The ’60s are further in the past than they ever have been. Its 50th anniversaries – of the Kennedy and King assassinations, Third World massacres, and soon the Stonewall Uprising – have swept by. Conservatives miss prosperity and power; liberals miss peace and nonviolent progress; radicals miss real change and revolution. And everyone misses the music.
Enter Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles, in which four aging men don, in turn, shiny bowl cuts and scraggly mullets, clean-cut suits and Sgt. Pepper costumes for a chronological, facsimile re-enactment of The Beatles’ greatest hits. As The Associated Press once said, and as their website proudly quotes, they’re “the next best thing to seeing the Beatles.”
If the “next best thing” seems like a strange sales pitch, it is also sensible. Concertgoers pay non-exorbitant prices to see replications of acts that tour either rarely, inaccessibly, or not at all. The featured groups might be disbanded or dead. In other words, there’s high demand from a devoted fanbase and little to no supply from a nonextant band. Tribute shows close the gap.
Since its inception in 1975 – the cast has changed over time – Rain has performed at the London Palladium, where the Beatles’ career took off in 1963, and on Broadway. They’ll perform at Folsom’s Harris Center for the Arts, Wednesday through Sunday, just in time for Abbey Road’s 50th anniversary.
On playing John Lennon
Steve Landes has been John Lennon since he was 17, when he auditioned successfully for the part in “Beatlemania,” an early tribute musical that endured, like Rain, by means of a rotating cast. He was one of the Beatlemaniacs for whom the musical was named: he was raised listening to the Beatles and soon became an avid listener himself.
He dropped out of school for the sake of touring and never went back. “I don’t recommend it,” he said, with gentle humor. “But I knew what I wanted to do.”
“A lot of parents might have been worried, or tempered that with ‘But you need to have a real job!’” He mimicked the sing-song chastisement of a tight-laced parent. “But my mom and dad” – first-generation Beatles fans who gave Landes his first guitar at age 10 “were always behind me.”
After two years with Beatlemania and an interval of miscellaneous work, Landes joined the cast of Rain in 1998. It’s been 21 years and he’s still going strong. For Landes, fandom and performance are twin endeavors, both lifelong.
“I, as a Beatles fan, know what I would want to see,” he said. “I would want to sit in the audience and, for two hours, feel like I’m just seeing the Beatles. I don’t want to see a show, I don’t want to see somebody’s interpretation, I don’t want to hear somebody put their own spin on it. I want to feel like I am seeing the Beatles. And that’s what we strive for.”
When it comes to tribute shows, fans on both sides of the fourth wall are relentlessly committed to more of the same.
Tribute acts first cropped up in the ‘50s, when Elvis impersonators tried to cash in on the craze.
The Beatles’ first tribute act, The Buggs, emerged in the mid-60s. But truly popular acts like Beatlemania and Rain didn’t come about until the Beatles disbanded. A particular concatenation of meteoric success, cult fandom, abrupt collapse and persistent afterlife – something Elvis and the Beatles have in common – lends itself most to the success of tribute shows: unsated fans search for substitutes. (Landes estimates that Baby Boomers make up 50 to 75 percent of the audience on any given night.) In this sense, tribute acts – like any kind of nostalgia – are a protracted form of grief.
They’re rarely critical successes: Janet Maslin, reviewing the film adaptation of Beatlemania for The New York Times, wrote, “Beatlemania was a horror on the stage, and it’s even more of a horror at close range, where the seams really show. This isn’t a loving impersonation, or even an honest one. It’s cheap, disingenuous and loathsome.” For The Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones described Rain’s costumes as “shrewdly deceiving” and the intermittent video montages as “cheaply Pythonesque.” Tribute acts are everything the high-brow American music industry hates: they’re unoriginal, their musical merit is dubious, they cash in on nostalgia. They are to dad rock what cosplay is to anime: acts of love incomprehensible to people outside of that love.
Landes, on the contrary, thinks “musicianship and authenticity” are central to Rain’s success.
“When people think of tribute bands, they think, ‘Oh, it’s a novelty. It’s going to be a little cheesy.’ We wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case,” Landes said. “We’re portraying the best rock and roll band in all of history. And so if we weren’t the very best musicians we could possibly be – if we weren’t a really tight band, I don’t think we could do that.”
For his part, Jones, the Chicago Times critic, somewhat agreed: “the music, which is played live, has integrity. … They are all very decent players.” For Landes he had particular praise: “[he] has a genuinely arresting voice and an attitude in the ballpark of the man he is interpreting.”
Now Landes, who plays Lennon between the ages of 22 and 30, is older than Lennon was when the band dissolved. In a sense he’s been in the Beatles for longer than Lennon was in the Beatles. His love for Lennon has only deepened with age: He’s amassed 200 books and 100 videos and studied them closely.
Research and fandom go hand in hand. It’s clear that Lennon has rubbed off on Landes philosophically as well as musically: like a true child of the hippies, he invokes “positivity” and “peace and love” both on stage and off.
“You’re piloting that character, as it were,” Landes said. “If you ask an airplane pilot if they feel like they’re flying – I’m sure they do, but they’re also working controls, making sure their passengers are safe and doing things that temper that emotion.” He paused. “But when I’m up on stage, in character, in the moment, and I look towards my bandmates and they look just like the other Beatles – sure, in those kind of moments, it feels really good. It can be surreal.”
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then recreation might just be the highest form of fandom. And fans love their heroes to death and beyond.