Gary James' Interview With Steven Howard Of
The Mersey Beatles
The Mersey Beatles share something in common with The Beatles. They too were all born in Liverpool, England. Since 1999 The Mersey Beatles have been performing their tribute act to The Beatles with rave reviews! One of the most impressive comes from John Lennon's sister, Julia Baird, who said, "The Mersey Beatles are the most authentic I've heard and I've heard them all." Steve Howard, who portrays Paul McCartney in The Mersey Beatles, spoke with us about the band.
Q - How is it you guys get to use Beatles for the name of your group? Is it because Julia Baird is touring with you guys?
A - Well, the only information we have on that is direct from Cavern City Tours, a guy called Bill Heckle, who is also one of the directors of the club along with Julia and in the early days he said to us that there would have been a problem with it and there still may be at some stage, but because you're from Liverpool, Apple doesn't go too strongly on the Liverpool bands. There's kind of privilege there you know? But I know a lot bands in America have to be legally correct, but in Liverpool it's slightly different. Apple doesn't want to be seen as going after four guys from Liverpool. So we just lucked out with that really.
Q - Most American Beatles tribute groups will take their name from a Beatles song.
A - Well, I think that's a great thing. It gives you a chance to be witty. You've got some great names. Fab Four is a good name. 1964, which says they only do the early stuff, which is a nice little touch. Being named after one of the songs is okay, but for us we wanted to tell you where we were from and exactly what kind of music you were going to get. So Mersey is the river which runs from Liverpool and Beatles, so if it ever comes to it we'll change the spelling. We've been told not to use the drop T and the big B. (laughs) So we are subject to some restrictions. We get away with a little bit what with being from Liverpool.
Q - So, the selling point of The Mersey Beatles is that you're from Liverpool and are the only Beatles tribute act that can say that.
A - Yeah. That's right. There are bands with certain members. I know The Fab Four in America have a George from Liverpool, Gavin. He's a good friend of ours, but we're the only ones born and bred and based and raised in Liverpool. There are other great scouse Johns and Pauls in various bands around, but we always knew this would be the big seller. Plus of course you have to be good. You can't just be fall-outs from Liverpool and play it badly 'cause it wouldn't work. (laughs) Not to sound too big-headed, but we're also a really good band. So the scouse thing and the fact that we play it quite well, that all works in our favor.
Q - Did someone put this group together or did you guys all meet on your own?
A - We did it completely from scratch, just being friends like The Beatles and having the idea to put it together as a Beatles tribute band rather than a band that played various covers in our own clothes. We kind of went out and bought white coats and the black turtle neck sweaters in the early days. Just the cheapest we could get really, (laughs) in the first year just to see if we could do it and see if people liked how we did it, and they really did. There was something about the naturalness in the way we did it that people liked a lot. It wasn't too staged managed. It wasn't staged managed at all in fact. It was just four lads playing the songs. So people really seemed to like that aspect of it. We carried on a little bit with that. We do have the wigs now, but we don't act on stage. We don't have a script, which is really important to us to try to keep it natural because we're four lads from Liverpool. In Liverpool they just wouldn't have us doing that kind of thing with the accents. It's so corny. (laughs) Liverpool is a real gritty place. It's a beautiful place, but the people are very real. They won't take this acting and the mimicking. (laughs)
Q - You can't say anything on stage that The Beatles wouldn't have said. You wouldn't be able to say any slang that's used today.
A - Of course not. You have to maintain a kind of respect for the originals, but what we don't say is, "The people in the cheap seats clap your hands. The rest rattle your jewelry." We assume that the audience already knows all of that stuff. Although it's fun and I'm not knocking anyone that does it, we know why they do it. It's to create the illusion of being at one of those concerts, but we don't do it because we want you to be at our concert, a Beatles fan right now and enjoying the atmosphere right at that moment, not try to hark back to something that's already happened, but enjoy Beatles music today. I guess that's what our M.O. is, to kind of bring the music back into today and give people a show for today.
Q - What were you doing before The Mersey Beatles?
A - Well, we all had various jobs in Liverpool. So, I worked in a warehouse. I worked in a school as a care assistant. I actually had a plumbing apprenticeship at one stage, but all the time that I was doing that we were always in various bands, writing original stuff or playing covers. But it was always The Beatles that interested us the most. By the time we got to 26, 27, we thought we're not going to get signed. Time to do the second best thing we like which is to play Beatles music rather than write our own. We can play this stuff. We can play it quite well. Let's formalize it. Let's make it something worthwhile.
Q - You had a ten year residency at The Cavern Club?
A - Yeah. We had longer, but ten years was the first stint from 2002 to 2012. Then in 2013, very early 2013, we had a schedule full of overseas work and other corporate work and theatre work. We just couldn't keep up the gigs at The Cavern, so The Cavern by mutual consent had kind of a year out basically. So we went back in 2014 and again by 2015 we had a call from America. We had lots of American work, lots of work in Europe and we had to leave. So in all the residency lasted more than ten years, but there was one stint where we went a full ten years where we went as the one and only resident Beatles tribute band at the club, which was great. It was a great calling card for us.
Q - The Cavern Club you performed in is the re-built Cavern Club, correct?
A - That is correct.
