TIM HUGHES talks to The Bootleg Beatles’ Neil Harrison who has been wowing audiences as John Lennon for an amazing three decades.

IT can be a weird experience for any of us to meet our heroes, but pity guitarist Neil Harrison.

The musician has based his career on hero-worship – emulating the look and sound of The Beatles. So the prospect of performing in front of one of his idols was, he admits, terrifying.

Neil, who plays John Lennon in The Bootleg Beatles, admits to being terrified when he found himself playing in front of George Harrison at a 50th birthday party for Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour.

“It was nerve-wracking at first – and even harder for our ‘Bootleg George’, Andre Barreau, having to play in front of him,” he recalls. “But it was great. Afterwards I got to meet him and we spoke at length about lots of stuff. He had been my hero since childhood but was nice, normal and really interested in us.

“He asked ‘why don’t you play your own songs’. But he also said we probably knew the chords better than he did – though we played Free as a Bird and got one note wrong – which he noticed and ticked us off for!”

Credited with starting off the phenomenon of tribute bands, The Bootleg Beatles have been going since 1980 – the band’s Neil, Andre and ‘Bootleg Paul’ David Catlin-Birch meeting in 1979 when they were cast in the hit West End production, Beatlemania.

When the show finished, the band, by then knowing the repertoire inside out, decided to continue performing.

Now celebrating their 30th year, they have outlasted their idols – who were together for just a decade. And they are embarking on an anniversary tour, starting off at Oxford’s New Theatre tomorrow.

A must for Beatles fans, they are, quite simply, the closest we’ll ever get to knowing what it was like to see the Fab Four live.

“It’s amazing how much stuff The Beatles managed to create in such a short time,” says Neil, who hails from the Wirral. “They made so many leaps musically. It’s incredible to see all those styles coming from one group. They released 250 songs and 200 were absolute classics; and their music can still compete today. That’s what keeps me doing it.”

And they keep it alive in style. Packing in five costume changes, they recreate gigs from The Cavern in 1962, to Shea Stadium, through the Sergeant Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour eras to, finally, the rooftop of the Apple Building in 1969.

And the attention to detail doesn’t end in matters sartorial. The guys also use original instruments, with Ludwig drums, Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars and VOX valve amplifiers, to produce an authentic ‘60s sound.

But they go one step further. Joined by a five-piece string and brass ensemble, they faithfully recreate tunes The Beatles never dared play live on stage – like A Day In The Life, Eleanor Rigby, Penny Lane and All You Need Is Love.

It amounts to a huge, theatrical performance, which has earned them slots in front of 70,000 at Wembley Stadium; alongside Oasis at Earl’s Court, Knebworth and Glastonbury; The Corrs and Simple Minds at Fleadh; and headlining with Iggy Pop at Roskilde.

“We do look like The Beatles,” he says. “We’ve got the costumes, the hair and even the moustaches – and we play a big theatre event which sucks you in.”

Starting off before anyone else had twigged on, The Bootleg Beatles were the first tribute band – inspiring the likes of the Counterfeit Stones, Bjorn Again, and Oxford’s own Stripe Whites. But don’t let them hear you using the ‘T’ word.

“There is now a whole genre of tribute bands, but we set out to perform ‘theatre’,” says Neil. “The term ‘tribute’ has connotations of dodgy bands trying to be Queen down the pub. But that’s not what we are about.

“I love tribute bands, but I also hate them. It’s sad they’re taking over – and there’s an awful lot of rubbish out there. But people are doing it because the music is so good. Bands like Abba and the Rolling Stones have a great back catalogue, and people can suspend their belief and have a fun night out.”

It must be strange spending your career pretending to be someone else, I venture.

“I’ve been Lennon longer than me,” Neil sighs. “But I don’t think I’m like him at all – and I try hard not to be. We did have a drummer who started to think he really was Ringo. He even started talking like him. In the end, though, he got the elbow – so he ended up more like Pete Best!”

Neil’s meeting with George was not his first brush with one of the ‘Fabs’, he reveals. “I also met Paul when I was 18,” he says proudly.

“I went carol singing outside his dad’s house in Liverpool, and Paul came out and sang Blackbird. He invited us in for a beer and he sang a few songs from the White Album in his hallway.”

A huge fan himself, Neil’s sense of nostalgia is infectious.

“We are playing to people who grew up with The Beatles, so these songs mean a lot to them. The ‘60s was a colourful time full of hope, and that lives on in our little bubble. But it’s a real family show, with fans of all ages coming along. There are so many people who never got a chance to see The Beatles and this is the best way to hear their music played live. And seeing everyone singing Hey Jude together is always a wonderful sight!”

The Bootleg Beatles play The New Theatre Oxford tomorrow. Tickets are £22.50. Call 0870 606 3500