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.