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‘We’re gonna have a good time’ - Stars to celebrate iconic Beatles album at CCA

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ORONO - “The ‘Pepper’ myth is bigger, but the music on the ‘White Album’ is far superior, I think” – John Lennon, September 5, 1971.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ classic 1968 two-record set “The Beatles” (more commonly known as the “White Album,” due to its all-white sleeve), a super-group consisting of Beatle friends and fans is touring America this fall to play songs from the album - along with their own hits - in a show scheduled to arrive on October 7, at Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine in Orono.

“It Was Fifty Years Ago Today: A Tribute to The Beatles’ White Album” features singer-songwriter Christopher Cross (“Ride Like the Wind,” “Sailing”), Micky Dolenz of The Monkees (“I’m a Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday”), Todd Rundgren (“Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw The Light”), Jason Scheff of Chicago (“Will You Still Love Me?” “Look Away”) and Joey Molland of Badfinger (“Day After Day,” “No Matter What”), joining forces to perform music from the “White Album” in addition to hits from their respective careers.

In November 1968, The Beatles released their ninth album – a two-record set containing 30 tracks unlike anything fans had heard before. In stark contrast to the trippy explosion of colors and faces that set a new standard for eyepopping cover art on the group’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967, this self-titled affair was issued in a shiny white sleeve bearing only the embossed off-center name of the group.

For the first time on a Beatles record, images of the foursome were nowhere to be found on the front or back of the album’s jacket, which opened to reveal the titles for each song contained within, along with four individually shot portraits of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The Beatles “White Album” is recognized today not only for the breathtaking diversity in songwriting and performance on display throughout its 93-minute, 33-second duration, but it’s also seen as a high-water mark for the band that changed virtually everything in popular music during the 1960s.

The album contains straight up rock and roll songs in “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Birthday,” and “Revolution 1,” acoustic tunes that foreshadowed the singer-songwriter movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (“Blackbird,” “Rocky Raccoon” “Julia,” and “Mother Nature’s Son”), character songs inspired by the band’s sojourn in India (“Dear Prudence,” “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” “Sexy Sadie”) catchy sing-alongs (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,”) heavy freak-out songs (“Helter Skelter,” “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”), dark songs that appear even spookier in the recently remixed version of the LP (“Cry Baby Cry,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun,”), the post-apocalyptic sonic mayhem of “Revolution 9,” and a song to soothe as they tuck us in at the end (“Good Night”).

I asked Todd Rundgren, Joey Molland, Mickey Dolenz and Jason Scheff for their thoughts and memories related to The Beatles and the “White Album” in particular. The interviews with Joey, Micky and Jason were conducted via telephone in August. Todd responded to my questions via email.

When the “White Album” was released, Liverpool-born Joey Molland was a year away from having his life forever changed when he was asked to join a group called The Iveys. That band would undergo a name change to Badfinger in late 1969 when their song “Come and Get It” (written and produced by Paul McCartney) was released on The Beatles’ Apple Records label and became a top 10 hit around the globe.

Badfinger’s name has a similar Fab Four connection. The original working title of “With a Little Help From My Friends” was “Bad Finger Boogie.”

“Every new Beatles album was different from the last, but I didn’t think of the ‘White Album’ as being different, I just remember it as the new Beatles record,” Molland said.

After being welcomed into The Beatles’ orbit, Molland enjoyed great success with Badfinger on the albums “No Dice” (1970) and “Straight Up” (1972, produced by George Harrison and Todd Rundgren) with hit singles “No Matter What,” “Day After Day” and “Baby Blue.”

Badfinger assisted John Lennon during recording sessions for his “Imagine” album (released in 1971) and backed up George Harrison and an all-star band during sessions for his “All Things Must Pass” triple LP and two benefit concerts set up to provide famine relief to the people of Bangladesh.

The only surviving member of the original band, Molland ultimately recorded seven albums with Badfinger and has released five solo albums to date with his sixth due next Spring.

Molland’s new album is being recorded with producer Mark Hudson (Ringo Starr, Cher, Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne) and funding from a Kickstarter campaign due to expire in two weeks.

“I’m getting high hopes which might be a little silly at my age,” Molland laughed. “It’s really an exciting time for me. We’re doing it in New York City at Mission Sound. We have a break in the tour in November so I can add lead and backing vocals and some overdubs. It’s sounding great so far; it actually sounds like a record!”

