‘Mystery Tour’ Goes Where No Beatle Had Gone Onstage Before


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.


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.



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”?)

At least one lifelong Beatle fan would have traded “Imagine,” in which the orchestra served basically as window dressing, for one of the less-popular tracks from the same album that used strings more inventively: complementing the chugging blues of “It’s So Hard” or whipping up a disorienting mood for the anti-Paul sideswipe “How Do You Sleep?”

If this show does develop a life beyond Saturday’s performance--Owen, who footed the $50,000 budget, said he needed to sell 2,000 tickets to break even--perhaps the players will get the chance go beyond Beatle hit singles. They could shoot for the moon and try Harrison’s sax-heavy “Savoy Truffle,” McCartney’s nostalgic “Your Mother Should Know” or Lennon’s kaleidoscopic “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”

That said, Owen and his cohorts--David Leon (singing Lennon’s parts), Tony Kishman (McCartney) and Rolo Sandoval (Ringo)--took a commendable chance trying any of this in front of nearly 2,000 people, most of whom presumably know these records inside and out. Such an audience might easily have screamed bloody murder at the missing alarm-clock sound during the first part of McCartney’s interlude in “A Day in the Life,” or hissed when Owen took a single solo in the middle of “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” instead of replicating the record’s two-bar solo trade-offs between Paul, George and John.

They also wisely avoided “Beatlemania’s” emphasis on physical mimicry. There were no Sgt. Pepper uniforms, no wire-rimmed spectacles on Leon/Lennon, no fake mustaches to evoke the “Summer of Love” look. Best of all, they didn’t indulge in fake accents or otherwise attempt to be the Beatles. In what little between-songs chat there was, they referred to one another by their real names, and talked about their own lives and families.



With their “Beatlemania” foundations, Leon and Kishman made for vocally impressive Lennon-McCartney stand-ins (although Kishman tended to draw out phrases in a Vegas-style delivery that sometimes missed the nimble elasticity of genuine McCartney).

Sandoval didn’t get so much as Ringo’s token one-song-per-album vocal. Too bad, because they would have had an ideal set-closer with Ringo’s string-heavy benediction “Good Night,” from the White Album.

Instead, the evening had been scheduled to end with the sure-fire sing-along rendition of “Hey Jude.” But when the crowd stood and bellowed for more, the quartet returned for energetic, orchestra-less versions of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist and Shout,” during which people actually stood and danced in hallowed Segerstrom Hall.

You say you want a revolution. . . .