Now enjoying its 50th anniversary with a brand-new stereo remix courtesy of Giles Martin, The Beatles’ White Album is being celebrated on tour by The Bootleg Beatles, famous worldwide for their uncannily accurate presentation of The Fab Four’s music…
Paul, John, Ringo and George returned to Abbey Road Studios at the end of May 1968 to begin recording their ninth studio album, simply titled The Beatles. After the shockwaves created by the previous year’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, as it would come to be known, was a complete contrast.
A simple white cover (a very daring step in the days when the pop album was still an emerging art form) and straightforward songs, it was about as far as you could get from the extravagance of Sgt Pepper. This was the era where the Fabs were exclusively a studio band and both Sgt Pepper and The White Album were never destined to reach the live stage.
Cutting-edge recording technology of the day (Abbey Road was being upgraded to eight-track tape machines at the time) meant that far more was possible in the studio, and so the band let their collective imagination run riot. All well and good, of course, and classic songs such as While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Dear Prudence, Martha My Dear and Back In The USSR have since become part of music history. But what’s it like forensically picking apart those tracks to recreate them live 50 years later?
We tracked down The Bootleg Beatles - Tyson Kelly (‘John’), Steve White (‘Paul’), Stephen Hill (‘George’) and Gordon Elsmore (‘Ringo’) - to a rehearsal room in South West London where they were busy working on a set that would see many of the songs from The White Album come to life. Wigs, make-up and prosthetics ensure the band look like the originals did in 1968 and period-correct instruments and amplifiers complete the illusion. But what challenges have The Bootlegs faced in their attempt to faithfully recreate material that was never designed for the live stage in the first place?
“It’s Dear Prudence at the minute,” says Stephen/‘George’. “We’ve never done it as a group before, but it’s the harmonies mainly, not so much the guitar parts. We’re doing Savoy Truffle as well, which is just a great song with a great solo, but we’re not rehearsing with the orchestra today, so it’s missing that brass, the backbone of it. We’ve been practising the songs on our own for a long time, so we came in knowing what we’re doing. Over the last four or five years we’ve been doing certain White Album songs. The new ones that we are doing to celebrate the album, there’s nothing too taxing there. It’s mainly Steve/‘Paul’ who’s got his work cut out…”
Steve, is it true you relearned the bass to play left-handed like Paul?
Steve/‘Paul’: “Yes and I was absolutely terrible when I first started. It was like beginning again, you know? I stuck with it for three months, hour upon hour, blister upon blister and after three months I got to a point where I could do very, very basic basslines.
“Over time I got more proficient and I got more fluidity in my playing and it got better and better. I’ve been doing it for maybe 10 or 15 years or so now. It’s never natural. I can make it look natural and I can make it sound quite natural, but it’s really not. When I pick a right-handed instrument up, the thing I can liken it to is putting on a comfy pair of shoes or your slippers. The relief! It’s so much easier to play the guitar righthanded, but visually it’s got to look right.”
And what about the bassline on Dear Prudence?
Steve/‘Paul’: “The bassline is not that tricky - it’s similar in some ways to Come Together, it’s got the sliding notes going on. But it’s the backing vocals that are quite tricky. Dear Prudence starts off quite thin, but by the time you get to the end it’s fat and big. It’s quite hard to make it sound that full. Obviously, The Beatles could overdub it as much as they like. We don’t have that luxury live on stage, so we have to do it as best we can.”
What gear are you using to recreate The White Album material?
Tyson/‘John’: “I have the Epiphone Casino, which uses the P-90 pickups, going straight into the Vox. It’s just a pretty clean sound going into that Vox AC30, you know? Occasionally, we use a Vox ToneLab. Then there’s the Rickenbacker 325 - that’s just a little baby. That’s a toy, that thing is! Seriously, the neck is so small, really great for rhythm.
“The acoustic is a 1964 Gibson J-160 and it sounds unbelievable. Things were made differently back then, so when you put a mic up to that thing and you strum it, it sounds exactly like the record.”
Stephen/‘George’: “It’s just the ‘Lucy’ Les Paul for that period, for me. It will go through the Vox. We tend to tour with the Fenders as well, but that’s normally for the Abbey Road Let It Be sections, but I’m going to go through the Vox. We’re still planning it all, it’s still the fine tuning, we’ve just got to get the songs down and then we’ll start seeing how the stage is going to look and be set.
“There’s a few different pedals. I’ve got a standard distortion, I’ve got an overdrive and I’ve got a JHS Crayon pedal, which is designed to recreate the overdrive straight into the desk. For The White Album stuff I use it for Revolution, which is the sound; it’s designed for that. We’ll do While My Guitar Gently Weeps; I’ve got a bit of chorus and the distortion for that. There are a few little things to try and get one sound, so I might have three or four pedals on at the same time.”
Steve, we spotted that you have two iconic Rickenbacker 4001S basses…
Steve/‘Paul’: “I have to use two to simulate the different look throughout The Beatles’ career, but the one that I’ll be focusing on for The White Album will be the blonde one. It’s to depict the look of McCartney’s bass once he’d stripped all the finish off - he’d taken all the psychedelic paintwork off, so that’s the idea of that guitar.
“The amplifier was a Vox AC100. The head has been changed; it’s been modified to a slightly more modern amp because the original had fried. So I’ve had to use a slightly more modern head for usability, basically. Then the cab is a twin 15, I think they refer to it as the T100 cab. McCartney used two, he used what they called the T60, which was a 15-inch in the bottom and a 12-inch in the top.”
Rubber (soul) stamped
Do you use any 21st-century technology?
Tyson/‘John’: “There’s a [Tech 21 SansAmp] Liverpool pedal in there. Just a kind of tone adjustment. There’s volume and a drive for cranking up the nastiness. I just generally use it to cut through a little bit more, you know - going straight into the amp, you only have so much control over the tone. There’s a Boss Super Overdrive pedal, an old 80s pedal, just for anything distorted. In terms of pedals - man, don’t get me started. There are so many incredible pedals out there that if I had all the money in the world, I’d probably have a pedalboard the size of a grand piano!”
We’re guessing you’ve all been Beatles fans for quite some time?
Tyson/‘John’: “My father introduced me to the Help! record when I was very young - maybe when I was seven years old. I started listening to that on a tape cassette in the car. We’d go up to Lake Tahoe, and Beatles songs got stuck in my head, and then during high school I just got totally obsessed and went through the entire catalogue and really connected with John.”
Stephen/‘George’: “I just happened to hear Strawberry Fields [for the first time] in Liverpool, funnily enough. I must have been six or seven, visiting family and it just happened to be on. It kind of took off from there; you just start learning the guitar and then you want to learn more Beatles, you know?”
Have The Bootlegs ever received any feedback from The Beatles themselves?
Steve/‘Paul’: “I would love to. I would love for Paul to say whether I was doing him justice. I’d like to think I am, I do try very hard. I know the past incarnation of The Bootleg Beatles were lucky enough to meet The Beatles on a number of different occasions and exchanged a few words. When they were playing the Queen’s Jubilee Paul came up and said, ‘Don’t play Hey Jude because I’m doing it.’ Then he said, ‘When you’re on, I’m going to come and heckle you!’
“Then, of course, Andre [Barreau, a previous ‘George’] was lucky enough to meet George, and George said to Andre, ‘Who’s the bootleg Brian Epstein? Because he’s got all the money!’”
The Bootleg Beatles tour the UK and Europe extensively in 2019. Visit the Bootleg Beatles website for further details and to book tickets.