 years I still listen to the Beatles in my free time for pleasure and I am still discovering interesting sounds, background harmonies previously unnoticed and also background noises like George swearing on ‘Hey Jude’ or Paul’s seat creaking on ‘Yesterday’ and John and Paul singing different words at the same time and LEAVING IT ON THE TAKE! How great is that! The little hidden treasures that pop out with repeated listening. Obsessive listening!

How did you decide who would play which Beatle and how much do you think that each of you resembles the Beatle that you play?

Mark: I was originally earmarked to play Lennon because of my voice. Also I think we do actually fit the parts we play character-wise. Steven, like Paul, is very diplomatic; Dave is quiet but chips in with his fair share of comments. Brian’s quite laid back, and I can be quite sarcastic I suppose you could say!!

Steve: Yeah, but I look nothing like Paul. We have a joke in the band when we introduce Dave. I say "He's the one who looks more like Paul than I do". It's a little nod to Lennon's line in A Hard Day’s Night. But I have the high notes in my range like Paul and Dave has the ear for the difficult middle harmony that George took. Plus I’m not a good enough guitarist to do George justice. He was so versatile and under-rated. I don’t think any of us would be better at being one of the other Beatles. I think Mark has a certain kind of "John-ness" and we can create the illusion of the look good enough for theatre shows and all that but it was never really about being lookalikes. It was and still is about the music. If you want to come along and squint your eyes and pretend you’re back in the ’60s, that's fine. But we think of ourselves more like the philharmonic giving you Beethoven. The suits and boots and wigs are a bonus but shouldn't distract from what's really important and that's the songs played live with energy and excitement.

Dave: Exactly. I know of men having medical procedures to have teeth like George! And plastic noses glued on to appear to be Ringo! They then come out to play and bore the Cuban heel off your boot!! They’ve got the right guitars and convincing look, but none of the fundamentals. As a proud Scouse Beatle fan I DO expect respect for the originals in bands who do Beatles music. Sometimes I’m self conscious in the wig and boots, but my pride in the Beatles, Liverpool and keeping alive the music and influence of the city is more important than that. I just try to be professional and respectful to the music and to George Harrison the man. Musically we started miles away from being accurate and even now one or two tweaks are still needed!

Steve: We were mates. We were not some fine tuned west end show. So we started with nothing but our instincts on how it was supposed to look and sound.

Dave: It proves the difficulty of the music if after 10 years I’m still trying to perfect the solo to a Hard Day’s Night. We had the energy required to pull it off and we are much closer to the music these days. I feel much better for it because we believe it’s important to play it with heart and respect for how it was written.

You're the Cavern's one and only resident tribute band. How does it feel when you're playing in such an iconic place for Beatles fans? For example, is it inspiring, or do you feel more pressure than at other places?

Steve: It was a real thrill the first night we played there as a Beatles tribute. We had played the back room a few times years before with our original music. But now we were in the arch room in our waist coats and ties singing Beatles songs. I must admit it was very inspiring and in the 250 odd performances since, we've always tried to keep that feeling. (The Mersey Beatles will break The Beatles’ 292 appearance record in October 2010). I remember it was very hot and we were sweating cobs up there but it all seemed to add to the atmosphere. The place was full. We didn't have wigs back then; we grew our own! I remember being very much against wigs at the time but I have to admit I was wrong there; I think it completes the look if you can find a decent one. We never feel pressured there. In fact it’s one of the most relaxed gigs we do. We just let our hair down every Thursday. Well our wigs anyway.

Mark: I find it quite inspiring. Macca was here in1999. I personally don’t feel any more pressure than at other places but it does have its own unique atmosphere, which makes it always enjoyable to perform there.

Brian: Yeah, it would be even more inspiring if it was the original Cavern! But as Mark just said, Paul McCartney did play there and it still embodies the atmosphere of the original so we love it.

Tony: Whenever I play at The Cavern Club, I get a special feeling. I see many people who close their eyes when we are playing, and they’re back in the ’60s, feeling how it would have been. They make the pilgrimage to Liverpool from around the world so it’s nice to help recreate the music for them

What is your favourite song to perform? Why?

Steve: Usually it's one we've just learned together. At the moment I'm loving ‘If I Needed Someone’ for the harmonies. I've always loved singing ‘Sgt Pepper’ and ‘Oh Darling’ and I love the bass line on ‘All My Loving’ and ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. In fact all of Macca's bass lines are very satisfying to play. They're so melodic. I like slightly lesser played stuff that we play like ‘Kite’. In the early days every single one we added to the set felt great. ‘This Boy’ and ‘If I Fell’ seemed to go down great in those Liverpool clubs we used to play at in the early days. ‘Anna (Go To Him)’ is one of the most requested and ‘In My Life’ too.

Mark: I like ‘Come Together’ and ‘I Am The Walrus’ but I personally lean more towards the ’63-’66 era, and tracks like ‘When I Get Home’, ‘It Won’t Be Long’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’ spring to mind.