Micky Dolenz is forgiven for not being able to recall his initial reaction to hearing the “White Album” upon its release in 1968. Dolenz spent much of that year deeply immersed in Monkees business, from shooting the final episodes for “The Monkees” TV series (itself inspired by The Beatles) to a tour of Australia and Japan. The group released two albums that year, including the soundtrack to their satirical movie “Head,” the script for which was co-written by Jack Nicholson.

“There was so much going on in my life back then,” Dolenz said. “The one album I do remember hearing for the first time was ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and that’s because I had been at some of the recording sessions. I’ll never forget the day we stopped production on the show to listen to that album.”

On Friday, June 2, 1967, members of The Monkees gathered on an outdoor set at the studio lot to shoot an episode of the group’s NBC TV series which had premiered the previous fall. During the show’s first season, a third of the nation’s TV screens tuned in to witness the music-inspired antics of Micky, Davy, Peter and Mike.

“We knew the album was coming out that day,” Dolenz remembered. “We sent somebody down to the local music store to pick up a copy. We stopped production for an hour while the entire cast and crew of The Monkees TV show sat and listened to it all the way through on a system set up by one of our sound engineers. It was an amazing moment.”

There’s a famous internet quote about The Beatles attributed to Micky Dolenz: “The Monkees are to The Beatles what Star Trek is to NASA. They are both totally valid in their contexts.” I asked Dolenz if that quote is actually his.

“Yes, absolutely, and you quoted it accurately, and it’s true. The Monkees were – initially – the television show about this imaginary group that lived in this Malibu beach house while trying to make it, which begs the question how could we afford a Malibu beach house when we never got any work?

“But it was a show about a group. The producers obviously had it in mind that we would go out on tour if the show was successful. They wouldn’t have bothered to cast singers and musicians if they didn’t have that in mind. Mike Nesmith put it very well when we did end up going on tour and playing – just the four of us. He said ‘It’s like Pinocchio becoming a real boy.’”

Dolenz says he can’t wait to bring this “White Album” show to the stage, though he admits he is not looking forward to traveling.

“I don’t travel well, and the older I get, it becomes more wearing. They pay us to sing for free (laughs). Really, they do. Once I’m onstage, I can relax and have fun. Getting there is hard and that’s what they pay us for.”

Todd Rundgren admits that he was not an especially big fan of the “White Album” when he first heard it upon release in 1968. His band, The Nazz, had issued their debut record the previous month which contained the first version of Rundgren’s first original composition, “Hello It’s Me,” a number-five Billboard hit when he re-recorded it for his 1972 double LP, “Something Anything.”

“I was unimpressed,” Rundgren said of the “White Album.” “It was scatterbrained. It was sometimes joyless. In retrospect, I guess it was inevitable.”

Interviews by email can be tricky. I respect Rundgren’s honesty immensely, but I sure wish I could have had him expand a bit on that response. I asked him how the “White Album” influenced his music, either through its production or songwriting.

“This was pretty early in my musical career, so I was still floundering around for influences,” he wrote, adding “My scope was broadening beyond The Beatles. I didn’t know much at that time about what went into producing an album.”

Rundgren has since produced dozens of albums, including his vast solo discography, nine albums with his band, Utopia, and acclaimed records for other artists, including Badfinger, New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, Hall & Oates, Meat Loaf, The Tubes, Cheap Trick and XTC.

Rundgren has toured extensively with Ringo Starr as a member of his “All-Starr Band” and most recently appeared in Bangor with Starr on June 8, 2016.

According to Jason Scheff of Chicago, the “White Album” is becoming “A super-important record for me right now” as he has been analyzing and learning the songs from the record for the “It was 50 Years Ago Today Tour.”

Scheff was six years old when the “White Album” first hit stores in 1968. Even though he is technically a baby-boomer, Scheff told me that he relates much more to the generation that followed.

“I’ve always said that my ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ album (meaning most significant record to one’s life) is ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ by Elton John,” Scheff said. “Elton’s bassist, Dee Murray, is probably my earliest bass influence and you can tell that he was heavily influenced by Paul McCartney. Chicago was certainly influenced by The Beatles on the band’s first handful of albums. They made no attempt to hide the fact that they were huge Beatles fans.”

According to Scheff, the musicians on the “It Was 50 Years Ago Today” tour were asked which songs from the “White Album” they would like to sing.

