Rubber souls

Can a Beatles tribute band become something greater than copycats? Rain washes away the doubts

So who are these guys? Turns out, they’re not at all what I had been expecting—the equivalent of Beatles Trekkies. They’re just a bunch of musicians who have struggled for a long time to make it. There are no illusions of actually being the Beatles here.<br>

So who are these guys? Turns out, they’re not at all what I had been expecting—the equivalent of Beatles Trekkies. They’re just a bunch of musicians who have struggled for a long time to make it. There are no illusions of actually being the Beatles here.

Photos by David Robert

Has anyone seen the Beatles lately? For a now-half-deceased four-piece that notoriously disdained live performances and actually broke up more than three decades ago, the Fab Four seem to be pretty busy these days—two shows at the Harvest Festival in Irvine, rocking out at a Sexual Assault Support Services fundraiser in Boston, a free concert at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, headlining CSU Pomona’s Bronco Fest, a seven-night Caribbean Cruise with a special guest MC, The Love Boat’s Ted Lange (That’s “Isaac the Bartender” to you, Sweetie Pie), not to mention a recurring gig at McMonkeez, 73 W. Chippewa St., in Buffalo, N.Y.

Who’d have thought the once-so-reclusive lads would be advertising that they’ll play “product launches, hotels, theaters, weddings, cabaret, holiday venues, cruises, private parties, drag shows and even laundromats"?

OK. These obviously aren’t the real lads from Liverpool—they’re Beatles tribute bands. Some are pretty good, some are worse than words were meant to express, while most are benign little cheeseballs of sentimentality ranging from a bland mozzarella to a rancid, over-aged Havarti. All use the standard “If you like the Beatles, you’ll love us” in their advertising. All have managed to lather up impressive testimonials: “'One of western Kentucky’s most amazing Beatles tribute acts!'—Western Kentucky Beatles Tribute Band Society.”

Whether hamming it up at the Tremont Turkey Fest on Route 9, the big SPCA benefit in downtown Norfolk, or harmonizing for the cleavage-packed wenches at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, you can bet your Rickenbacker that John, Paul, George and Ringo (or approximations thereof) are driving crowds wild at least seven days a week, somewhere.

Admittedly, the idea of going to a casino to hear a tribute band induces the similarly long, painful sigh and pause as would watching, say, my car keys splash into the muddy brown sludge of a Port-a-Potty hole. But local Beatles act Rain has likely been doing the Fab Four-thing longer than anyone. For nearly 30 years, since before the phrase “tribute band” even existed, “The World’s Most Renowned Beatles Tribute Band” has been working to perfect the entire Beatles catalog, some 200 songs, give or take.

With a reputation for being Beatle virtuosos, the working-class five-piece has a good reputation and is reportedly a dead-on sound-a-like, able to perform any Beatles song with a spooky similitude. Joe, Joey, Steve, Ralph and Mark’s (the fifth member is a keyboardist who plays off-stage right in order to perform the more complicated studio work of the post-1966 albums) production of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! has even been voted Northern Nevada’s Show of the Year for the past two years. (That’s “Show,” not “Performer.” No need to worry, Gordie Brown, you’re safe for now.)

If I were a real, pedigreed rock journalist (a group of supercilious scribes notorious for not liking anything), I could be dismissive about the whole thing, scribble something like, “The only band worth a shit from the mid 1960s were The Fugs, and even they sucked,” and then go hit the craps table. End of story.

Reflecting on Lennon’s death, cough-syrup junky and renowned rock critic Lester Bangs said, “I don’t know which is more pathetic, the people of my generation who refuse to let their 1960s adolescence die a natural death, or the younger ones who will snatch and gobble any shred, any scrap of a dream that someone declared dead over 10 years ago.”

But it’s not dead, Lester. You are.

Besides, I have questions for this faux Fab Four. Just how authentic are these guys? Thirty years is a long time. Certainly, playing a part for that long might do some strange things to a man’s ego, at least existentially. Do these guys actually think they are the Beatles? Do they live like the Beatles? Sleep in a yellow submarine? Will they be tripping on LSD? Is the Rain “John Lennon” married to a Rain “Yoko"? Will I have to sit through a Plastic Ono Band tribute, too?

Rain revisits the Beatles appearance on <i>The Ed Sullivan Show</i>.<br>

Photo by David Robert

Long before SARS or even Monkeypox, good, decent Americans tried their damnedest to hold the tide of a new epidemic threatening the public good: Beatlemania. Dr. Bernard Saibel, a child expert reporting for the Saturday, Aug. 22, 1964, edition of the Seattle Daily Times, called the experience of being at a Beatles concert “frightening … an unholy bedlam.”

