Smile Politely

Beatles For Sale

William: I’m used to being one of the youngest people in the audience at a concert, but only when I go to see the Pacifica String Quartet. This rock show was jam-packed with “active boomers and seniors.” As we struggled to find a spot in the overcrowded parking lot, we were cut off by a Viagra addict driving a red midlife-crisis Porsche. Hey guy, I’m sorry somebody threw coffee all over your sports car, but it was wrong of you to take four spots when you parked. I don’t care how proud you are of your paint job.

Cristy: Oh, boy. You’re full of piss and vinegar before the review even starts. Rain is a Beatles tribute band that has been performing for thirty-five years. They’ve been imitating the Beatles far longer than the Beatles existed-and the tribute band itself is older than any of the members of the Beatles were when they broke up in 1970. Now, I fancy myself a Beatles tribute band connisseur. I’ve seen five over the last 20 years, all with particular strengths. The band 1964 specialized in the Beatles’ touring repertoire (1962-1966). Liverpool made no effort to impersonate the Beatles, but they amazingly replicated more complex cuts from the band’s later years. American English incorporated costume changes in their comprehensive set; playing four-hour shows in small bars, they included non-hit gems like “Yes It Is” and “Sexy Sadie.” Members of that band then formed Liverpool Legends, who were managed by George Harrison’s sister (and Benton, Ill., resident) Louise. Rain appears to be the most ambitious and theatrical of all of them.

W: Accompanied by multimedia, Rain performed six small sets representing six distinct phases of the Beatles’ career (with six costume changes): the first Ed Sullivan Show appearance, A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, the Shea Stadium concert, Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and Abbey Road/Let It Be. As my first Beatles tribute band concert, I found it oddly distressing at first. The songs were played entirely live (without tape) and reproduced perfectly with the assistance of a hidden fifth mock Beatle playing what must have been a sampling keyboard. I experienced some cognitive dissonance as I tried to match up music with which my ear was intimately familiar with what my eye couldn’t possibly be seeing: a concert that took place before I was born. But when they appeared as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (with the mysterious fifth mock Beatle appearing onstage with them), the show had moved comfortably from historical re-enactment into fantasy. Because the Lonely Heart’s Club Band never performed: the Beatles had stopped playing live by 1967, and the only song on the Sgt. Pepper album that was performed without overdubbing, studio magic, or additional instruments is the “Reprise.” Rain blew us away with it, before inevitably but unexpectedly sliding into “A Day in the Life.” This song required the fifth mock Beatle to play on his keyboard the sound of four overdubbed orchestras (and perhaps a dog whistle). All of which was outstanding, though I felt the video of the atomic bomb exploding during the final piano chord was tasteless and inappropriate for the spirit of 1967.

C: Says you. I think that’s exactly what the Beatles would have done if they’d played that song live! Remember, the year before (1966) the band posed with bloody, raw meat and dismembered baby dolls for the original cover of “Yesterday”…and Today. John Lennon claimed the concept was as “relevant as Vietnam,” and the cover was immediately banned.

I enjoyed Rain’s stage props, especially the Ed Sullivan Show (complete with flashing “applause” signs). The show included 1960s film clips between performances to set the mood. But while the retro TV ads were charming, the war and protest clips from 1968 were tiresome. How many times are we going to see jungle napalm explosions set to Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” or hellish footage of naked hippies dancing to “Going Up the Country”? Of course, we were with an audience who thinks that’s the only era in the history of the known universe that matters. Man, those boomers ate it right up! Remember when they started clapping, in time, to the snippet of “For What It’s Worth”?

W: Ho! Who’s full of vinegar now? There’s something happening here, and what it is is perfectly clear. I would’ve paid the price of the ticket again ($50) to see some footage of Bush and Cheney mixed into that war montage. I resent that protest is rendered as some nostalgia piece tucked safely away in a 1960s time capsule. All the spirit of outrage, brotherhood and peace that Rain whipped up with their performances of “Revolution” and (surprisingly) “Give Peace a Chance” (a song credited to Lennon/McCartney which the Beatles never recorded) — the spirit that ought to have been focused on the war in Iraq — dissipated when the concert ended and the audience walked back to their Porsches. We should have left the building chanting. That’s what John Lennon would have wanted.

C: But we digress. Let’s get back to Rain. I think the standout performances were the Beatles’ most ambitious tracks, including “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “A Day in the Life.” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” rocked. The first half consisted of George Harrison’s acoustic White Album demo; the second half flowed into the familiar electric version. And during “I Am The Walrus,” I was flabbergasted to see mock-Paul move his arms exactly the way Paul McCartney does in the song’s sequence in the Magical Mystery Tour film. (I was even more flabbergasted to discover that I remember how Paul McCartney moves his arms in the film. Jeez.)

W: The authenticity was impeccable. Cristy, no doubt that you noticed that during the coda of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” mock-John even mumbled the words “cranberry sauce.” All of these songs were accompanied by wild colored lights, smoke machines, and psychedelic video. Some of the video techniques (swirling colored oils, animation made by drawing directly onto movie film a la Harry Smith) were appropriate for the 1960s. A few other film clips, while reminiscent of Peter Max’s paintings or Terry Gilliam’s surreal cartoons for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, seemed to have been created with Flash or animation software. The lame digital video accompanying “When I’m Sixty-Four” was an especially bad anachronism. They shouldn’t have performed that song anyway — it doesn’t use rock instruments and requires woodwinds. The real John Lennon wouldn’t have been dancing during this dance-hall indulgence of Paul’s, he would’ve been sulking.

C: But the boomers ate it right up! Wouldn’t you? Hell, maybe our generation will be warbling Five for Fighting’s “100 Years” — well, if we actually remember that fleeting hit 70 years from now.

W: The authenticity ended with the rapport between band members. The concert was revisionist in this regard, showing John and Paul getting along swimmingly right through “The End.” Too bad they didn’t take turns during the guitar solo as they do on the recording, but I guess that would have left nobody to play bass.

C: Dude. When it comes to the Beatles, I’m all for revisionism. Can you honestly imagine a stage show with fights, lawyers, and Yoko Ono?

W: At various points I was lost. I just couldn’t tell what the concert was like. What would I have thought if this was a real band I was hearing for the first time? I had no idea. Every song was a foregone conclusion. I’ve heard them all forward and backwards, on AM, FM, LP, CD, and cassette. Each note falls inevitably into place. Were we even listening or were we just playing the songs back from memory? I started to wonder whether we were even there.

C: And the boomers ate it right up!

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