‘If Ringo had been in any other band in history, he’d be universally considered a brilliant drummer’
The Bootleg Beatles are heading back to Jersey with their widely acclaimed tribute to the Fab Four. Gordon Elsmore, who takes on the role of Ringo Starr, spoke to Tom Ogg
Forget John, Paul, George and Ringo – here’s Adam, Joe, Stephen and Gordon!
Yes, The Bootleg Beatles are heading to Jersey this month, with a live show at Fort Regent (and not the now-defunct Springfield Ballroom, which is where the Beatles themselves played when visiting the Island in 1963).
First formed in 1980 by founding members Neil Harrison and David Catlin-Birch, The Bootleg Beatles – Adam Hastings (John), Joe Kane (Paul), Stephen Hill (George) and Gordon Elsmore (Ringo) – regularly perform to sell-out crowds in arenas and concert halls across the UK and abroad, with an annual slot at Glastonbury Festival that remains a highlight for many festivalgoers – and even a few famous names.
‘We often have big names standing at the side of the stage at Glastonbury and watching us perform,’ says Gordon, speaking over the phone from his UK home. ‘Last year we had the Foo Fighters and Katy Perry in the dressing rooms either side of us, which was quite an unusual combination, and as we performed they watched us play. I thought, “Wow, I didn’t think they’d like us”.’
The 43-year-old musician would certainly seem perfectly suited to take on the role of Ringo, being chatty, good-humoured and, above all, a damn fine drummer – although as Gordon himself is quick to acknowledge, Ringo’s drumming abilities haven’t always received the respect they deserve.
‘Oh, Ringo is massively underrated,’ he says. ‘I think it’s largely because he doesn’t attract attention like the more flashy drummers who hit their drums hard and play up to the audience. By contrast, Ringo is a very understated drummer – he plays to the song, not to the crowd – but he is ostentatiously brilliant, and he was a real part of The Beatles’ genius.’
An easy way to appreciate the subtle complexity of Ringo’s drumming is simply to try to replicate his playing on any given drum kit. It is – as Gordon knows better than most – no easy task.
‘Ask any drummer and they’ll tell you that it’s incredibly difficult to mimic Ringo’s drumming,’ he says. ‘He was naturally left-handed but he played a right-handed drum, which meant he would lead with his left hand where most drummers would lead with their right, and this led to some very strange idiosyncrasies.
‘He was also a wonderfully creative player, particularly in the Beatles’ later years. You may hear Ringo drumming and think it sounds easy, but you just try and play it. It’s not as simple as you think.’
Another reason for Ringo being so perpetually undervalued, says Gordon, is the sheer talent that surrounded him in the group.
‘If Paul McCartney hadn’t been a songwriter, then he’d still be considered a great singer. And if he hadn’t been a singer or a songwriter, then he’d still be considered a fantastic bassist. My point is that there was just so much talent between them that it didn’t matter how great Ringo was, he was always going to be overshadowed by Lennon and McCartney and George Harrison. But if Ringo had been in any other band in history, he’d be universally considered a brilliant drummer.’
A brilliant drummer he may be, but even Ringo’s biggest fans would admit that his singing voice is far from the most versatile in rock and roll. Nevertheless, the erstwhile Richard Starkey’s droll – and unmistakably Scouse – vocals were capable of being surprisingly expressive, and even rather touching (listen to his gently crooning turn on the gorgeous Good Night from 1968’s The White Album). Typically, Ringo would receive a single lead vocal on each Beatles album and, in keeping with this, Gordon similarly performs a lead vocal at every Bootleg Beatles concert.
‘I usually sing Act Naturally [from 1965’s Help!], although With a Little Help From My Friends always goes down well, too,’ he says. ‘I would estimate that the casual music fan probably knows around 50 to 75 Beatles songs, but obviously we can’t fit 75 songs into a single show. People will sometimes say, “How come you didn’t play I Feel Fine?” and, well, if we’d played I Feel Fine then we’d have had to drop She Loves You or A Hard Day’s Night, and so on. The Beatles just had so many good songs.’
This particular point is highlighted by the number of quality songs that Lennon and McCartney wrote and then simply gave away to other artists.
‘They didn’t think much of I Wanna Be Your Man so they just gave it to the Rolling Stones, who then had a hit with it. Billy J Kramer had a few big hits with their songs as well [Kramer’s version of Bad to Me topped the charts in 1963]. They were their own competition.’
Born and raised in Gloucestershire, Gordon first discovered the music of the Beatles while listening to his parents’ records as an awestruck pre-teen in the early 1980s.
‘It wasn’t long after John Lennon had been murdered and so there was a real spate of Beatles-related news. My mum and dad had bought me a few of Paul McCartney’s solo LPs, such as Band on the Run, and also the Beatles’ Please Please Me, which has Twist and Shout on it. After that, I started going to record shops with my pocket money and buying Beatles records. I bought Rock ‘n’ Roll Music and Rock ‘n’ Roll Vol. 2.’
Later, Gordon came to appreciate Ringo’s seminal drumming on such classic albums as Rubber Soul and Abbey Road, which in turn led to him moving to London as a plucky 19-year-old with ambitions of becoming a professional drummer.
‘I was in several tribute bands, including a few Beatles tributes like the Paperback Beatles and the Complete Beatles. I was in a few original bands as well and we even got signed, but it never really went anywhere.’
It was the departure of long-time member Hugo Degenhardt from the Bootleg Beatles in 2016 that saw Gordon joining the ranks of the successful touring act.
‘We recently performed Sgt Pepper in its entirety and backed by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, which was quite an experience. I’m the drummer and so I’ve got the orchestra directly behind me and the band in front, and the sound was just absolutely amazing, especially during A Day in the Life.’
The Bootleg Beatles haven’t always kept such prestigious company, however, and throughout the first decade or so of their existence – from 1980 through to the early 1990s – the group rarely played anything larger than an everyday pub or club.
It was in the mid-1990s that the group’s popularity suddenly soared, as the Britpop boom swept the nation and with it a whole swathe of bands for whom the Beatles were considered legends. A renewed fascination with the Fab Four duly took hold, further bolstered by the release of the Beatles’ acclaimed Anthology series, and this in turn led to an upsurge of interest in the Bootleg Beatles, who promptly landed supporting slots with David Bowie, Oasis and the Manic Street Preachers.
‘I think the thing with Britpop, it was all very 1960s-related,’ says Gordon. ‘Personally, I was listening to Revolver a lot around that time and I found it sounded incredibly contemporary. There wasn’t that distance that you would expect from a 30-year-old recording. The record has really stood the test of time, as has much of their material.
‘Most bands don’t really have a shelf life of more than two or three years, but the Beatles’ popularity remains consistent. We’re very fortunate in that respect.’
Before he disappears for the latest Bootleg Beatles rehearsal session, I ask Gordon what, if push comes to shove, would he say is his all-time favourite Beatles song and album?
‘Ah, I couldn’t pick a favourite song because there are so many,’ he laughs. ‘But my favourite album is Abbey Road. I love all of the albums, but this is my favourite.
‘Despite their differences at the time, the Beatles’ production, experience and ability all came together to create this perfect album.’
- The Bootleg Beatles will be performing at Fort Regent on Saturday 17 March. For more details, or to book, visit eventbrite.co.uk. For more info on the Bootleg Beatles, visit bootlegbeatles.com.