Love me too: The Fab Faux industry supports 200 Beatles tribute bands (and that's just in Liverpool)

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ONCE UPON a time there were four. Maybe five, if you count Stuart Sutcliffe. Now there are an estimated 8,000 of them, with around 800 working in Liverpool alone. The Beatles really can work eight days a week.

ONCE UPON a time there were four. Maybe five, if you count Stuart Sutcliffe. Now there are an estimated 8,000 of them, with around 800 working in Liverpool alone. The Beatles really can work eight days a week.

Nearly 40 years after the original John, Paul, George and Ringo began their popularity is such that there are now some 2,000 Beatle tribute bands - lookalikes, soundalikes or just plain wannabelikes - all touting for gigs.

This week's release of an album of Beatles number ones, 1 is destined to send Christmas demand for tribute bands into overdrive. The Beatles band industry, currently so strong that a fanzine dedicated to it has just been launched, can prepare for even more inventively named outfits than Bootleg Beatles, Help, Revolver, the Apple Pies, The Return, the Roaches, The Scarabs and The Nowhere Men. The roll call of bands worldwide now stretches from Montevideo to Minsk.

"Every time there's a resurgence, the bands get the pay-off," said John Keats, a 34-year-old who has just performed before 1,700 people at Liverpool's Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and Royal Court Theatre at John Lennon 60th anniversary concerts - and just 25 people at his local pub, La Babacoa in Crosby.

Many of the estimated 200 Beatles imitators playing the pubs and clubs of Liverpool - some spoofs, others just handy on the karaoke machine - demand the loosest definition of the "tribute band". Other, more authentic bands are now raking in bookings. Among those will be Mr Keats, a Liverpudlian, an actor by day (playing a detective inspector in the Channel 4 soap Brookside); but a Lennon by night. Tonight, like so many other Saturday nights, he'll pull on his guitar, step into the snug at his north Liverpool local and strum away at any John Lennon song requested of him.

Mr Keats admits he is not an instant ringer for Lennon and doesn't "go in for wigs and uniforms" but considers himself "not a million miles away" from his idol. Compared with some of the groups now joining the ranks of tribute bands, that makes him and his Instant Karma outfit almost over-qualified.

Other good tribute bands get bookings worldwide. The Cavern Beatles, another Liverpool band whose reputation is considerably enhanced by the endorsement of the club "where it all began", are not long back from an appearance at the Johnny Walker Golf Classic in Taiwan. For John, Paul, Ringo and George read Paul, Derek, Roy and Richard - all Scousers in their late 30s and who've spent a fair part of their 10 years together in what they call "toilet venues."

"We're just four Mike Yarwoods, but still, we do get screaming girls sometimes," said Richard Alan - who "plays" George and is as industrious a tribute man as they come. His spin-off George Harrison tribute band Harry Georgeson (the name is all part of this specialised art form) is highly respected in its own right.

Screaming is indeed a tribute band sub-genre in Liverpool. Proponents of this noisy art are the Lipa Scruffs - named after the Apple Scruffs groupies who used to hand around the band's recording studios. Dressed in Sixties uniform, they often turn up at tribute band concerts and take their name from the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (Lipa), set up by Sir Paul McCartney. "They always seem to get wind of when Paul's in town though God knows how," said Cavern City Tours - which organises the mecca for all tribute bands, Liverpool's annual Beatles Convention.

Bill Heckle, Cavern City Tours managing director, is a maker and breaker of tribute bands. He's swamped with 200 demo tapes a year from bands seeking a slot at the convention - only 60 will be successful.

Next year the Bombay Beatles, the convention's first Indian band, will be putting in an appearance (largely on the basis of their novelty factor).

Both will have the most obscure band yet to live up to - the Kazakhstan Beatles, enigmatically known as Museum, who appeared two years ago. The band comprised four shepherds who lived 70 miles from the nearest town. The founder member bought a guitar, formed a band and within a few years was covering "Yesterday" and "Hey Jude" in a local factory. The locals loved it.

"They weren't great, but they weren't awful," said Mr Heckle, ambiguously. He's taken a few punts on tribute bands in his time. "At least they (the Kazakhstanis) went down better than The Punkels (from Hamburg, Germany) who covered everything punk-style at a hundred miles an hour. We had some very angry letters about them."

Such is the desperate lot of those given the apparently impossible job of making their Beatles sound original. "Some are look-alikes, some are sound-alikes, some are none," said Mr Heckle. "They're all seeking a new take but there aren't too many novelties left."

The bands' names reflect this painful quest for something a little different. Known variations of the original have included The Beagles, the Beetles (both from Japan), The Buttles (Walsall), The Beats (Argentina), as well the Fab Four, the Fab Faux (both USA) and the Fab Two, an Irish band lacking in numbers.

For the true tribute band enthusiast, no reference is too obscure. Nina Douglas of Nottingham, who co-founded tribute band fanzine The Word is Love (from the 1965 track "The Word") in May, delights in bands like The Fab Faux (generally considered to be the world's best) because "they do obscure post-1966 stuff and carry it off."

The fanzine's next issue will reflect the growing influence of Brazilian bands and the strength of the Russians. Followers of the latter are presumably akin to the two "lost generations" of Soviet children who, according to a new US documentary The Beatles Revolution, were devoted to the band rather Communist ideals - a factor which, the documentary concludes, made The Beatles partly responsible for the end of the Cold War.