When I was 10 years old, a couple of things happened that would change my life. Digging in a neighbor's trash, I found an old paperback copy of Hunter Davies' 1968 biography of the Beatles, and I saw the animated film “Yellow Submarine” on TV. I soon acquired my own Sergeant Pepper record album, and began a lifelong love of the Beatles. My Beatles record collection grew to completeness (though at least half were used copies from our local record store) and my library of Beatle books began to grow as well. By high school I was known to all my friends as the Beatles expert. Though I joined them in following Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Yes, and a whole host of rock music, it was always John, Paul, George, and Ringo who ruled my musical universe. Of course, this all began in 1971, and by then there was no Beatles band in the world, only the recordings and individual members all pursuing their own solo careers.
One thing I always wondered is if the Beatles had remained together and resumed playing live concerts into the 1970's, as their closest rivals, the Rolling Stones, had done, what would it have been like? The early 60's Beatle shows were so hindered by the poor sound equipment and the constant chaos surrounding them, with screaming fans, tight security and general pandemonium, that arguably the greatest rock band ever never really put on any great concerts. Even at their best, the shows were only about 30 minutes long, and the Beatles just tried to sing and play a few hits and get out of the theater alive. Had they not quit performing live in 1966, and not broken up in 1970, they could have played some great two hour concerts without all the 60's mania, and with the superior sound systems that became available - the kind of show that all four Beatles performed as solo artists with great success, especially Paul McCartney and Wings. I hoped to get my answer as the California Musical Theater and Broadway Sacramento presented “Rain – A Tribute To The Beatles” which played December 27th to January 1st at the Community Theater.
The Beatles musical tribute, Rain, tries in part to answer that question (Photo montage of the potential 1975 Beatles by the author.)
In 1977 the musical show “Beatlemania” was the first serious attempt to recreate and expand on the experience of seeing the Beatles live. More than just playing the Beatles songs, they were the first to attempt to look and sound just like the Beatles, using instruments, makeup, clothes and sets to faithfully recreate the experience of seeing a real Beatles show. This show eventually merged with “Reign”, a band that played Beatles songs, to become “Rain”, an offshoot of Beatlemania, with many of the same performers, and on to today's “Rain – A Tribute To The Beatles” Broadway show.
Of course there are now thousands of tribute bands out there now for just about any popular band that existed, or even still does exist. Sacramento area fans can regularly see “Stealin' Dan”, “Chicago Tribute Authority”, “Petty Theft” and many others. What these bands bring to their audience is the fairly authentic sound of the music with the immediacy of a live setting rather than recordings and videos, and many sound just as good, or better, than the now aging originals. But like “Rain,” what most of the Beatles tribute bands do (along with the thousands of Elvis impersonators) is to try to recreate the entire look and feel of the band, ranging anywhere from four guys in gray collarless jackets with Beatle bangs and boots, to a full multimedia spectacular, with multiple costume and makeup changes with familiar stage patter and antics, simulating the entire Beatles career and acting out the parts of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The “Fab Four” do a great job at this, appearing annually at the California State Fair and other venues. But perhaps because of the high production values, and the experience of the performers and producers, “Rain” is the high water mark of Beatles tributes.
But do they actually recreate the experience of seeing the Beatles in a modern live show? The answer is an unequivocal yes and no. The Rain cast of Joey Curtolo as Paul, Steve Landes as John, Joe Bithorn as George, and Ralph Castelli as Ringo sang, played, and acted their parts perfectly. Curtolo was friendly, engaging, and worked the audience just as McCartney did, and still does. Landes didn't say as much as Lennon usually did, but he acted the fool with appropriate lack of dignity and aplomb. Bithorn had his George Harrison “guitar dance” down pat, and Castelli as Ringo was the cheerful cutup behind the drum kit. They had the instrumental and vocal parts down nearly perfect, especially the three part harmonies John, Paul, and George were so good at. But of course it was not like seeing a real Beatles concert, because of the costume and make up changes, it was like seeing five shorter concerts. So for this show, the question of what it would have been like if the Beatles had continued to perform went unanswered. (But Rain does sell an intriguing CD of a theoretical 1980 reunion concert, which would be interesting to see performed live.)
The concert naturally opened with the 1964 Beatles doing the hits. Standouts were All My Loving, A Hard Days Night, and This Boy, where Landes (John) got a round of applause for his Smokey Robinson style solo vocal in the middle of the great three part harmonies. Bithorn (George) had his only lead vocal on I'm Happy Just To Dance With You, a Lennon/McCartney song written for George for the Hard Days Night album. This opening set was a great re-creation, and probably an improvement on a real 1964 concert since the teenage girls from 1964 did far less screaming and fainting, now that they are in their 60's. (A majority of the audience were in their teens in the 1960's, so I am sure there were some former screamers in attendance.)
The next set was a 1965 Shea stadium concert tribute, though they did very little from the actual Shea concert – only Twist And Shout and I Feel Fine, missing out on the chance to recreate some of the best moments from that actual show--John and Paul's sharing the mic singing Baby's In Black, and Paul's I'm Down, where John goes somewhat mad while George and Paul crack up just watching him. But like the 1964 set, the quality of this performance was doubtlessly far superior, as the original used only the stadium's announcement system to broadcast the sound, and the Beatles did their best just to stay together amid the noise and pandemonium. It was shows like this one that convinced them that they were wasting their time trying to do concerts, and they quit live shows altogether the next year.