He went on, comparing the concert to a teenage orgy. “The hysteria and loss of control go far beyond the impact of the music. Many of those present became frantic, hostile, uncontrolled, screaming, unrecognizable beings,” not to mention the music “and the bizarre, gnome-like fairy-tale characters who play it.”

The symptoms were complex—Beatlemania was associated with a certain excess release of hormones, sudden unexplained crying and uncontrollable shrieking. A sweet mix of joy and the saddest kind of madness. An utterly new emotion. Inexplicable. Concerned parents could look for signs such as the same-day purchase and wearing-out of a vinyl record otherwise meant to last for years. But three months earlier, on the very same television sets, America had already seen the impossible.

Nov. 22, 1963: In front of a large, enthusiastic crowd of Texans, the handsome young president who had promised to take us to the moon and back and his beautiful wife approached a triple underpass. One minute he was smiling and waving, the next, a puff of white smoke blew from the side of his head and his brains were sliding down the face-shields of the motorcycle cops who rode behind him. Rewind it and watch it again. You start to notice things in more detail. The family on the grass waving. Jackie leaning over to JFK. A lurch in time like an unexpected exclamation point. Remember this image for the next two-and-a-half months. Dwell on it. Replay it in your head. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, we have a really big shew…”

The Beatles didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll any more than the Baby Boomers invented shopping. They just did it with more passion and force than most decent Americans had seen at that time. That first night on The Ed Sullivan Show, John, Paul, George and Ringo reached critical mass, and the Beatles literally climbed out of middle America’s TV consoles and into 70 million homes. “Pop culture” was born.

I sit back in my seat at the Eldorado showroom and wait for the rebirth. It’s a pleasant theater, not at all like something I’d expect inside a casino. More like something out of an earlier time, and as the lights dim, that’s exactly where we’re going. Through a multimedia time-machine of stills and clips, the audience is transformed into an era when you could say the name “Dick Van Dyke” among mixed company and Petticoat Junction was the closest thing to a reality show on TV.

As the scrim rises on the first act of Rain’s tribute, four dark-suited, toe-tapping silhouettes come into focus as a hyperreal spectacle of very-familiar noise and amazing likeness. It’s a vision and a hallucination at the same time. Cunning in its believability. The skeptical crowd begins to sit back in a kind of awe as Rain takes over the show. All the accoutrements of any self-respecting Beatles act are there—the mop-top haircuts, the Beatle boots—but there is something more present, something ephemerally Beatles.

Adjusting my eyes around the stage, I begin to notice details. They’ve recreated the set of The Ed Sullivan Show, complete with light-up applause signs. Black-and- white shots from two movie cameras project onto screens on both sides of the stage, flirting with both the band and the audience.

In a personal sort of way, it’s like seeing Mom and Dad back together. And kissing. That’s how close these guys sound to the real thing.

“Paul” is cheeky, making faces at the camera. Ringo is bopping his head like a maraca, as though whatever’s in there is bouncing around, helping him keep time. They really do seem like creatures from another age, but somehow as much the future as the past. The sound is pure and driving; the vintage Vox amps churn out warm sibilants of feedback.

Later, I will go back and watch the original tapes of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Somehow, Rain has tapped into what and how we want to remember that show, not what was actually happening. After seeing Rain, you realize how awful the sound was and to what degree the audience made that show what it was.

Mark Lewis is the keyboardist and the “fifth” Beatle who plays off-stage.<br>

Photo by David Robert

Still, few bands have erected such permanent monuments on the cultural history timeline as the Beatles did that first night on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Rolling Stones playing “Under My Thumb” at Altamont is the only other one that comes to mind.

But this is “The Day the Music Lived Again,” being reenacted perfectly by Rain. The only difference is the lack of dreamy-eyed, clothes-rending teenage girls who would line up 40-deep behind a chain-link fence, screaming wantonly with eyes so open with tears. Where are they? Have they become the middle-aged Boomers bopping gracefully beside me?

Certainly the audience leans toward the middle of the bell curve, but there are some groups of kids here, too. I guess I’m somewhere in-between. To me, “Wings” will always be that TV show about a small airport with a fat guy and a neurotic blonde. I never really watched it, so I have no idea, really. And when Rain does “Twist and Shout,” admittedly my first thought is of Ferris Bueller singing in that parade. Ah, but I’m soon lost in the presentation.

