Ask Me Why: A Conversation with ‘1964: The Tribute’ (Part One)

Tribute bands occupy a fascinating space in the entertainment industry. They clearly fill a need, answer a market demand. But – at their very best – they sure make a helluva lot of people really happy. I witnessed a prime example of that very phenomenon on a recent trip to nearby Knoxville TN. There I – along with my young-adult daughter – enjoyed a show by 1964: The Tribute. In every important way, the quartet reproduced the magic that was a Beatles concert. The nearly sold-out crowd demonstrably enjoyed every moment of the nearly two-hour show.

Which points out a significant and remarkable quality of 1964: The Tribute: unlike The Beatles – whose post-Hamburg era shows rarely lasted more than 28 minutes – this modern tribute band ran through a nonstop cavalcade of hits and non-hit favorites. The show managed to please both casual fans and hardcore Beatles fanatics (such as myself). Another concession to modernity — one of precious few – took place late in the second set, when “John” (founder/leader Mark Benson) encouraged everyone in the crowd to call someone dear to them on their cell phones, and let them hear the next song. Then the band launched into a note-perfect reading of “In My Life.”

Not limiting themselves to the earliest material (I had erroneously assumed they would, based on the “1964” in their name), the band tackled some of the more intricate music from the Revolver and Rubber Soul era. And they did this all without the aid of tapes, samples, auxiliary behind-the-curtain musicians, or any other such tomfoolery. Since The Beatles aren’t likely to be playing anywhere near you anytime soon, 1964: The Tribute is, as they say, an incredible simulation, one not to be missed. (This was my second time seeing them.)

Rolling Stone has called 1964: The Tribute “The best Beatles tribute ever,” and the show has been performed nearly 3000 times (that’s not a typo) since Benson started. They’ve played New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall multiple times, and tour regularly.

After the show, the four guys did a meet-and-greet for anyone and everyone in the audience who wanted to connect. And there were quite a few such people; even though the line moved steadily, that activity took the better part of an hour, concluding with some grip-and-grin photos with the law enforcement officials on hand for venue security. After that wrapped up, Mark and I (joined by my daughter and bassist Graham Alexander) exited the lobby, returned to the lavish theatre, and sat down for a conversation. Here’s the transcript. – bk

Bill Kopp: You formed the group in 1984…

Mark Benson: September of ’84.

BK: That’s nearly thirty years, compared with The Beatles, whose recording career lasted just over seven.

MB: Their live shows, only about three.

BK: John and Ringo were only twenty-four in ’64; does it ever strike you that, “Hey, we’re portraying people half our age.”

MB: I guess I’m too close to it to look at it that way. I’m in it all the time; it’s hard for me to be objective and say, “Oh, yes. I see what you mean.”

I do see what you mean. We all have these sort of questions: How long are we going to do this? But then you get a new member, and that puts new life into it. And they’re younger, and you think, “Well, you know, maybe we won’t, but this show could go on for as long as anybody likes The Beatles.” Which is never-ending.

BK: What attracted you to the idea of a Beatles tribute group, as opposed to, say, a Rolling Stones one or something else?

MB: We never even intended for this to be full-time. It never, ever crossed our minds. The original band was all from Akron, Ohio, and we had never all played in the same group together. But we knew each other from musician circles around town. And so we were all moving away from the Top 40 scene, and trying to get a studio together, write original material, help other people write theirs. We wanted to get a production thing going. And we thought, “This would be a blast to do, once a month or so. Or every two months.” Just so we wouldn’t lose touch with performing. And it would be neat. Because there’d be a little acting involved, and none of us had ever done that before. And it was music that we all loved, of course. We were all Beatles fans since there was a Beatles.

But…we assumed – incorrectly – that it was going to be a baby boomer thing, and nothing more. We’d play some parties, class reunions, a night club or two. And in the second year we hit huge in the college market. And that just took off in Canada and America, coast to coast.

We got into the NACA – National Association of College Activities – and the equivalent in Canada. It works like this: you go to these big showcases, and they bring all the buyers from a certain area. And they buy in groups: these seven schools in this area want you for this time period, etc. We set records for number of shows booked at showcases, and we were winning awards for “Best Parents’ Weekend Band,” and “Best Contemporary Artists.” Doing thirty-year old music!

But it was funny; it just hit huge. And it really opened our eyes to the fact that the demographic on the Beatles is wide open.

BK: My daughter was observing the audience here at the Tennessee Theatre, and noticing that tonight. I go to a certain shows – I saw Styx last year, I’ve seen The Moody Blues – and you’ve got a certain demographic and age group there. And their kids. There are some outliers, but for the most part, that’s who goes. But that’s not the case tonight.

MB: Are you familiar with the Beatles Rock Band game?

BK: Sure.

The guy who plays Paul in our band [Graham Alexander] is the guy that they stuck the movement sensors on to do the avatar for the game.

BK: I have to say – and we’ll touch on this more in a moment – that the performance is as much acting as it is playing. Little things like the way that “George” [Tom Work] readjusts his Gretsch after a solo.

MB: There are all these little performance nuances. Once you have the boots and the suits on, it’s almost foreign to do it any other way. Because the closer you get to having 95% of everything right, that last 5% sticks out like a sore thumb. When everything else is right on.

BK: I saw you guys having a little bit of fun up there during “Can’t Buy Me Love.” While Graham was singing the lead, you and Tom were away from the mics and doing the Anthology outtake version backing vocals!

MB: Well, see, those are the kind of things…see, you can’t not do “Twist and Shout.” You can’t not do “She Loves You.” But you can do “Yes It Is.” Or something that’s a real b-side, that you hardly ever hear. But in 90 minutes, you’ve got to gauge it to, “Do I appeal to the .000001% in the audience?” for maybe one or two songs. And then for the rest of the night you appeal to ninety-plus percent of the audience.

People always ask, “What’s your favorite Beatles song?” Try to find a bad one! How do you pick one?

BK: “Mr. Moonlight” is about the only one I don’t much care for…

MB: I can’t tell you how many requests I get for that one! Oh my god! Especially the outdoor shows. We did a big outdoor show not long ago, and there was a full moon. I said, [affects John Lennon’s scouse accent] “Oh, look at that!” And I went [sings], “Mister…” And the cheering was…just amazing. It was wild. Nuts. Just nuts.

But the Beatles had fun with stuff. It wasn’t serious all the time. And so they’d do a little tongue-in-cheek something like that. People love it. People just love it.

BK: How often do you change-up the set list?

Like I said, you’ve got to keep three-quarters of it in there. But there are about half a dozen, maybe eight songs we can interchange. The biggest challenge is: what really cool, amazing hit song don’t you do so you can do…another really cool, amazing hit song.

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