Half a century after first making their mark playing nightclubs in the red light district of Hamburg, Germany, the Beatles remain the most influential rock band in history. John, Paul, George and Ringo launched the group dynamic as a force in pop music, says Mark Benson, who portrays John Lennon in “1964…The Tribute,” a Beatles tribute band appearing Thursday, Aug. 12, at Merchantsauto.com Stadium in Manchester.
“They were a four-headed being, when most bands were just a central figure with a backing group;” Benson said recently from a tour stop in Austin, Texas. “No one could figure out who the leader of the Beatles was. Paul would sing and then John would take over; then the drummer sang. You’d say, what is going on here? You can’t categorize these guys.”
But few can say firsthand how the band sounded live; the din of screaming fans drowned out most of the music when they played in concert, and sound systems of the era were woefully unsuited to the job. So Benson and his mates decided to recreate a Beatles concert that people could hear.
“It’s funny,” Benson said. “When people come to the autograph line after the show, anybody who actually was at a Beatles concert, that’s the first thing they say: ‘I went to see the Beatles and now I can finally hear what they were supposed to be like.”
Where other cover bands attempt to trace a Beatles history, including songs never played live, “1964…The Tribute” sticks to the touring period of 1963 through 1966. “We show you what it was like to see them come on stage,” Benson said. “We draw our material from the first six or seven American releases.”
“1964…The Tribute” stretches the Beatles’ set, which typically didn’t last longer than 35 minutes, to well over an hour. Deciding what to omit seems to be the band’s biggest challenge.
“What great Beatles song do you pull out of a set so you can put another great Beatles song in?” said Benson. “It really does get to that point — you know, you can’t not do ‘Twist and Shout’ or ‘She Loves You’ or ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’”
The group began as a lark in 1984, a side project for four professional musicians who spent most of their time building studios and making records. “We’ll play a nightclub every two months or so,” thought Benson at the time. “We thought it would be a great way to keep our hand in performing and not lose touch with it — it was a neat theme with music we really love.”
Twenty-six years later, the band has cemented its reputation as a leader in a crowded field, regularly selling out venues like Carnegie Hall and Red Rocks Amphitheatre. But, says Benson, they haven’t played a lot of ballparks, which makes the Manchester show unique.
“We did play Shea Stadium before its demise,” he said. Perhaps the most surreal moment came when the band was invited to perform for politicians and dignitaries at a German reunification ceremony in 1990. “I looked around and thought, this is a Fellini movie.”
Later, they were introduced to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and East German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. “One turns to other and says, ‘I remember my brothers and I turning tennis rackets around and arguing about who was John and who was Paul,’” recalls Benson. “The other guy smiled and related a similar kind of story. Suddenly, these guys weren’t politicians, they were just people who enjoyed music, had a common frame of reference and they were united by it.”
It’s heady stuff for a cover band, albeit one that Rolling Stone magazine once called the greatest of all Beatles tribute bands.
“There are things you never could have told me would happen with this,” Benson said. “I think part of it is that so much of society still longs for something like this. The Beatles’ music is very positive; it makes you feel good [and] it unites people. Suddenly, there’s no black or white, poor, old or young. They’re all Beatles fans.”
What explains the band’s enduring appeal?
“If I had to try to sum it up? It’s love,” Benson said. “Most of their songs had an underlying theme of love, and if you listened to a Beatles song one time, you could sing it. They were so simple and memorable.”
Benson looks to his muse for a final answer: “It was John Lennon that said in an interview, If you write songs, write for children. Because everybody understands a childlike quality in all of us.”