Q - How much of the original atmosphere does it retain?
A - Oh, people who were at the original Cavern say the Arch Room is very much like the old Cavern. It's obviously slightly more modern. The toilets in the old Cavern were apparently shocking. The toilets in this Cavern have to be up to standard and that kind of thing. It's less gritty than it was. But when the music starts it's just as atmospheric, which is to do with the fact that a lot of modern artists have played this one. They have two rooms. They have one which is a replica of the original and they have another called the 'live' lounge where artists like Adele have played there, Travis, some big bands, also where original bands from Liverpool can still try to go and play their music and get heard. So The Cavern is not just a nostalgia place. It's a current Rock music venue. Paul McCartney in fact played the 'live' lounge for his millennium concert. So, Paul McCartney has played at this new Cavern so it kind of validated the whole thing.
Q - When The Beatles played The Cavern they would do a lunchtime and evening set. Did you guys play The Cavern at lunchtime?
A - Very rarely did we play at lunchtime, but people came from all over the world and at any day of the week they can find 'live' music from mid-day to midnight. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday it goes until two in the morning. There's always 'live' music but usually the early slots are for solo acts. There's no backing tapes. It's all 'live'. So you have to bring your acoustic. You have to play it properly and they have a roster of really good quality acts, solo acts and bands which includes band from the Merseybeat era, Beatles tribute bands and in the 'live' lounge they have other covers and original music and occasionally the real, real top artists such as Adele, McCartney. Big guys. You can go any day of the week and find 'live' music at The Cavern.
Q - Did they advertise Paul McCartney when he played The Cavern?
A - Yeah. The room he played in only holds something like 350 people and he was promoting the "Run Devil Run" album. In his band he had Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd, Ian Paice from Deep Purple. He just had this incredible band. What they did was they played the album and all Rock 'n' Roll covers. Something like twelve or thirteen songs and then they threw in "I Saw Her Standing There" for good measure. So it wasn't a regular McCartney gig. It was a one-off and he did it to celebrate his sort of millennium party. He did it in December of 1999 to bring in the new millennium. That was a special thing. So, people were on a ballot for that. Thousands and thousands as you can imagine. Those that couldn't get tickets, they showed the concert on a big screen in a big park in Liverpool, Chavasse Park in Liverpool.
Q - What were ticket prices?
A - I can't remember to be honest. It wasn't about making money, so I don't think those tickets were too exorbitant. If I was gonna guess I'd say around the $35 mark.
Q - What does it mean having Julia Baird's endorsement?
A - An awful lot just because she is our friend. She's John's sister. Everything that goes with having one of The Beatles inner circle, if you like, endorse the band and say, "Look, this band is great," it means a lot to us personally. When she first said, "This is one of the best bands, Beatles bands in the world," we were just stunned. It was nice. Now, it's great to have her on tour because she's great company. As you can imaging she's a very interesting person like John was. She's very intelligent. She's great conversation. It just means the world to us to have her on tour, for the lads to have her around and for her to give us the inside on John' early life is also really interesting as a Beatles fan because she has insight that nobody else could possible have. Her book will tell you more about those insights and life with him and his mother, Julia. It means a lot.
Q - You've been touring the U.S. recently. Was that your first major tour of the U.S.?
A - It was the first major tour of the East Coast. We had played in the mid-West, which is where our promoter Mark Minnick is from. So, we played the mid-West on three previous occasions. And then he decided the best thing to do was to try to hit all the main areas. So then we went down to Florida and the Southern states like Birmingham, Alabama, Mobile, Alabama, all around Florida. Then we did the East Coast. In October of this year (2016) we were actually going to do the West Coast as well. By then we will have hit all the main areas. Then we're going to choose from those which were the best, like the most profitable and the most enjoyable and make some more future tours from those.
Q - Beatles fans really care about detail. I noticed that as Paul McCartney you do not play a left-handed Hofner bass. Does anyone ever bring that up to you?
A - Yeah, occasionally they ask and I say I'm a rightie. I'm left-handed in the mirror, the standard jokes we throw in there. One thing is just to really not worry about it that much. We understand how some of the fans want you to have the exact tuning pegs for instance, (laughs) or perhaps they say, "Paul had brown eyes. You've got green eyes." We understand it. We don't judge it, but the point is we're not that interested in those details. We're interested in the detail of the music. So the bass lines have to work correctly and the harmonies have to work correctly so that the music works. The look, I always call a contract of fun between you and the audience. They know you're not The Beatles. You're wearing a wig. Paying respect to the originals can also include realizing it's just time to settle down and think about the most important thing, which is the music, and that's what we've always done.
Q - Have you ever seen one of The Beatles in person?
A - I've seen Paul many times, thirteen times in fact. I've seen Ringo three times. I've never met any of them. We got close in Detroit when Julia actually got to go in and see Paul. We were at a concert with Julia at one of Paul's concerts. She'd been calling his people that week 'cause they're friends. Paul and Julia are friends. By the time we got to the concert it was too late to kind of bring the entourage in. Paul was relaxing. Julia went in to meet him and we just missed out. But we're not bitter. We go to see the show. Again, they say never meet your heroes. I'd rather see Paul up on the stage than be in a room and bother him with questions as I probably would.