Saturday, July 23rd, 2106. The O2 Academy, Sheffield. Tramlines Festival. Twenty-one Sheffield-based musicians came together to perform The Beatles masterpiece, Revolver, in it's entirety. This is how it happened.
A Text Message
My friend and colleague, Michael Tinker, texted me at the back end of 2015 to tell me that he'd listened to Revolver by The Beatles for the first time in ages and that I should listen to it again too. Oh yeah, and that we should then do a full performance of it (I assumed this was a joke).
I've been a Beatles fan for a long time. My Uncle Chris gave me a mix tape (on actual cassette tape) of early Beatles stuff when I was six years old, and I never looked back. I remember being really, really upset when I found out - some months later, I might add - that they'd split up (this was 1991). Understandably, my Parents left it a while longer before dropping the whole John-Lennon-was-brutally-murdered-to-death-with-a-gun bombshell.
I remember hitting up the local record store as often as my saved up pocket money would allow to buy the Beatles music. I was hooked. At that young age, it was always their middle period music that entranced me the most. I couldn't get enough of the songs' psychedelic imagery, ingenious harmonic structures, the singers' voices, and the eclectic production. I'd listen obsessively, I'd annoy the hell out of my parents and siblings by singing these tunes at the top (well, bottom) of my high-pitched voice in the car (walkman on full blast), I'd do my best to work out the chords, I'd record 'radio shows' full of Beatles songs, I was probably a massive pain to be around. Songs like Eleanor Rigby, Tomorrow Never Knows, Taxman, For No One, Got to Get You Into My Life, Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, I am The Walrus, Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite, A Day In The Life, were the ones that most fired up my young mind.
Once I became intellectually aware of what an album was, I realised that most of these songs lived on their middle-period triptych, Revolver, Sgt Pepper, and Magical Mystery Tour (technically not really an album, but, well, you know).
This discovery of their music led, in no small part, to me getting a guitar for my seventh birthday, getting my dad to teach me some chords, and then eventually to writing, recording, songs on the radio, songs on the TV, tours, the other side of the world.
So, when Michael suggested we do a performance, joking or not, and when I noticed that August 5th 2016 was the 50th anniversary of the albums's UK release, it was a case of 'when' rather than 'if'.
To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.
With this Leonard Bernstein quote in mind, and it being November and a full nine months away from Tramlines, we immediately set to work by doing nothing at all for a few months.
Not quite nothing actually: I went for a coffee with Tramlines's Kate Hewitt and put the idea to her. An all-Sheffield performance of The Beatles seminal album, done as faithfully to the original as possible. She was in.
That we would reproduce the album as faithfully as possible was never in question. During an X-Factor Beatles special a few years ago, I remember being taken aback at the fact that none of the tracks worked as covers. Like, not a single one of them. And not for the reasons you might think. I mean, all of the singers were good enough. All of the arrangements, on the face of it, WORKED. Some were even pretty good. But none of them captured anything approaching the visceral excitement of the originals. Upon watching ToTP 2 special of Beatles covers around the same time I noticed, again, that nothing quite worked as well as it should have. Even the numerous performances of Beatles songs that I've seen Paul McCartney do in the years since they split have rarely, if ever, come close to reproducing the magic.
So why, with such incredible songwriting, are The Beatles so hard to cover?
I think that it's because their music is not just the songs. Not just the words, melodies and chords. Whereas The Rolling Stones have spent 50 years playing their songs from the 60s over and over again, The Beatles' music exists in an eight-year bubble. Most of their songs, from Revolver onwards, were never even performed live by them. So much of it's appeal is the sound of those records: McCartney, Lennon and Harrison's voices blending in that unique way; Ringo's idiosyncratic drumming; those guitar sounds; George Martin's production; even the consoles and microphones at Abbey Road. Consequently, as soon as you try to cover a Beatles song, and put something of your self onto in, you instantly lose a large part of what makes that song so special and so loved by so many people. If we were going to do this, we were going to do it as close to the record as possible.
By the end of April, and after some craftily sent emails, pretty much all of the band were in place. I would play bass and Michael would play rhythm guitar. Howard Price (formerly of Balor Knights, and now with The Early Cartographers) would play guitar and keys. Laurie Allport (erstwhile of Hey Sholay now with LOAM, amongst others) would take on lead guitar and also provide the expertise and equipment to make sure that our guitars and amps were as close to The Beatles set ups as possible. Dominic Ridler, a tremendously gifted session drummer from the city, would be at the back. Completing the instrumental line-up was Adam Follett (previously of Cats:For:Peru, and now of Pilosa) who would take care of samples. Lead vocals would be shared by two Sheffield greats - Gina Walters (former bandmate in Screaming Maldini), and Justin Lewis (formerly of This Floating World). Myself, Michael, Howard, and Adam would handle all the BVs.
Revolver, being the first of the Beatles middle period albums, was the first time they really began to explore possibilities in the studio. More than ever before, the band’s sound was augmented with extra musicians. Naturally, we had to follow suit.
Eleanor Rigby features the most famous use of a string octet in pop history. It hard to imagine now what it would have been like to hear that for the first time in 1966. Truly ground-braking, and important for us to do it justice. Heading up the string section was cellist, arranger, fixer, and long-time Sheffield scenster-about-town, Ben Eckersley (Captives on the Carousel, Woolly Mammoth). Unsatisfied with the arrangements that the internet had to offer, he spent hours hooked up to a pair of headphones creating a note-perfect transcription of Eleanor Rigby (available to download for free from HERE) Joining him on the day were Some of Sheffield's classical players - Olivia Shotton, Lucy Revis, Tom Hetherington, Rebecca Pascoe, Kat Hurdley, Jenny Griffiths, and Abi McKee.
