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'Mystery Tour' Goes Where No Beatle Had Gone Onstage Before

December 02, 1996|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Rock 'n' roll tribute shows have been with us for so long that it takes real effort to remember what a truly bizarre idea they are.

Consider trying the same thing with baseball. Who would pay to watch two semi-pro teams replay the '74 World Series, pitch for pitch, foul ball for foul ball, homer for homer? Sounds silly, doesn't it?

No matter. The tribute concert, like rock 'n' roll itself, is here to stay--even though it always will be essentially a no-win proposition, one that aims to entertain by slavish repetition of recordings that were once strikingly original.

The revelation--not revolution--about "Classical Mystery Tour: A Tribute to the Beatles" on Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center was that it had enough of an original spin on the standard formula to make it, if still not "the real thing," something more than just "an incredible simulation."

Gee-whiz simulation was the primary goal of the first and best-known Beatles tribute: "Beatlemania," wherein the four ersatz Liverpudlians in "Classical Mystery Tour" once earned livings. Guitarist-singer Jim Owen, who handled the Quiet Beatle duties as George Harrison, has long been playing Beatle music Tuesday nights at the Hop in Fountain Valley. Last year he got the idea to do a full show, for which he enlisted the 48-piece O.C.-based Four Seasons Orchestra, built around the Fab Four's most ambitious recordings.

That, as it turned out, provided a sufficiently intriguing twist: playing songs the Beatles themselves never played live.

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Westminster resident Owen drafted two of his Cal State Long Beach music professors to help him reconstruct the orchestral arrangements of "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Penny Lane," "A Day in the Life" and about a dozen others, most of which were recorded after John, Paul, George and Ringo stopped touring.

That's also the central irony of "Classical Mystery Tour": the Beatles gave up playing live in 1966 and restricted their activities to the recording studio until that famous farewell rooftop concert at 3 Savile Row in London in 1969.

One of their goals was to liberate themselves from the restrictions of doing songs that could be re-created live; they did so magnificently, first on the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album, then on through "Magical Mystery Tour," "The Beatles" (the White Album), "Abbey Road" and "Let It Be."

They stretched out with more complex pop-song structures, more elaborate arrangements and exponentially more sophisticated (for the time) recording techniques. "A Day in the Life," for instance, remains a masterpiece of tape editing, extensive overdubbing and other studio wizardry.

But guess what? Nearly 30 years after the fact, it sounded pretty darn good live, too, even from a group of guys who sing and play only sort of like John, Paul, George and Ringo.

At this first public performance of a show that the central players hope to take on tour, there were a couple of instrumental clinkers, a flubbed vocal entrance or two. But all in all they pulled off what they set out to do: to show that the Beatles could have done anything short of "Revolution 9" live, had they wanted to. (Probably the only thing stranger than the thought of the Beatles playing "Revolution 9" live is that of an audience staying put while they tried.)

Would-be Beatles everywhere cover early hits such as "I Saw Her Standing There" (which, in fact, these quasi-mop tops pulled out for the first of two unscheduled encores) and "I Should Have Known Better." It's not every day you hear anyone tackle "I Am the Walrus" or "Strawberry Fields Forever," much less with most of the flavor of the original versions intact.

Of course, the whole notion of "original versions," especially in these days of official and unofficial releases that document the Beatles' every step toward finished recordings, gets dicey.

Take "The Long and Winding Road," which was heavily orchestrated on the "Let It Be" album after producer Phil Spector was brought aboard to "rescue" it. McCartney later complained about the heavy production hand that Spector brought to his song, and many Beatle purists prefer the simpler piano-guitar-bass-drums pre-Spector recording.

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Still, the swelling strings and soaring French horn lines gave Saturday's live performance, conducted by another Cal State Long Beach music faculty member, Roger Hickman, a high goose-bump quotient.

The set ran more or less chronologically, starting with "Got to Get You Into My Life" from 1965, when the Beatles began in earnest to expand the sonic palette, and closing (before encores) with the "Golden Slumbers" medley and "Hey Jude." They abandoned the Beatle calendar significantly only to include two solo-Beatle tunes: McCartney's "Live and Let Die" (1973) and Lennon's "Imagine" (1971). (What? No solo George, e.g., "The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp"?)

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