Every August, fans from around the globe flock to the UK for a chance to express their adoration for the one and only Beatles. The festival, known as International Beatleweek, takes over Liverpool, attracting thousands of tribute bands and over 300,000 Beatle maniacs. A new documentary, titled Come Together, places fans inside the festival by following a handful of the world's estimated 8,000 Beatles tribute bands as they set out to pay homage to the most influential band of all time. The film, which releases digitally on February 3rd, takes place in a variety of Beatle-friendly haunts, including the famed Cavern Club, which launched the four mop-top Brits into international superstars.
Billboard caught up with the late John Lennon's sister, Julia Baird, who narrates the documentary, to discuss her involvement with the project. She also filled us in on what type of music John would be making if he were alive today, her thoughts on the Paul McCartney/Kanye collab, and reveals how she learned the hard way that standing in the second row of a Beatles concert was a downright terrible idea.
Tell us about Come Together. How did you get involved with narrating it?
Steve Ison and his friend John Scofield are two friends in Liverpool, and we have a mutual friend who introduced us before the documentary. When the documentary came up, he asked me, would I like to narrate it? It all took place in Liverpool and The Cavern during Beatleweek. If anyone looks up Beatleweek Liverpool, you'll see that this is an entire week devoted to The Beatles and tribute bands at the end of August every single year. We have lots of visitors. So what Steve and John have done is actually filmed what goes on during Beatleweek. They picked a few Beatles tribute bands to follow. The bands that are featured of course are excellent, but there's thousands that are just as good. We have a resident tribute band in The Cavern itself on every Saturday night called The Cavern Club Beatles. They travel all around the world on behalf of The Cavern and are actually in the documentary quite a lot. But as the point is made throughout the film, if you go to hear an orchestra playing Mozart, Mozart isn't here anymore. And yet sometimes it's said in a derogatory way, "Oh it's a tribute band." Yes it is, because the Beatles per se aren't playing anymore. It's not possible anymore. So these are tribute bands, but no more so than a tribute to Frank Sinatra, a tribute to Elvis, it's the same sort of thing -- and some of them are beyond superb really. That's what the film is about; it's the tribute bands all coming together to Liverpool because they want to take part in Beatleweek.
Were there any Beatles bands that you discovered while working on this documentary that surprised you? I've heard there are Beatles tribute bands in Japan and other countries that don't even speak English.
Yes! We've met them. I thought it was really funny. The Aspreys, who are named after one of the richest, poshest jewelers on Bond Street in London, don't speak any English. If you're looking over their shoulder when they've got their playlist, their playlist is in Japanese characters because they are reading it. They obviously read "A Hard Day's Night" in Japanese characters and then they move into phonetics. They sing in English, and it's all phonetic -- you would not know that they didn't speak English.
What is some of the craziest stuff that you've seen during Beatleweek?
Well it's crazy, but in a nice way -- the adulation from the fans. And one of the things that gets me is that they are getting younger and younger. So you've got my age. I'm 67. John would be in his seventies, so there obviously is going to be a lot of fans in their seventies. There is our group, a few years down, and then there are our children and my children are in their forties bringing their children. And you have eight year olds that know all the words and they know things. It really is a phenomenon.
When your brother passed, did you ever imagine that his legacy would continue and affect so many future generations?
Absolutely not. I don't think anybody did. Even Apple as a company and all the individuals involved… I don't think anyone knew where this was going.
What do you think he would think about all these tribute bands?
He'd get up on stage with them. He'd want to do the main bits.
Is he the guy that would have walked into a karaoke band, heard someone singing a Beatles song, and then jumped up on stage with them?
Oh after a few Guinness, yes. Like those people that never think they would ever do it. Given the right motivation, most people get up there, don't they?
Ringo and Paul are still doing their thing. If John were alive today, what kind of music do you think he would be making?
He's a rock and roller. He loved to rock and roll. He said it many many times. He never really, I think, left rock and roll, so I can't imagine him being any different.
What do you think of Paul McCartney venturing out of rock and roll and taking more musical risks. He just did a single with Kanye West, for instance.
Could you have seen John ever branching out like that and doing something with Kanye West?