Revolver heavily features brass. Got to Get You Into My Life's full-on, raspy Mo'Town inspired arrangement, Yellow Submarine's trad Yorkshire brass band, and For No One's lyrical (and technically insane) french horn solo. Andy Nesbitt from Renegade Brass Band took care of the brass arranging and fixing, although a European show on the weekend of Tramlines meant that unfortunately he couldn't be at the performance. Hannah Beezer (of Mango Rescue Team) played tenor sax; Chris Noble (formerly of Screaming Maldini now of Platform4) played french horn and led the section (Chris also put together a great brass arrangement for Tomorrow Never Knows); Sam Baker played Trombone; and James Dunn (Renegade Brass Band) played trumpet.
The most problematic song, instrument-wise, was Love You Too. George Harrison's love of eastern philosophy and music really began to take hold around this album, and is made manifest in this song with tampura, sitar and tabla. We found an excellent tabla player from Sheffield University - the phenomenally talented Ford Collier (of The Drystones) - and a cracking tampura sample for Adam to trigger, the rest was Laurie using tuning and ingenuity to make his acoustic sound as much like a sitar as possible.
It was simple enough really. Get everyone's availability from May-July and then put in some rehearsals. We had one guitars only rehearsal to kick things off and distribute parts. Two vocal only rehearsals to distribute parts and get them nailed and then three full band rehearsals.
The two most important rehearsals were in the week leading up to the show on 23rd July.
On Sunday 18th, we booked a huge room at Yellow Arch and settled down for five hours to put the finishing musical touches to everything. This was super exciting for a couple of reasons. it was the first time the whole band had been together as an seven-piece with both vocalists - and consequently the first time that we could begin to hear what the whole thing would sound like - and it was the first time we were joined by some of the extra musicians too. Ford made it along with his table, and Chris Noble and Hannah Beezer were there to give us an idea of how the brass was going to fit in.
Everyone had done an amazing job of learning the material. Holding everything together was Dom on the drums - he'd really done his homework, not only successfully aping Ringo's (nearly) inimitable style, but was completely on top of all the structures and arrangements and tempos; Laurie nailed the lead guitar parts and those 1960's tones, wrestling incredible sounds from his huge pedalboard; Howard stole the show by seamlessly (and flawlessly) switching between guitar and piano and organ; Michael helped glue everything together with his solid rhythm guitar; and Adam added some sparkle with samples taken directly from the album (and in Tomorrow Never Knows, the one song where we decided to have a bit of artistic free-reign, he took the Beatles samples into the 21st century, glitching and pitch-shifting his psychedelic way through the song).
In Gina and Justin, we had two top class vocalists who brought such energy and emotional depth and vocal range to the performance. Upon hearing them on this sunday, everything started to fall into place.
One of the things I was most insistent about with Kate Hewitt when we were first discussing the show was that we'd have a full tech rehearsal. There were so many changeovers and so many different combinations of instruments and vocals that to turn up on the day, to an unprepared venue and crew would be to invite disaster. The O2's Technical Manager, Paul Glave, was more than happy to oblige, and we booked out the venue for six hours on Wednesday 20th. Paul handled the FOH sound, and monitor engineer, James, handled all the onstage sound. Over the course of the day, we got everything set up and ran through all of the requirements for each song, finishing off with a full run-through of the album.
By the end of this tech rehearsal, I knew we were ready. Paul and James had really bought in to the project and created a fantastic sound in the venue.
I was fairly terrified that the twenty one of us on stage would comfortably outnumber the audience, and that the months of hard work from all involved would have fallen on an empty room. Looking back, I should have taken the fact that they were showing Stage 20 of the Tour de France in the dressing room as a good omen. and I needn't have worried. Tramlines always brings out the best of the city. Sheffield is never as buzzy, or joyous, or as full of goodwill, as it is in that weekend in July. People came out in their hundreds to watch, young and old, and were hugely generous in their appreciation and support. It was a truly special 45 minutes and one that I'll never forget, everything went smoothly (helped along by some expert stage-management from Ben Eckersley), and everyone played out of their skin.
During Tomorrow Never Knows, I had a chance to look across the stage and take it all in: twenty-one of us completely immersed in the song, the strings improvising a drone, the brass, tabla, the band, Adam tearing up the samples, Laurie pulling unspeakable sounds from his guitar, and Dom sitting in the pocket on Ringo's famous beat, Gina and Justin belting out the words, and hundreds of faces in the darkness looking on. It's a moment I'll never forget.
Massive shout out to Kate Hewitt from Tramlines for booking us, to Paul Glave from the O2 for bringing the show to life and doing such a fantastic mix on the day, to James for making sure the sound on stage worked for us, to each of the wonderful musicians involved in the project, and to everyone in the audience who provided such an amazing atmosphere.
What started with a simple text message between friends quickly spiralled out of control, drawing together twenty one musicians, Sheffield biggest music festival, and hundreds of audience members along the way. And all because some Liverpudlians wrote and released a bunch of songs 50 years ago (pretty astounding when you really think about that). With that in mind, I guess the biggest thanks has to go to John Paul George and Ringo.
Now, better start thinking about next year.