Brian: ‘When I Get Home’ is one of my favourites too, because it’s upbeat and lively.

Tony: Last year, we managed to add ‘I Am The Walrus’ to our catalogue. For me it is the most challenging song I have ever had to learn and now when I play it, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction and makes me smile which is important!!

What's the funniest/most embarrassing/most memorable things that have happened while you've been on stage?

Steven: There was the time Brian bravely went on stage feeling very unwell and was sick all over his kit three songs from the end; so near... yet so far.

Mark: Funniest – Dave’s dancing. Embarrassing – Totally forgetting the words. Not often but horrible when it happens. Memorable – playing to a few thousand people at an outdoor gig in Germany. Nothing new for the others but my first taste of it!!

Brian: Too many to mention! Throwing up on stage; falling off the stage. The most memorable was playing Dale Street at the [Mathew Street] Festival.

Tony: Seeing our Ringo (Brian) suddenly disappearing from his drum kit. He had somehow forgotten that there was a 6 foot drop at the back of the stage behind his kit and fell backwards...This happened over in Vasteras in Sweden 4 years ago....Sorry Bri!!

You've added your own touches to some of the songs - for example, the way that they finish. Does it ever feel strange that you're 'messing' with the Beatles' creations?

Steve: Usually we only add a good ending if the record fades out. So we invented live endings for ‘Lucy In the Sky’ and ‘All You Need Is Love.’ We play all the songs in the right key. We do all the harmonies correctly, I think, and we try to get the “feel” right but a record that fades gives you a bit of creative licence. They never covered Chuck Berry or Little Richard or Arthur Alexander exactly the same as the records so I think the odd new ending is acceptable.

Mark: But we are a tribute band and apart from the odd ending we try to sound like The Beatles live.

Steve: I’ve never liked improvised solos, especially on things like ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. Dave plays that so well. If you just play a standard rock scale it can sound more like Status Quo.

Dave: George's was a unique technique. We've had a million arguments about the speed of songs and the dynamics.

Steve: But I just think you “just know” in the moment how loud or fast it should be to fit the mood of any particular night. If you're worrying about timing and all that you can lose the soul. Our mate Jimmy from another Beatles tribute band summed it up for me. He said "The Beatles, live, weren't about perfection it was about nervous energy" and he's totally right. Live music is in the moment. That's the point of it.

Tony: I think it just puts our spin on the endings. No harm done I say!!!

What Beatles album would you give a Beatles novice?

Steve: Well, until they re-master the “Red” and “Blue” album I’d say get something like “A Hard Day’s Night” and the “White Album.” This will give you an idea of the journey you’re undertaking. Make sure you go for the stereo re-mastered CDs. Don’t get the 1987 CDs. The new re-masters sound so much better. (The Beatles were first released on CD in 1987). Listening to the re-mastered “Beatles For Sale” was like I’d never heard it before. So crisp and clear.

What do you think of Beatles Rockband? Have any of you played it?

Steve: I'm not much for computer games. Never was. But I suppose whatever turns you on to The Beatles is a good thing. That was the most useful thing about Oasis.

Brian: I played it non-stop, and completed it! It’s a good way to get the younger generation into the Beatles.

Tony: Rockbad I call it!! I just don’t want to get into it for my own sanity. But if it means that millions of kids are going to start playing REAL instruments, then all is good.

Mark: I think it’s a new, inventive way of introducing a new generation who wouldn’t necessarily go out and buy a CD to the magic of The Beatles. I’ve not actually played it as yet but will probably do so sometime soon.

Julia Baird has said that she thinks that you're the best Beatles tribute band. How did that make you feel?

Brian: Proud!

Steve: It was very kind of Julia to say that. We were standing on that stage and she came on before our encore to thank everyone and when she said that about us I just felt very proud. We all did. It was special. I remember her telling us later that she meant every word and that we could quote her on it whenever we liked. It was an honour to hear that and the quote was on the web site soon after. We never would have used it without her permission and I asked her recently if I could use the quote in this year’s Beatle Week mag. We were thrilled when she said yes. We had spent some time with her in Australia for their inaugural Beatles week in 2004, and she saw us in Sweden and Liverpool before she invited us to play at Telfords [in Chester].

Mark: To have that said about you by anyone would be an honour; but to have it said to you by John Lennon’s sister is unbelievable.

Tony: For Julia to say that shows how hard each member of the band has worked to get the sound as near as can possibly be to the original. Tribute bands can sometimes get negative press, but at the end of the day we only have good intentions.

What's the best/most satisfying thing about being in the band?

