Artists Come Together For Beatles Tribute Projects
With the Beatles' continued ubiquity in the pop music world, it's hard to believe a half-century has passed since the UK release of the band's 1963 debut album, Please Please Me. February 2014 will mark another milestone with the 50-year anniversary of their historic appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," an event that led to millions picking up the guitar and forming garage groups of their own.
"We all sat around the TV and watched, and it was gangbusters," remembers jazz guitarist Al Di Meola. "There hasn't been a rock group to make that kind of impact since."
As testament to that, the Beatles have inspired a number of recent theatrical productions, including the West End import "Let It Be: A Celebration Of The Music Of The Beatles," a career retrospective that opened in July at New York's St. James Theater on Broadway; "Rain — A Tribute To The Beatles," a simulated concert experience; "Backbeat," Iain Softley's stage adaptation of his 1994 film about the band's early days in Hamburg, Germany, which played earlier this year at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles; and the long-running Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas production "Love."
Even Paul McCartney revisited his Beatles legacy on his forthcoming album, New, which includes several unabashed nods to the '60s on songs such as the backward-glancing "Early Days," an Ethan Johns-produced track that declares, "They can't take it from me/If they tried/I lived through those early days."
Meanwhile, artists such as Di Meola, guitarist Andy Timmons and Roberta Flack have recorded their own Fab Four homages with All Your Life, Andy Timmons Band Plays Sgt. Pepper and Let It Be Roberta, respectively. Bands such as Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros and Leftover Cuties offered their tributes on the forthcoming Beatles Reimagined, due Oct. 1. Country artists Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Lee Ann Womack, and Buddy Miller recently convened for Let Us In Americana: The Music Of Paul McCartney, which benefited the Woman and Cancer Fund, created in the memory of Linda McCartney.
One of the more unusual Beatles tribute projects comes from George Johnson, who once ran for a Senate seat in his home state of West Virginia. His single, "Still Pissed At Yoko," from his seven-track EP of the same name, is a tongue-in-cheek plea from a diehard Beatles fan still mourning the band's breakup — and Ono's alleged role in it — that incorporates musical allusions to "Penny Lane," "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "All You Need Is Love" with lyrics such as "I'll never understand/Why she thought she had a place in Sgt. Pepper's band" and "she thought she was a singer/Well, I beg your pardon/Just take me back to Octopus' Garden."
"I'm no Paul McCartney, but I tried to give it my best shot at writing a Beatles song," Johnson says of the song, which features the late Gordon Stoker and Ray Walker of Elvis Presley's former backing band and vintage gear such as a Rickenbacker guitar and Hofner bass.
"I wanted to come as close as I could to their spirit, energy and fun, [and] the chords, strings and melodies," he adds. "We looked to capture the irreverent style of the group. It started out with the title, which is so great. But we love Yoko."
The efforts by Di Meola and Timmons are more straightforward, but no less distinctive. Di Meola's All Your Life revisits classics such as "Penny Lane," "Blackbird" and "I Am The Walrus" in his signature, syncopated flamenco style, while Timmons reworked the band's 1967 seminal album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band from start to finish with instrumental electric guitar flourishes derived from the original melodies.
"This is a project which takes me full circle, because the reason I started playing guitar was because of the Beatles," says Di Meola. "Revisiting this music, I found I love it as much or even more because it had a lot of aesthetic and beauty to it. I'm really proud of this album because it brought me back to my youth, and I was able to put my small imprint on their big world."
Adding to the allure of the project was being able to record at Abbey Road. "That was a Disneyland-like experience for me," he says. "It was not only nostalgic, but historic. I experienced a sound quality like I'd never heard before."
To top it off, Di Meola rented a house in the Hamptons over the summer which, unbeknownst to him, was next door to McCartney, who he presented with the album. "That proved to me doing this project was in the stars," he says. "For any true Beatles fan, it's a big deal to meet Paul."
Timmons' idea to cover Sgt. Pepper's… came when he was encouraged to record an all-Beatles set after an impressed promoter saw Timmons' live performance of "Strawberry Fields Forever."
Accompanied by his longtime bassist Mike Daane and drummer Mitch Marine, Timmons explains he did all the arrangements from memory, which resulted in his own impressionistic take, using the guitar to fill in the vocal lines, the George Martin orchestration or the stray sound effect.
"I wanted to be as faithful as possible, but still add my personal touch," he says. "I wanted a reading of those tunes in my own power trio style."
What stands out on both Di Meola and Timmons' instrumental albums are the songs' indelible melodies, which remain iconic without the lyrics.
"It's amazing what they were able to accomplish on a four-track machine, bouncing back and forth, without the ability to go back and change it," marvels Timmons.
One of Timmons' earliest musical memories is of George Harrison's "reverb-drenched" guitar break on "I Saw Her Standing There."
"That was my favorite part of the song, without even knowing what instrument it was," he says.
Coincidentally, on Beatles Reimagined Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros covered "I Saw Her Standing There" in a laid-back, country style.
"I started listening to the Beatles when I was in the middle of my rap phase," says lead singer Alex Ebert. "Someone gave me the White Album for my 14th birthday and I remember fixating on 'Rocky Raccoon.' It's a measure of their greatness that they could wean me from hip-hop."
Ebert admits a lot of his own band's peace and love communal vibe is a reverberation from the protean rockers. "Back then, people were protesting something actual, like the Vietnam War or the lack of civil rights," he says. "Now, we don't define ourselves in opposition to something specific, so maybe there's a chance this time around, it can sustain itself."
As for the Beatles' longevity, and the timeless quality of their music, Ebert says simply, "They're still the best. Mozart was the best until Beethoven arrived, but no one has come close to the Beatles."
(Roy Trakin, a senior editor for HITS magazine, has written for every rock publication that ever mattered, some that didn't, and got paid by most of them.)