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

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: Beside the obvious appeal of getting as close as possible to seeing the real thing, what do you think explains the popularity of tribute groups?

Mark Benson (“John”): Well, did you see the movie about Judas Priest, Rockstar? With Mark Wahlberg. That was based on a guy from Akron, Ohio: Tim “Ripper” Owens. The guys in Judas Priest, after the lead singer went out on his own, said, “We’re done. He was it. It’s over.” And then they saw this kid, about eight years later. And they thought, “Wow. There is life after death.”

I think what happens is, if you don’t have $350 to see somebody these days – maybe two or three groups at the same time – you can go hear your favorite music in a nightclub. And it’s all of your favorite music from that band. It’s not like a Top 40 band that might play one or two hits of a certain band. If you love The Who or The Beach Boys and you see a tribute band, you’re going to hear everything you love. If they’re any good, y’know?

Most of the guys who are in Brian Wilson‘s band, were in Papa Doo Run Run, the tribute band.

BK: While I know you must choreograph the performance to a great deal, do you leave places in the show for spontaneity?

MB: Well, yeah. There are certain lines that we know will work really well. But you can’t say “Turn left at Greenland” and have everybody laugh. That was something that they did. We try very hard to keep it in the style of humor that they would do. Little things. Like, instead of going, “Cool, man!” they would say something else. They would have a different approach to it. So in those little ways, you try to tailor it. But you do try to leave some things open. Like tonight, I was laughing at one of Graham’s intros. And he went, “What?” The thing is, he could have said anything, and I would have come back with something that worked; whatever came out. But that’s the way they were, too.

Those kind of moments are nice, when it kind of takes on a life of its own.

BK: The amount of research that must go into a show like yours is staggering.

MB: Well, it used to be a lot harder. In the 80s, there wasn’t all this amazing footage available like there is now. You had to really dig in the back of rock’n’roll magazines to try and find someone who was selling a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.

BK: I got a kick out of it when you did “I’m Down” and you mimic’d John’s Shea Stadium keyboard moves by pretending to play your Rickenbacker with your elbow…

MB: It’s just as important…as you said, there’s as much acting going on as there is playing. It’s really a labor of love from the standpoint of having watched those guys for so long. There’s something about them that is so attractive, it’s almost ingrained. You almost can do it.

Graham [who is right-handed — ed.] learned how to play bass left-handed…

BK: I read that. It’s amazing!

Graham Alexander: Nahhh…

MB: And he’s not just standing there going [mimics rudimentary thump-thump bass playing]. He’s moving, and it looks so natural.

BK: I notice that Graham did a little bit of the hand-over-the-neck bass playing…

MB: And [Paul] did that on certain songs.

Graham Alexander: He was scared on the Ed Sullivan Show. He starts out that way, and then he realizes, “Oh, I’m on national television.” Months earlier, he was doing “Till There Was You,” and he freaked out. Those weird little details, we try to get those.

BK: So, what’s your favorite thing about doing this show?

MB: When Graham joined, the voices together. I mean, there’s a lot of people out there who can sing those parts. And you sing them together, and the harmonies sound fine. But there’s something about the blend of voices between Tom and Graham and I…it’s not about, is somebody better or worse. It changes the chemistry when someone else comes in. And this chemistry really works, I think. We’re not just guys up there going through the motions. We really can rock!

And the Beatles were a really good rock band. Not just great songwriters and singers; when they got up there, they were wailing. Nobody plays drums like Ringo. Bobby [Potter] really does the moves right.

BK: He really does. I was pointing out to my daughter that the hardware on his drum kit is historically correct. Nowadays, the first thing you do when you get a set like that is replace the skinny cymbal stands so they don’t tip over.

I have to ask this. The Ric you’re playing; not the new-looking backup one on the stand, but the one you play: is that an old-old-old one?

MB: It is. I made it. I’ve been a guitar maker for about thirty-five years. In 1984 I made both of those guitars, and they’ve been with me ever since.

Back then, finding an original Rickenbacker 325 was difficult. There weren’t as many vintage guitar shops; you really kind of had to scour the trade papers and things like that.

BK: They were out of vogue for awhile, too…

MB: I think that John Lennon and John Fogerty were the only two people I ever saw play one. People think, “John played this,” and then they get one and say, “Well. There’s nothing I can really do with this! Except play chords.” It’s really not much of a lead guitar.

But I started thinking, “Because they’re so rare, maybe I should just make one instead.” I repaired a million of ’em in my business of repairing and restoring guitars, so I knew how they were built. It’s not rocket science, but I thought, “I’m gonna make this one for me.” I made it the way I like it; I made the neck the way I like it to feel. I thought, since I’m going to be playing it, I might as well make it comfortable. Nothing that I did would make you look at it and say, “Oh, my god! That isn’t right!” It’s just a little bit lighter here, a bit fatter there. And they’ve served me well this whole time.

BK: You play everything through a PA. When we got here and saw the stage setup, I wondered: Is a curtain going to come up, and then we’ll see Vox Super Beatles and AC30s? And of course I noticed: there are no monitors because there were no monitors back then! And then I saw that you have very subtle in-ear monitors.

MB: Exactly. Well, when you saw The Beatles, you saw them with either all the big amps, or nothing. On Ed Sullivan, it was just them. So that’s kind of what we’re doing. When we fly to a show, we just take the processors, the drums and the guitars. Because you can’t get that other stuff on a plane. You just can’t. And trucking it in basically inhibits where you can go, how you can get there and so forth. And the time it takes.

You can get a calendar and [laughs] have the agent start throwing darts at the dates on it. Our method is a really effective hit-and-run thing. All the stuff that is necessary — the costumes, the drums and that – that is the stuff that people remember.

Now, when we drive [to show dates], we do have the big Super Beatle amps. And the look…there’s nothing like it. It’s just the look of The Beatles. But we’re limited in when we can do that. Unless they figure out how to make blow-up [inflatable] ones we can take on a plane!

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