There once was a band called the Beatles. Then a historical force called the Beatles. Now we are post-Beatles, which in crooked postmodern theory makes them almost more relevant today. They have had an influence on nearly every aspect of pop culture. No rock band around can say it wasn’t influenced by the Beatles, even if it doesn’t realize it. From rival bands like the Rolling Stones to outright public nuisances like the watered-down flatulence of Hootie and the Blowfish, the Beatles were the mainstream force that broke down the great white dam and allowed the musical present to flow in its myriad directions, its trickle of alternatives and musical niches.

Back on stage, Rain is in full psychedelic costume, the Sgt. Pepper’s period. The air is filled with sweet incense. The band is dressed in those creepy colorful Victorian altered-state army uniforms that haunted me for what seemed like days the first time somebody ever handed me a tab of acid and put on a Beatles cartoon. Behind them, a perfect recreation of the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover re-interpreted with the members of Rain and their friends. It’s all too real, too real for me to watch.

I close my eyes. The songs sound like they’re coming directly from the album. When they hit “Yellow Submarine,” I shrink into my seat. A yellow submarine floats above them from right to left. I’m not sure if I’m the only one seeing it or not. I’ve always been afraid of the yellow submarine. I don’t know what it’s up to, but I know it’s no good.

Pop cowpoke Garth Brooks has one called “Fresh Horses.” “Backstreet’s Back” pays tribute (seriously!) to the Backstreet Boys. “The Dixie Chicklets,” “Ricky La Vida Loca,” “Sync*In” and even the Dave Matthews Band have tribute acts, a fact that seems strange considering the latter seems to be on tour in every single city every night of the year as it is. There’s an all-female tribute to Iron Maiden called the “Iron Maidens.”

“Evolution” is a tribute act to Journey, a band that just played in a grueling four-and-a-half-hour death-match schlock-rock marathon with Styx and REO Speedwagon right here in Reno. Speaking of Speedwagon, there are Internet rumors that a tribute band actually outdrew them when they played the same venue a few months later. But those are just rumors. (And frankly, I just wanted to say “speaking of Speedwagon…” So take it for what it’s worth. Plus, I always thought the song “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” was about really having to go to the bathroom and not having anyplace to go.)

So who are these doppelgangers, vicarious fans or failed musicians? Is this hyper-reality taken to higher levels, or has French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s nightmare of simulacra, in which the copy becomes more real than the real, finally reached the world of pop? In England, you can hire the Beached Boys for £1150. The Pretend Pretenders will set you back only around £1000.

Of course, it’s only fitting that the king of all the tribute bands is an Elvis act. Presley, who long ago disappeared from reality and into a limited-edition collector’s plate, is paid gross tribute by a man who calls himself “Extreme Elvis.” In the Metroactive, a Bay Area weekly, Mike Connor and Steve Palopoli, a team of writers who have actually seen the great one, describe a man with a fat gut—fitting for a man who emulates a man who died on the toilet.

"[Extreme Elvis] threatened to crap onstage if the staff didn’t bring him a beer. Then, buck naked with his pants around his ankles, he took a big hit of nitrous and sang ‘Devil in Disguise’ in a deep, druggy baritone. The club owners got mad when he stuck their mic where the sun shouldn’t shine, but he really brought his point home when he took his porcelain throne and let diehard fans watch him grunt his way through ‘Love Me Tender.'”

John Lennon (Rain’s Steve Landes) sings as Ringo (Ralph Castelli) pounds the drums.<br>

Photo by David Robert

After a quick change, Rain is back on stage. The final set is based on the later Beatles, just before the 1970 break-up, the Abbey Road years. You can almost smell the disintegration in the air. Not just of the Beatles, but also of what they were reflecting as avatars of swirling cultural forces. George is in his Charles Manson phase, dark-eyed, long-haired and heavily bearded. Paul is looking off into another direction. John is dressed in a white suit and seems distracted. Ringo is in there somewhere, too.

This is the period when Harrison really comes alive as a force of his own. All are poised for their solo careers. The band takes time for an acoustic set. This is the end of the Beatles and, in many ways, the end of a lot of things. Including the show.

Backstage, the group gathers together for a critique while smatters of applause still sound behind the curtain. There was too much incense, or was there not enough? They’re no longer in character, and they’re already working on their next show. So who are these guys?

Turns out, they’re not at all what I had been expecting—the equivalent of Beatles Trekkies. They’re just a bunch of musicians who have struggled for a long time to make it. There are no illusions of actually being the Beatles here.

