IT MAY be too late to see all of the original Beatles play in the flesh, but it’s not too late to experience the rush of the Fab Four’s music live and in person. 1964, the world’s leading Beatles tribute band, returns to Savannah with a show that lovingly recreates the sights, sounds, and sensations of seeing the Beatles in America.
We caught up with Mark Benson, 1964’s John, on recreating the classics, the changing tribute band industry, and what it takes to get to Carnegie Hall.
I understand you’ll be playing Carnegie Hall soon!
Yes, it’s our 14th time on February 17. It’s the perfect Valentine’s getaway. Give your girl the card on Wednesday, fly on Thursday, mess around Friday, go to the show Saturday, home Sunday! It’s really cool, we work with a 16-piece orchestra. We still stay within the early time period.
What’s it like working with an orchestra?
It’s different because you know, the timing and just melding the two sort of classical and rock ‘n’ roll styles together. Sometimes you have to work at that, but it’s always fun, and over the years now, most of the people playing have been the same people.
That’s got to be a surreal experience, playing a place like that.
It’s a milestone playing that stage. There’s that old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. When we started this in 1984, you could never have told any of us that doors like this would open for us. The tribute world, especially back in ’84, was in its infancy. There were very few tribute acts, especially Beatles. And the industry has taken off so much in the last 30 years that you get bands out there now like Three Dog Night, Journey, Foreigner, that are basically tributes now. They replaced their iconic lead singers and are still touring, drawing people, and people still love it.
You could have never told us that we’d be playing Carnegie Hall, Red Rocks Amphitheatre...those have got to be the most thrilling places, especially if you do what we do.
Having been around the scene since the early days, why do you think there are so many tribute bands in recent years?
I think the music from that era is so good that people of all ages seem to like it for the same reason, whether they grew up with it or not. And when people have deaths in the groups, the band keeps going because they find a new guy that sounds fantastic. When you think about these bands that have their sound all based around the lead singer and his voice, which is so unique, if he’s done, the band is done. That’s it. Your career is over. So this started to give the other band members a second life.
Were there many other Beatles tributes when y’all were starting out?
Only two others, Rain and Beatlemania on Broadway.
How did you want to distinguish your act in the beginning?
Most of the Beatles shows are A-to-Z and go through all the eras and costume changes. We wanted to show people what it was like. It’s more of a Beatles show than a Beatles concert. We wanted to do something that focused more on if you were lucky enough to get a ticket to see the Beatles, this is what you would see.
That’s the excitement of what happened when the Beatles first came over to America—the mania surrounding them, the screaming. They were the first musical group to start playing stadiums! Up to that point, there were only sports in stadiums. There were all these people and they had to have a place to have the concert. You think of the Beatles as this amazing group and the biggest rock band of all time—in the beginning there were no PA systems available. They never needed them. Then you got 30,000 screaming girls and four guys centerfield trying to hear what they were doing, and nobody could hear anything! So you kind of have to credit the Beatles coming over here for the entire sound reinforcement industry. It’s amazing they were as good as they were, not being able to hear.
How has your show changed over the years?
Our biggest challenge is, what amazingly cool song do you pull out of the song list and replace with another amazingly cool song? We choose our music from the first seven releases up to and including Revolver. You could play every single song from those seven records and still people would say, "You didn't play my favorite!" because the catalog goes on and on. Most groups have one or two records off their album, while the Beatles—well, find a bad one! You can't.
How does being in this band challenge you as a musician?
Here's the thing I think most people don't realize about any artist, dancer, photographer, writer, musician: Your natural tendency is to progress in some direction. Our challenge is to learn something one way and never change it, and that is way harder than you might think. You listen to the live versions of Beatles records, even their live versions are different from the recorded records because they were progressing, adding a little of this and that, jazzing it up. We try to stay very close to the recorded version. That's what most people know.
Have you seen your audiences shift?
In the beginning, it was mostly baby boomers who were nostalgic, but I've got people who, when we first met them, they weren't married, and now they're bringing grandkids! It doesn't show any signs of slowing.
In certain audiences when the lights are just right, you can see three generations of families sitting together. How unusual is that? What kind of entertainment holds the attention of three generations? That’s what you’re going to see when you see the show. The show is about love. All the songs have some kind of love...but if I can get 10,000 people at Red Rocks to sing, “Love, love, love,” altogether during “Eight Days a Week,” well...that’s pretty cool.