Since the premiere of Beatlemania in 1977, the Beatles tribute band has not just become an accepted part of popular entertainment, but something approaching an art, with its own unspoken laws and aesthetics. Audiences accepted the Beatlemania cover band because it came in the guise of a Broadway show, a multimedia experience, and were forgiving for any inauthentic moment. But just as there are forgeries of Rembrandts so good that even the experts are fooled, the stakes in the Beatles tribute band world are very high indeed.
For several years now, the Fab Four, an Orange County-based tribute band, has earned a reputation as the toppermost of the poppermost. With Ron McNeil as John Lennon, Ardy Sarraf as Paul McCartney, Michael George Amador as George Harrison, and Rolo Sandoval as Ringo Starr, the Fab Four have made thousands of jaws drop with their uncanny performances. They won’t win any look-alike competitions (though Sarraf gets pretty close), but their voices sound dead on, and the music, all live, comes as close as most people will get to either reliving their first Beatles concert or seeing them at all. Santa Barbara audiences will have that chance when they play a benefit concert for the Marjorie Luke Theater, on Sunday, November 23.
McNeil has been playing John Lennon for 11 years, six of those as part of the Fab Four.
“I’ve always been imitating people since I was a kid,” he says, “I didn’t do it because I was thinking of a future job.” When he was 16 McNeil saw the Broadway production of Beatlemania. “That left a big impression on me,” he says. He began taking part in amateur sound-alike competitions as Lennon, which he started to win.
The real John Lennon met Paul McCartney at a village fete in 1957. But for the imitation Lennon, McNeil met the imitation McCartney at a Beatles convention. Ardy Sarraf was at the time a teenager, a “little dumpy kid,” according to McNeil. Ardy was onstage as a contestant in a sound-a-like competition, knocking out one of McCartney’s famous rock’n’roll shouters with ease.
“He sounded so much like Paul my hair stood up on the back of my neck,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it.” Sarraf won the grand prize and McNeil sought him out offstage. “I asked if he would join my own tribute band,” McNeil says. “And he said no.”
So much for a great origin story.
It was years later that they met up again. Sarraf had by this time formed the Fab Four with drummer Rolo Sandoval. When their Lennon dropped out, McNeil was called to fill in. Realizing that all the pieces were falling together, Sarraf told McNeil, “If we are going to do this, let’s do it right.” For Sarraf that meant learning to play a bass left-handed, just like Paul. McNeil knew that his Lennon voice had to sound perfect.
Asked when he knew he had really cracked the impersonation of Lennon, McNeil says, “I’m still working on it. We all continue to work on our impressions.” One senses the search for complete mastery of Lennon’s voice is what keeps McNeil going.
McNeil says the big test for anybody performing Lennon is “Imagine.” The tone, the cadence, all have to be correct. There’s no loud rock music or screaming to hide behind. “It’s just you and the piano. If you don’t sound like him then, people will know.” (Similarly, for all burgeoning Pauls, the trial by fire is “Yesterday.”)
In some ways, imitating a group calls on a unique set of talents not known in regular bands. Each performance needs to be note-perfect and match the studio version, and played in front of a crowd of fans who are ready to judge any deviation from their memories. Whereas the musicians themselves who created the music can get away with and are expected to depart from their studio versions, injecting them with different lifeblood each time, tribute bands face the opposite task.
On Beatles bootlegs and their “Anthology” series, you can hear the Beatles try to get a guitar lick right take after take. George Harrison’s guitar riff on “And Your Bird Can Sing” took some practice, and they only used the one take when he did. The Fab Four’s “George,” Michael George Amador, has to get that right every single night. At the same time, he has to step up to the microphone and sing exactly like his Harrison.
With the voice and the music covered, McNeil also has to concentrate on looking, if not physiognomically then at least in the way he holds himself, like Lennon. The early Beatlemania years are the hardest. “Lennon stood in a sort of golfer’s stance, knees bent. He also held the guitar very high and way out from the body. When I first started doing these shows, my back hurt so bad.” He also holds the guitar pick just like Lennon, between the index finger and thumb. “People say it looks strange, but that’s how he played.”
All this seems obsessive until one realizes that the audience demands it, and must be achieved if the Fab Four want to be keep the title as the best tribute band out there.
“Everybody’s an expert,” he says of the audience. “Some will come up afterwards and tell me that Lennon’s guitar had a scratch down here and so should mine. We have to be their image of the band. It’s not an easy task, but we like the input.”
The Fab Four’s success has been such that they have been called to play at public and private gigs. Eric Idle (who played the Paul-like character in The Rutles) had them play his 25th anniversary party. (“We learned some Rutles songs for that,” McNeil adds.) They’ve also played gigs for Steve Martin, Jeff Lynn, Dave Grohl, and Paul Stanley of Kiss.
“We are the only four-piece group to play all these songs live,” McNeil says of the later Beatles songs, when the group brought in any instrument they could get their hands on, from sitars to full orchestras. “Other bands use backing tapes. We don’t.” Keyboards play a special role, and often the band change instruments several times during numbers. They’ve even had an opportunity to be backed by a full orchestra, allowing them to play “A Day in the Life” and “I Am the Walrus”.
McNeil makes a point of leaving Lennon behind onstage when he steps out of the spotlight. “If I talked with a Liverpool accent at home my wife would kill me,” he jokes. “I have my own life offstage, and I take both very seriously. The good thing about the group is that onstage we are four of the most famous musicians in the world. Offstage, we’re just us. That means I can walk down the street and nobody recognizes me.” To the group it’s the best of both realities.
The Fab Four: The Ultimate Beatles Tribute
When: Sunday, November 23, 7 p.m.
Where: Marjorie Luke Theater, 721 East Cota Street
Information: (805) 565-9359 or www.ticketmaestro.org