“I knew that a lot of songs that I naturally felt like gravitating toward would also really be in Christopher Cross’s wheelhouse, with that sweet beautiful voice of his,” he said. “I wrote down all of the titles that really resonated with me but in no way am I sending a message that I have to sing them.”

Sure enough, Scheff said, his choices had been claimed, but he says he is thrilled with the songs that he will be singing on this tour.

“I’m the kind of person who will try anything. I love that people who know what I do are going to hear stuff they’re not expecting out of me. Anytime I’ve done anything outside of Chicago, I’ve loved doing the unexpected.”

Scheff says he just finished a solo album that he began on the heels of “Chicago XXX” in 2006.

“It’s a pretty cool record,” Scheff said of his new LP before mentioning another surprise.

“I received a call two days ago to record a duet with Dionne Warwick for her Christmas album,” he told me. “When I was six years old, I was listening to my mother’s Dionne Warwick records. I immediately called her and said ‘You’re not going to believe this…’”

Jason Scheff left Chicago in 2016 to take care of his family.

“I’ve gone through some life stuff that’s pretty painful and the boys graciously allowed me to step away to deal with that,” he said.

I asked each of my interview subjects how the show might handle the most controversial piece on the “White Album” - the 8 minute, 22 second audio collage of tape loops, sound effects, random Beatles voices and overall freakiness known as “Revolution 9.”

“I think there’s some debate about whether or not that one is going to be played or not for that very reason,” Scheff responded.

Joey Molland said, “I think we have something else planned for ‘Revolution 9’ but I will be singing ‘Revolution 1’ and I can’t wait to do it.”

Micky Dolenz and Todd Rundgren had similar responses about whether or not the piece would be performed in the show. I wouldn’t be surprised if the piece is teased or alluded to during the concert but don’t expect to see these all-stars attempt to recreate it onstage.

Texas-born Christopher Cross released his enormously successful eponymous debut album in 1979. Four hit singles were issued from the record, including “Ride Like the Wind,” “Sailing,” “Never Be The Same,” “Say You’ll Be Mine.”

The “Christopher Cross” album has been certified platinum five times, meaning it has sold more than five million copies in the U.S. alone. At the 23rd annual Grammy Awards ceremony in 1981, Cross became the only artist in Grammy history to win the following awards in a single ceremony: Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist.

Cross has released 15 albums since that mega-selling debut, with his latest, “Take Me As I Am,” issued in 2017 on his own label.

With his clear tenor and history of chart-topping soft-rock hits, Cross is often (unfairly, in my opinion) lumped into a category populated with middle-of-the-road balladeers. Sure, his voice is as pure today as it was 40 years ago, but Cross is also a badass guitarist, and I can’t wait to see him rip some blazing solos during this “White Album” show.

Molland is another superb lead guitarist that mostly kept things refined on record with Badfinger while blowing minds in concert. The first time I saw him perform live, it was fun to watch the expressions on the faces on the guitarists I knew in the audience that were similarly surprised at how great he really is.

“I appreciate you saying that,” Molland said. “A lot of fans don’t associate Badfinger with that sort of live show with fiery lead guitar, but we really did that – especially on my songs, because they were better suited for it.”

I asked the musicians what they are most looking forward to in relation to the “It Was 50 Years Ago Today” tour.

“Singing those songs,” Micky Dolenz responded. “I’m a huge Beatles fan and always have been. I’ll be singing ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ which I really love. I used to sing ‘Rocky Raccoon’ to my children as a lullaby. They know it as well as I do.”

“This will be a very fun and fast-moving show,” Joey Molland said. “I love these songs, especially the ones I’ll be singing. I chose George’s ‘Savoy Truffle,’ and John’s ‘Cry Baby Cry’ and ‘Revolution 1.’”

“To be able to perform the ‘White Album’ for a lot of Beatles fans, in addition to the hits associated with the other members of this band – some of my heroes – I’m very excited about all of this,” Jason Scheff said.

“What am I looking forward to?” Todd Rundgren wrote. “Not getting sick. It’s a jungle out there.”

(Tickets for “It Was 50 Years Ago Today,” live on stage at Collins Center for the Arts in Orono on October 7 at 7 p.m., are available at www.CollinsCenterForTheArts.com or by calling 800.622.TIXX.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 25 September 2019 05:08

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