By Patricia ReaneyLONDON, Oct 9 (Reuter) - As imitations go, they don't come much better.
From mop-top wigs and Nehru suits to Liverpudlian accents and perfect harmonies, the Bootleg Beatles have succeeded where other groups fail -- in capturing the sound and essence of their legendary namesakes.
Started 16 years ago to stave off unemployment, the Bootleg Beatles are now one of the most successful tribute groups, playing to bigger audiences and in more far-flung places than the original Fab Four.
"We thought it would be a six-month stop gap until we joined other bands," said co-founder Andre Barreau, who plays lead guitarist George Harrison. "We didn't think it was going to last, to be honest."
Barreau and Neil Harrison (John Lennon) met while performing in the 1979 musical "Beatlemania". When the London stage show closed after six months they decided to keep going.
"We thought `let's do this for a while and see what happens'. We were all unemployed and we had this formula worked out so we thought let's try it on the road," said Harrison.
They haven't looked back. Thirty years after the Beatles stopped touring, the Bootleg Beatles are still belting out "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", "She Loves You" and "Please Please Me" in harmony to rapt audiences remembering Yesterday.
Although there are more than 100 Beatle imitation groups worldwide and up to 20 in Britain alone, Beatle aficionados voted the Bootleggers the number one band at their annual convention in Liverpool, hometown of the originals.
From their early days playing weddings and bar mitzvahs, the group is now packing concert halls.
They have toured Japan, the United States and Europe and have the distinction of being the first Western pop group to tour Russia.
"We're the most famous, the most successful (imitation group)," boasted Harrison, as the group prepared for its seventh British tour, complete with a 20-piece orchestra.
He claimed at least part of their success has been their attention to detail -- using the same musical equipment and replica clothing, and copying the accents and mannerisms of John, Paul, George and Ringo on stage.
"Paul puts his knees together. It's almost like he's squeezing a high note out and John stands with his feet apart very arrogantly. We work on everything...how they look at each other," he explained.
The formula seems to have worked. Even people who have seen and heard the real Beatles attest to the imitators' talents.
Former Beatle manager George Martin is a fan.
"I thought they were terrific. They certainly did it well and went into great detail...They are very, very good copies," he said in a BBC radio interview.
"My yardstick, of course, is the Beatles and obviously they are not as good as them but nevertheless they were very convincing."
The only true test would be the opinion of the Beatles.
American Rick Rock, who plays drummer Ring Starr, is the only Bootlegger who saw the Beatles live. He caught one of their concerts 30 years ago while growing up in Kansas.
Paul Cooper (Paul McCartney) was born and still lives in Liverpool.
Barreau is the only Bootlegger who has played before the man he imitates, by his own admission a daunting experience.
"It could have been a big letdown but it wasn't. He is just the nicest bloke ever," he said of George Harrison.
The pair had a two-hour conversation about the strange world of professional pretenders.
Some imitators acquire the traits of the icons they are portraying. The Bootleg Beatles said they are not neurotic.
"I think we are all quite normal. We live our own lives, but other people have been taken over by it," said Harrison.
In addition to attracting nostalgia seekers, the Bootleg Beatles are pulling in their own fans -- people who weren't even born when the orignals stopped touring.
They plan to continue playing as long as they enjoy doing it but admit to being "the wrong side of 30 and no longer spring Beatles."
"The main reason we do this is because we are complete and utter Beatle fans. We just love the music, always have done," said Harrison. "We've got Beatles in our blood."