I really don't know. Paul is the number one superstar on the planet. There is just no disputing it. He could sit in a chair and read a book or walk his dogs or play with grand children for the rest of his life. He doesn't have to do anything. He's a natural star performer. He'll always be on stage. And why not do everything he wants to do? He'll have great fun won't he? I think Paul is just having a lot of fun right now.
And what are you up to these days? Are you still the director of The Cavern Club?
Yes I am. By a strange quirk of fate, I became a director in 2004 and just helped the other directors in promoting The Cavern Club, The Cavern Pub, we have The Magical Mystery Tour and it's go go go believe me. It's hugely successful. There are franchise Cavern Clubs around the world. It's a business but at the same time, it's the greatest fun. It's a good arena to be in. And I'm still living near Liverpool so it's great for me to be in Liverpool and with an emotional stake into The Beatles and John, which I like very much indeed.
Do you have any fun memories of your brother and The Beatles playing there?
Oh lots. I have written a book called Imagine This: Growing up with my Brother John Lennon, and it does give the story of our childhood with our mother, with me, with John, with my younger sister Jacqui in Liverpool, the growth of The Beatles. For the book, I interviewed Paul, and it's been put on a CD and it's just Paul chatting for about 40 minutes -- right back to the beginning. He sings, he jokes, he laughs. So if you look at www.juliabaird.eu, you'll find it all there.
Give us a snippet about what it was like watching John and the band play.
I remember rehearsals in the kitchen, which is before Paul even joined, when they were The Quarrymen. I still know The Quarrymen; we are all still great friends. Rehearsals in the kitchen, when the drum was a tea chest base with a string on it, carried up and down the path. My mother and my sister and myself went to Rosebery Street for a celebration of 750 years of Liverpool being granted a city charter. There was a big celebration, and The Quarrymen were on the back of a flatbed lorry. We went to see that. Then the day that John met Paul, in 1956, and then when they hit London and we went down to the Finsbury Park Astoria. My sister and I saw the opening night of The Beatles at Finsbury Park Astoria. We'd seen them in Liverpool, we'd seen them at The Empire, we'd seen them wherever they'd performed locally. And this was now in London and we had never heard the screaming like it. That is when we first heard Beatlemania for itself.
Was that crazy, going to their shows and having people scream so loud that you couldn't even hear the band?
Well they left the four front rows empty, which we couldn't understand. John had said, "You've got to stay in the dressing room and when we go out on stage, you can watch from the wing." We said, "No. No. No. We want to sit down there" because we could see from behind the curtain. The four front rows were empty. "We want to sit there." "You can't sit there. It's security"--– which was a new thing in those days. "No. No. We want to sit there." They were all sort of getting ready to go on stage so my sister and I went and sat in the second row of these four rows. The four rows were completely empty right across the front; we were the only ones there. The minute the curtain went up and they were there starting "She Loves You," everyone in the whole theater surged to the front and John looked at the side and said, "Get the girls! Get the girls!" and we were hauled across the side of the stage on our stomachs where John had told us to stand in the first place. And he looked to one side and said, "I told you so!"
When was that gig?
That was the Finsbury Park Astoria. It would have been 1964 I think. A Christmas show. That was the biggest we had seen them at that point.
The girls scream so loud for these up-and-coming boy bands, but I'm sure it's nothing compared to what it was like to hear an audience scream for your brother's band.
I know. When we were back at the Empire, Roy Orbison was headlining, because they did a tour supporting him. It was all sort of quasi-civilized. The Beatles ended the first half of the show. It was a fantastic set and everyone was excited and jumping up and down and stuff like that. And then Roy Orbison came on for the second half of the show and they were screaming the whole time for The Beatles to come back on. I was mortified. One, I wanted to listen to Roy Orbison but two, The Beatles had taken over and they'd done their bit.
Lastly, give us a blurb about what makes this documentary so different from other Beatles documentaries. What do you think of the finished product?
The finished product is highly polished and very good. Everybody on it is in the Beatles business. You've got John Scofield, you've got Steve Ison, and Jean Catharell, who is a Beatles historian. You've got Jay Goeppner who does every John song in the most superb way. You've got the bands, you've got The Cavern, you've got Liverpool in full swing. It's very well brought together and it's a nifty title, Come Together.