Todd Rundgren, Micky Dolenz, Christopher Cross and more honor The Beatles’ properly eponymous 1968 opus
My god, don’t we all love rock ‘n’ roll anniversaries? Especially big number ones?
They’re pegs. We like to use them as quasi-legitimate reasons to trot out something old and hope to make it new(-ish) again. Whether it’s the remastered/reissued/bonus tracks multi-sets that flood the market or tours featuring a seminal work from yesteryear whose prime music-making days are in the rear view mirror.
It’s a chance to revisit, in some detail, what we once loved and find out, more often than not, after time spent away, that we still do, dammit. (Not always, of course. Sometimes you wince.) It justifies our youthful passion and gives us a chance to mourn that passing youth. It puts a smile on our face as we celebrate the fact that we were there once and want to be there again by proxy or whatever it takes.
It was the latter, on a Friday night in October in Boston at Berklee Performance Center, part of a national tour.
It wasn’t the Beatles exactly, but it was, more or less, The Beatles, which of course you know as the “White Album.”
It was Todd Rundgren, Micky Dolenz, Badfinger’s Joey Molland, Christopher Cross and Chicago’s Jason Scheff – plus a five-piece backing band – on a tour called It Was 50 Years Ago Today. Their show is all – well, mostly – about the Beatles double album and the tour title plays of the first line of Sgt. Pepper. There are various Beatle-related threads you can pick up on if that matters – Rundgren produced Badfinger (first band signed to Apple) and once played in Ringo’s All-Starr Band; Dolenz was pals with McCartney first and then Lennon (part of the infamous Hollywood vampires.)
We enjoy anniversaries so much that we’re willing to fudge the dates a wee bit. The Beatles was released in 1968, making it now 51 years, which doesn’t matter a whit in the scheme of things if your intent is to hear this album done live by these pros. (By the point of release, of course, The Beatles were well finished with touring.) The idea, for the guys on stage was to pay homage, have fun and make a spot of cash – remember the Rutles song “All You Need Is Cash”? For us in the crowd, it’s an opportunity to experience that music live with fellow fans, not in your bedroom alone (me) or dorm room (others, slightly older) in 1968.
As to the collection of songs on the album, it was The Beatles biggest leap yet in terms of encompassing all the musical styles at their disposal. (I’m guessing the guys in The Clash had this in mind when they did London Calling and, especially, Sandinista!) It was a crazy-quilt: Jaunty old-timey tunes (“Wild Honey Pie”), full-bore hard rockers (“Helter Skelter,” sung by Rundgren), tender love songs (“I Will,” sung by Cross), nasty-ass screamers (“Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?,” sung by Micky), hard junkie blues (“Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” sung by Micky) and much more.
The concert? Well, it didn’t go directly from song 1 to song 30. It started off in sequence, but then veered away from The Beatles and there were a few skips. No “Yer Blues”!? Come on guys, let it wail!
I was wondering how they’d tackle “Revolution No. 9” and the answer was they spun a very short bit of it directly from the album at the beginning while I was stuck in massive Boston traffic. That segued into hard-rocking “Back in the USSR,” the latter few chords my entry point of the show and then the acoustic strains of “Dear Prudence,” as sung by Scheff.
Rundgren and Dolenz were, I’d say, the stars of the show – the best-known names. Dolenz sometimes served as MC and served up some of the zany, although Rundgren did a pretty good job on zany too, changing costumes, and marching out in safari garb and clowning about with a water gun for “Bungalow Bill.” (It was fun enough, but I don’t think the heaviness of the song’s intent was helped by the cartoonish elements. I mean, Bunglaow Bill is an asshole.) Rundgren also ripped out a terrific solo during “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
The surprise, probably, was Cross, who I’d last paid scant attention to around 1979. Though I may have found his own soft-rock ignorable, with his sweet tenor he brought The Beatles’ softer, gentler songs – “Martha My Dear,” “Blackbird,” “I Will) to life.
The concert was divided into halves and the first half took its big jag midway through where everyone scuttled the white album, and the stars did a couple songs of their own. The most awful of these, surprisingly enough, was Rundgren’s off-key butchering of “Hello It’s Me” and the best was Molland’s “Baby Blue,” one of the best power-pop songs of all time, done justice by these lads. (Yes, images of the Breaking Bad finale danced in my head.) I do wish he’d also done the McCartney-penned Badfinger hit “Come and Get It.” Dolenz made us all Top 40 kids from the ‘60s again with “I’m a Believer.” As to Cross’s and Scheff’s songs – meh then, meh now. Then, it closed out with three songs that brought us back to The Beatles.
The second set was all Beatles all the time. Sampled piggies snorted in the background while Scheff sang the porcine song, Dolenz tore through the ever-gleeful banger “Birthday” and sang the sad story of country boy “Rocky Racoon” as well as the under-rated “I’m So Tired.” It seems like kind of a minor song in the context of The Beatles catalog, but, to me, it’s always struck home: A song about the most basic – and real – of universal 20th and 21st century complaints or maladies, sleep deprivation and insomnia. The song’s torpor is lulling and then it explodes: “You know I can’t sleep/I can’t stop my brain/You know, it’s three weeks/I’m going insane!/I’d give you everything I got for a little piece of mind!”
“Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” usually wins the people’s choice award for worst Beatle song – well, maybe “Old Brown Shoe” does – but it is, at its core, just a silly, merry little role reversal singalong and it was all the gang singing on stage, and many of us out there in the seats doing the same. Guilty as self-charged, smile on face. They closed, of course, with “Good Night.”
So, you’re wondering: Did hearing this music done live in my face wipe the Charles Manson associations from my brain? Sadly, it did not – no matter what U2 said once about stealing “Helter Skelter” back from Charlie. What Manson said/or did/or prompted others to do with his crackpot theory and the case Vincent Bugliosi made (and then profited greatly from) always lingers a least a little.