City Lights: APA tackles tough assignment

I once met a woman who had known three of the Beatles as a college student in Liverpool. At least, so she said. Having a personal connection to the Fab Four is probably a favorite lie among the British. But her story seemed down-to-earth enough that I could go along with it.

In her telling, John Lennon had a reputation as a sardonic punk who browbeat local bartenders into giving him drinks. She remembered Paul McCartney for his "sickly gray complexion" and George Harrison for his ravishing good looks. (Ringo Starr hadn't entered the picture yet.)

Did they show signs of genius back then? "No!" the woman exclaimed. "They just struck me as puny little schoolboys. I never imagined they would be gods!"

Perhaps that was a riff on Lennon's famous comment about his band being bigger than Jesus, but the Beatles have indeed risen to a kind of godlike status — at least within pop culture. So when I heard that the Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts was preparing to play the entire 1968 double disc "The Beatles" (known as the White Album because of its nearly blank cover) in concert, I wasn't surprised.

But I wondered how the school would pull off a reenactment of the album, which easily tops the band's catalog in terms of oddities, spontaneous goofs and songs that, well, seem more like the work of schoolboys than gods.

Of all the Beatles' classics, none has earned more polarized opinions than the White Album, whose initial notices ran the gamut from "boring beyond belief" (the New York Times) to "a deluge of joyful music-making" (the Observer). AllMusic's review includes the words "frustratingly scattershot," "mess," "schmaltz," "canned," "silly," "lumbering" and "mess" again — then goes ahead and awards the album five out of five stars.

Every year, the school — which belongs to the Huntington Beach Union High School District and usually is referred to as APA — puts on a Beatles-themed show. It has played more cohesive works like "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" from top to bottom.

When I visited the rehearsal at Huntington Beach High School last week, students and faculty were in the midst of polishing the White Album tracks — and, in some cases, that meant perfectly capturing the imperfect moments.

"It does feel pretty ragged," senior Natalie Martz told me during a break. "On 'Yer Blues,' there's this weird edit part. It's a very sudden, unpolished sort of bit — it cuts back all of a sudden. So that's kind of interesting. Since we're kind of perfectionists, we want to get it right. We want to make sure it sounds like the track.

"So it's interesting having to play the mistakes, kind of. We kind of get the sense of how unpolished it is because we try to mimic it as best we can."

One thing you can say for APA's White Album show: It will feature all 30 songs played in the same room back-to-back by a unified band with a clear end vision in sight, and that's more than the Beatles did when they recorded the album.

By the time the group gathered at Abbey Road Studios in mid-1968, it had started to crumble, and the record clearly shows that. Many tracks feature a solo vocalist, and there's little of the Lennon-McCartney teamwork that helped to flesh out songs like "A Day in the Life."

But for sheer weirdness, nothing on the album approaches "Revolution 9," the abstract, eight-minute sound collage that occupies the second-to-last slot. For the record, I actually like "Revolution 9." A critic I once read described it as "a nightmare portrayed in sound," and on those terms, I think it's striking, like an aural portrait of late-1960s turmoil. (The Beatles always did reflect their times.)

As soon as I heard about the APA show, though, I had to know how the students would recreate it.

As it turns out, they're using the original recording — I guess it's one track that pretty much defies a cover version. But to accompany those off-the-wall sounds, APA's media team is creating a video montage, and teacher Michael Simmons let me see a portion.

His only direction to students, he said, was to follow their imaginations, and the resulting jumble of cartoons, concert footage, newscasts, black-and-white films and home movies looks like something Lennon would have approved.

"I said, 'Just listen to it,'" Simmons told me. "'Think about what you see and what it reminds you of.'"

On Nov. 7 and 8, the "Revolution 9" film will take the stage along with more than 100 student instrumentalists and vocalists. Starting the show will be a selection of Linda Ronstadt's greatest hits, which teacher Jamie Knight organized in tribute after the singer declared that she had lost her voice to Parkinson's disease. As with previous APA shows, the songs will alternate with documentary clips about the performers' history.

With a playlist that long, it may be hard to pull off a seamless performance. But I hope the APA students take it in stride if they don't.

After all, as the Beatles demonstrated, it's hard to sound like gods all the time. And whatever your flaws, AllMusic may still award you five stars.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

If You Go

What: Beatles Classic Album Showcase: "The Beatles" (plus pre-show of "Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits")

Where: First Christian Church, 1207 Main St., Huntington Beach

When: 6 p.m. Nov. 7 and 8

Cost: $20 for adults, $15 for students and seniors (65 and older)

Information: (714) 536-2514 or

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