REBIRTH OF THE BEATLES
Fab Four tributes are here, there and everywhere
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 08/12/07
BY KELLY-JANE COTTER
Forty years ago, a generation of rock music fans sat slack-jawed at their record-players.
The needle crackled as it touched vinyl, and out poured something truly new from The Beatles.
You need only look at the cover art of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" to know that this was mind-blowing stuff. The great collage of iconic faces, with the shaggy Beatles included among them, was a feast for the eyes.
"The packaging, and printing the lyrics, it made you feel like this was an event," said Glen Burtnik, 52.
And most of the songs were theatrical, multilayered and insane.
What could a fan do except drop the needle again and again, to see if it was for real?
"I remember the thrill of buying a record, and smelling it, taking the plastic off and sitting down and listening to it, and then flipping it over, playing it and playing it again," recalled Jimmy Vivino, 52.
He and his peers studied Beatles records like scholars.
"We were listening to the music — that was what was important to us," Vivino said. "We were just kids. We weren't involved in the drug culture or the politics or anything — we just wanted to listen to the music. And they set the mark so high."
Vivino, guitarist for the Max Weinberg 7, also plays in the Fab Faux, a Beatles tribute band.
This year, musicians such as Vivino are attempting something even The Beatles didn't do: They're bringing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" to concert halls.
The Fab Faux will perform the landmark album, track by track, on Sept. 15 at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Glen Burtnik will stage his "Sgt. Pepper's" concert Friday at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, joined by The Smithereens, who will perform the "Meet The Beatles" album.
These two concerts are among the more ambitious celebrations of The Beatles. There are plenty of other examples of non-"Pepper"-related Beatles events, too.
The State Theatre hosts The Fab Faux on Nov. 17, and another Beatles tribute band, Rain, on March 15.
The Tropicana in Atlantic City has created its own Cavern Club atmosphere to present Yesterday, a tribute to early Beatles music that employs period instruments. Yesterday performs through Sept. 1.
"It ain't going away"
It's not just baby boomers who are this nuts.
In July, the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park presented a performance by Beatallica, a band that somehow blends the music of The Beatles and Metallica.
And the Paul Green School of Rock, which has a chapter in Red Bank, includes The Beatles in its curriculum for teen musicians, thereby passing the word to a third, or fourth, generation of fans.
Such widespread enthusiasm does not surprise Burtnik, who was a cast member in "Beatlemania" and, among other projects, currently plays in the tribute band Liverpool.
"I've been in the Beatles business a long time," said Burtnik. "At our Liverpool shows, 50 percent, or better, of the audience was born after The Beatles broke up. This music continues to grab new generations. It ain't going away."
The work ethic of The Beatles remains unsurpassed. Not only were the musicians astonishingly prolific, they were innovative at every point in the band's relatively brief career.
"Everything happens in seven years," Vivino said. "All of it, including movies and touring. Nobody works like that. It'll never be the same."
And because the release of "Sgt. Pepper's" was such a watershed moment, the effect of that particular album still ripples.
"With the recording and production, The Beatles opened the floodgates for what was possible — if we feel like adding barnyard animal sounds to a song, we will," Burtnik said. "It's not punk, you know. There's nothing purist about that album."
Jim Zinsmeister, a Highland Park-based drummer in his late 40s, is such a careful Beatles fan that, in May, the Wall Street Journal published his essay-length, letter-to-the-editor about the famous "Sgt. Pepper's" cover art.
Zinsmeister, like so many Beatles fans, approaches Beatles music with a mixture of scholarly curiousity, reverence and joy.
"Like all great art," he wrote in a recent e-mail to the Press, "the music of The Beatles rises to meet your needs wherever you are in your life."
"Sgt. Pepper's," Zinsmeister wrote, "compelled the listener — because of its sonic and lyrical richness — to give it . . . more than casual attention."
The entire Beatles catalog continues to inspire musicians and fans. The Smithereens acknowledged a major debt to The Beatles with a track-by-track re-creation of "Meet The Beatles." Released this year on Koch Records, "Meet The Smithereens!" presents those famous songs with a Jersey accent. ("The Jersey Beat Meets The Mersey Beat," proclaims the album cover).
"These Beatles fests always have perfect Beatles bands doing note-by-note covers," said Smithereens guitarist Jim Babjak, 50, who lives in Manalapan. "But we're just four Jersey guys playing raw and dirty rock 'n' roll."
Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken provides the foundation, with strict adherence to The Beatles arrangements. "And then whatever we play, that'll be us," Babjak said of the rest of the band. "Pat (DiNizio) has a much lower voice, so that has to be different than what The Beatles did. It's not easy, so we don't try to fake it."
Likewise, "Sgt. Pepper's" still presents a challenge for Burtnik, despite his years of experience with The Beatles' repertoire.
"It's a lot of work," he said. "It's really hitting me now. It's a lot more complex than what The Smithereens were doing because that's straight-ahead rock, whereas what I'm working on is a crazy, detailed, overblown, ambitious project.
"I was about 12 when "Sgt. Pepper' came out, and the timing was perfect for it to leave an impression on me," Burtnik said. "I know it by heart, and I don't like the idea of putting it onstage without a real harp, a real sitar, a real tabla player. It's a lifelong dream and a musical challenge to stage that many musicians in one place."
The Fab Faux has performed full albums before, but the Beacon show will be the band's first — and perhaps only — attempt with "Sgt. Pepper's."
"We love to do entire albums, from top to bottom," Vivino said. "Each has been a challenge, but this one has the tape loop on "Mr. Kite,' the orchestra on "Day in the Life," more tape loops, and so many overdubs, and that's the hardest part.
"This is when the studio became as important as the band," Vivino said. "With us, Frank Agnello plays the tape loop like an instrument, like another keyboard.
"It's enjoyable to do it when you're in the middle of it because you're with the audience," he added. "It's a lot of cerebral work, for the band and on the audience's part, too."
Burtnik's band will feature a host of local and regional musicians — "I'd say there'll be 20 to 50 people at any given point," Burtnik said — as well as Steve Holly, who played in Wings.
"At the end of "Day in the Life,' the orchestra is playing from its lowest note, and in 24 measures, getting to its highest note," Burtnik said. "It's not harmonic, but it's this beautiful, instrumental thing, so I'm trying to assemble this makeshift orchestra that can do the same thing.
"For better or worse, it's a singular piece of music," he said. "I'm not sure it's made for a live setting. I'm not so sure that "Sgt. Pepper' should be played live. I guess I'm going to find out."