The only weak spot in this set for me was Curtolo (Paul)'s solo performance of Yesterday. Not only have we all heard this song about a million times, but he turned it into an audience sing-a-long, which is a pet peeve of mine. I want to hear the band perform the music, not the audience around me. But there is probably a law written somewhere that all Beatles tributes must include Yesterday. (Perhaps leaving it out would have caused riots and police action...) Rain finished the set strong with Day Tripper, another highlight of the show featuring that great guitar riff and fantastic vocals.
Joey Curtolo, Joe Bithorn, Ralph Castelli, and Steve Landes as Paul, George, Ringo, and John
The next set featured the boys in their iconic Sergeant Pepper uniforms, and opened with Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Castelli (Ringo)’s one lead vocal, With A Little Help From My Friends. This was also the opening of the real fantasy part of the show, since the Beatles never actually performed these songs in concert. And it was also the introduction of the “fifth Beatle” to the stage, as keyboardist Mark Beyer joined them to help fill in the more complicated sounds featured in the later Beatles records. A purist could argue that this is cheating—that the Beatles were always a four piece band. In fact, rival tribute band “The Fab Four” does manage to perform many of these songs with just the four of them, with John and George taking turns on a synthesizer to fill in. However, I did not have a problem with it, as the Beatles themselves added Billy Preston to their lineup for much of the Let It Be album, and on “stage” at the closest thing to a final concert the Beatles performed, on the rooftop of the Apple building. And of course the real “fifth Beatle”, George Martin, performed on many of their recordings, as well. So it seems unlikely that if they had continued performing live, they would not have had at least one additional musician on stage.
During the Sergeant Pepper set I was reminded what a great drummer Ringo was. He often took a bad rap for his skills – John Lennon was once asked if Ringo was the best drummer in rock and roll, and he replied that he wasn't even the best drummer in the Beatles,* a sarcastic remark touching on Paul's seeming ability to play anything better than his bandmates. True, Ringo did not have the technical chops of the Stones' Charlie Watts, or the manic fluidity of the Who's Keith Moon, but he was an innovative, musical drummer. Two of the songs on the Pepper set particularly showed off Ringo's contributions – A Day In The Life and Strawberry Fields Forever would not be the great songs they were without his drumming. And Ralph Castelli did a great job, even simulating the backwards cymbal effects from Strawberry Fields. (It would have been nice to hear Rain do Rain, the Lennon song the group is named for, which also features some of Ringo's best drumming and Paul's innovative bass, but it was relegated to the walk off music as the audience filed out.)
Following intermission, it was time for the 1968 Beatles, and they opened with two songs that would have fit just as well in the Sgt. Pepper set – Hello Goodbye (actually the only song the Beatles ever performed wearing their Sgt. Pepper gear) and I Am The Walrus, a great way to get the crowd back in after the break. But then they did something unique - they brought out stools and did an acoustic set featuring songs from '65 to '68. John's In My Life was a particular highlight, along with a version of Paul's I've Just Seen A Face performed in bluegrass style, and featuring a great acoustic guitar solo by Joe Bithorn that I've never seen George Harrison come close to doing. This mini-set was interesting because it did touch lightly on the concept of the mature Beatles performing a concert of their older music.
Finally, the group finished as the 1969 Beatles, and after Come Together and Get Back, they launched into a screaming Revolution that got the crowd (mostly) on their feet, and finished with The End, the climax of the Beatles last recorded album. Although they did a great job on that song, it was something of a missed opportunity. One of the great moments in Beatle history is their performance of The End. Beginning with Ringo's only real drum solo, the song progresses into a three-way guitar solo featuring Paul, George, and John trading licks, and Beatle fans could picture the three of them in the studio making that magic together. Even though the Beatles by then were often bickering, and broke up after it was recorded, Abbey Road was an album where you could feel them working together and making something that would send them off in style, and The End was the ultimate expression of that feeling. Though Joe Bithorn recreated the three parts flawlessly, it would have been great to see the three of them doing it together as John, Paul, and George had done it in real life.
The Encore set opened with John's solo song, Give Peace A Chance, a bit of a surprise, since everyone probably expected Imagine. They finished up with Let It Be, and to no one's surprise, Hey Jude, which Paul McCartney has taken to using himself as his final encore song.
Overall, Rain did a fantastic job looking and sounding like the Beatles, and they put on a fantastic show. The visuals and projected images were nice additions. Careful observations revealed the Rain cast themselves posing in familiar Beatles settings, such as the Abbey Road crosswalk (though with a modern VW Beetle subbing for the 1960's version on the album cover.) They did a total of 31 songs, so it is really hard to complain about anything they left out, but I would have liked to have seen a few less obvious choices, since they did stick mostly to the big hits. Ticket To Ride from Help, And Your Bird Can Sing from Revolver, and Two Of Us from Let It Be would have added a lot for me. And of course the most glaring omission was the lack of any George Harrison written Beatles songs. According to Mark Lewis, the founder and manager of Rain, “For some unknown reason we were unable to secure the Grand Rights to the George Harrison catalog.... We hope to eventually get the Rights so we can give George his well deserved spots in our show.” If I Needed Someone, Taxman, Here Comes The Sun, and of course, Something would have all added greatly to the concert. But as the sold-out shows attest, Sacramento loves the Beatles, and Rain delivered. Now it's time to get out the Beatles Rock Band game and do my own tribute...
Ken Kiunke 1/1/2012
Originally published by the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
* This quote has been refuted and is very unlikely to have ever been said by John Lennon.
The group donned their Sergeant Pepper costumes for their 1967 set