Ralph Castelli, Rain’s “Ringo,” admits he loves getting into character but says, “being a musician comes first.” The California-born drummer is excited because 11 hours of new, never-before-seen Beatle DVD material has just been released. He expects this will give him “a lot more insight into his character.” Half of being in Rain is studying.

Joey Caratolo is the best “Paul” in the business, next to Paul, of course. “There are moments that are magical,” he says. “We resemble the characters—we’re dead-on sound-a-likes, so there are extreme moments of spookiness. One night we’ll hit ‘Penny Lane’ so dead on, the hair will stand up on the back of your head.”

In character, Caratolo, who favors Rubber Soul over the Sgt. Pepper years, is so “Paul” you kind of want to smack him.

Joe Bithorn, “George,” says being in a tight-knit group like Rain is what he’s always dreamed about. “We tried to pick up the things we have in common naturally, not force it.”

While playing, he likes to look out into the crowd and tries to focus on the fans. He admits to trying some yoga, and except for an unrelated teenage experience with the Kama Sutra, never tried to follow in the footsteps left by George’s well-known spiritual travels. A big skier from New York, he says if he weren’t doing Rain, he would be training for a marathon. “I put all my energy into the act,” he says.

Steve Landes, “John Lennon,” admits he runs the video of The Ed Sullivan Show in his head while he’s playing the opening set. “It’s like getting to play pretend.” I see his girlfriend waiting for him in the wings, a natural beauty. She’s no Yoko.

He prefers the early stuff and likes the showroom at the Eldorado. “It doesn’t feel like you’re in a casino,” he says. A die-hard student of the Beatles, Landes notes, “You listen to a song a million times, and you’ll hear something you’ve never heard before. I’m always looking for the nuance.”

The faux Lennon puts on trademark wire-frame glasses.<br>

Photo by David Robert

“You ever hear of Extreme Elvis?”

Shakes his head, no.

“He sticks a candy cane up his ass.”

“That’s probably not right for our audience.”

Mark Lewis, the unseen presence but nonetheless powerful force behind the success of Rain, is the wizard behind the keyboard, stage right. “We’ve existed for 28 years now without any problem. Lots of groups have gotten cease-and-desist orders from the Beatles. We haven’t, probably because we play by the rules. And we’re selling Beatles records.

“We started small-time. A little band that made it big. Started with no agents. Just figured it out over the years. How to do it respectfully. This is what helps keep the legend alive. The Beatles wrote their own songs. We can play every song in the catalog. Every show is different. From “Yesterday” to “Helter Skelter"—that range. No matter what kind of rock band you are, the Beatles did it. A Beatles concert was an event.”

Lewis says Rain is just trying to fill the void. No one can bring the Beatles back, he says. “The closest they can come is to try to bring the music to life. We set a standard to blow away the absolute fanatic. If you can set that standard, not just to entertain, but to blow away the people who know the difference. That’s why we change the show around all the time. It challenges us. The true Beatles fan wants to come back and see a new concert every time.”

What if 20 years down the road you saw an ad for a Rain tribute band?

“Don’t have to wait. … There already is one,” he says coyly. “I don’t want to name them. They grew up watching Rain around the L.A. area. They came to the shows, videotaped them, copied our jokes. That’s how long Rain has been doing this. A tribute to a tribute. Rain existed before any tribute to the Beatles, any tribute band I know of.”

Ever had a fan pass out?

“Back in the 1970s. This woman. She had seizures, epilepsy. She was dancing in front of the stage and went into a fit. She had to be carried out in an ambulance. Does that count?”

How long are you going to go on?

“It’s a career. If you had asked me in 1975, I would’ve said maybe a year or two. We’re now grown up. There are millions of Beatle fans but no Beatles. I can’t see stopping something that we have worked so hard to do. The first seven years were constant personnel changes. The last two decades have been refinement. And we’re enjoying success. We can be a little pickier about the jobs we take. Our first John Lennon passed away from a brain tumor. Took a while to find a suitable replacement.”

What is it that makes you guys better than most tribute bands?

“We have accepted that this is what we were put on Earth to do. One of the problems with other bands is that they’re still at the point of doing the Beatles thing as a side-project. They put it second to their own careers as rock musicians, playing their own tunes. We were at the same place 20 years ago; then we figured out that we were really doing something great. Beatles music belongs to everybody. Like Beethoven’s. We treat the music of the Beatles like we’re playing a symphony. We just happen to play at the highest caliber."