Steve: It's the second best job in the world. Writing/recording or having someone record my own songs would be the best job in the word. To me anyway. To play the music of the band you love most for a living's not bad at all. I had many jobs before and, I can tell you, I know how lucky I am to be doing this instead. Plus there are some wonderful perks. The odd cruise here and there. The likes of us visiting Abbey Road to do a show. Can't complain; right?? Last week we were in Surrey to support The Royal Philharmonic orchestra in an open air show for 2000 people. In their second half I got to play Yesterday with them. The whole string section came in on the second verse and it was like ... gulp! It was surreal but such an honour.

Mark: Performing songs by the best band ever in the history of music ... and getting paid to do it as well!! Ha ha!

Brian: It’s fantastic being able to make a living doing what I love and travelling seeing places we wouldn’t otherwise get to see is great!

Tony: The most satisfying thing for me is playing to sell out venues and theatres around the world, especially in Scandinavia, and meeting great people along the way, some of whom worked with The Beatles and telling us stories that will never be brought to press...

Dave: Just playing the music. The assumption is that the songs are 'simple' and easy to learn. The chords are on occasion basic but the gist or essence of the songs is the riffs and melody! George Harrison has many a budding guitarist scratching their heads as we speak. Making it “sound simple.” That’s the trick and they did it so well. There is ''learning'' the guitar, then, ''choosing notes,” and when not to play and how loud to play. To then to be able to deliver them notes on guitar, drums, piano, bass and voice AS WELL is truly astounding. They had raw talent and then mastered it. To have the four of them in one place was like a cosmic alignment that only happens once. Ever. Anywhere.

Last year you celebrated your 10th birthday as a band. How does it feel that you've been together longer than the original Beatles?

Tony: For any band, to celebrate 10 years is amazing. The Mersey Beatles is now a successful band which is growing in stature and it’s a lesson to all up and coming bands, not just tribute bands either, stick with it, work hard and the fruits will arrive!!

Brian: It makes me feel old!

Steve: Yeah, it’s strange!! As a Beatles fan it's been great. We've played at Abbey Road studios and become the Cavern Club’s resident band. We've played on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg; and we played at the only place left standing in Australia that the Beatles actually played at just a year before it was demolished – Centennial Hall in Adelaide. All this was great as a fan. We've played massive shows on big outdoor stages both here and overseas but the little pubs and clubs mean just as much to us (many of which The Beatles played at). It’s been like a pilgrimage for us at times. It shows how great The Beatles were. It took them less time to actually write and record all those great songs and make all those movies and promos and do all those tours and change music forever than it has for us to learn less than half of their output.

Dave: It’s the journey of discovering the Beatles we have experienced as individuals. The four of them made this PERFECT music that has had an impact on the lives of me and so many people.

It sounds like your first ten years as a band has been great! So what’s next?

Ste: In October we pass the Beatles record of 292 performances at The Cavern. It’ll be so special for us because no tribute band has come close to that number and I don’t think any other band will do it for a long, long time. We’re also opening celebrations for what would have been John’s 70th birthday on October 8. On the night before his birthday, we’re doing a very special “John” night at The Hard Day’s Night hotel, here in Liverpool. We’ll perform one set of solo material for the first time and one set of Beatles classics. We did the same for Macca’s birthday last month and we’ll be “remembering George” there in the same way in November. We’ll still be playing at midnight so we’ll be one of the first to play Lennon songs on the special day.

Mark: The Hard Day’s Night is also becoming a special place for us because we do exclusive shows there like the “Happy birthday Paul” or “John’s 70th” night. We get to learn a load of great solo songs especially for each show that you won’t hear us play anywhere else and it keeps us on our toes and it gives our “Cavern Crew”(unofficial and ever growing Mersey Beatles fan club) something different.

Dave: They could have got that hotel so wrong and made it tacky but it’s a really classy hotel. Well done people!!

So do you think you’ll ever get tired of being the Beatles?

Tony: Never!!! Talking of which, I’m off to bed!!

All: Yawn!!

Bri: Well, we’re not the Beatles. We’re a tribute to the Beatles and I love that!

Steve: We don't live it off stage and we don't have a "Beatle script" on stage. Once we're up there anything can happen. We don't put on voices or talk about "Rattle Your Jewellery" and all that. Some do and that's fine for them but it's not our thing. We’re Scouse lads. There would be no point in Scouse lads putting on Scouse accents. We’ll leave all that to the Vegas show bands. I understand why they do it but it’s a bit corny. I never get tired of the music. Whenever we do get some time off it’s nice but that first gig back is great too. Ask me again in another ten years.

Mark: I only get tired of pretending to be a Beatle when my feet hurt because of those bloody shoes I have to wear!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Ste: Thanks to John, Paul, George and Ringo ... and Eppy and George Martin.

Dave: I’m proud to congratulate the Beatles for being fab and gear and giving mine and every one’s life journey, wonder, romance, truth, laughter, tragedy, LOVE and great GREAT music. It’s an epic story that lives on through the records, Paul and Ringo, old people, and of course, the Mersey Beatles!

All: Here here, well said ... (handshakes all round)!

For more information on the Mersey Beatles, check out their website:

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