How The Bea­tles ended up per­form­ing live for ever

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Peter Craw­ley

When the win­dow blinds in my Las Ve­gas ho­tel room roll up­wards, the mech­a­nism sigh­ing softly with the ef­fort, and I look south down the Strip to­wards the dis­tant Mar­tian land­scape of Red Rock Canyon, The Bea­tles peek back at me.

In their mus­ke­teer mous­taches and flower-power mil­i­tary frock coats, they hud­dle to­gether on a 10-storey dis­play at the top of the Mi­rage Ho­tel. It is that iconic im­age from the gate­fold of Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but cropped and evened to show their faces in close align­ment. It’s hard to de­cide whether The Bea­tles look as if they own this city, or if Las Ve­gas has stacked their heads above its tow­ers of fun and con­fec­tion like gi­ant Pez dis­pensers. Ei­ther way, The Bea­tles are per­form­ing here, nightly.

That may come as some sur­prise to fans, schol­ars and trivia buffs who know that The Bea­tles de­liv­ered their last live per­for­mance to­gether in San Fran­cisco, in 1966, and swore off the stage for good. “We’ve had enough of per­form­ing for­ever,” said John Len­non, at the end of four years of rig­or­ous tour­ing, un­able to hear them­selves over the screams of Beatle­ma­ni­acs. “I can’t imag­ine any rea­son which would make us do any sort of tour again.”

The re­ceived wis­dom is that the ‘Love’ sound­track is some­thing like an el­e­gant mash-up, strip­ping the songs back to their com­po­nents and re­con­fig­ur­ing them as though in a chatty con­ver­sa­tion

Spon­ta­neous per­for­mance

In­stead they ex­panded their minds and took to Abbey Road Stu­dios, where they en­joyed near-lim­it­less re­sources and re­de­fined the mu­sic album as an art­work. Strange, then, that the be­gin­ning of these “stu­dio years” should re­sult in a work that con­stantly presents it­self, how­ever archly, as a spon­ta­neous per­for­mance – with band in­tro­duc­tions, au­di­ence screams, ap­plause, mu­sic hall mo­tifs, en­cores and Al­bert Hall men­tions – whose lyrics, en­ergy and ef­fects all com­mu­ni­cate a sense of live­ness. It’s a typ­i­cally know­ing con­tra­dic­tion: we have had enough of per­form­ing for­ever. We hope you will en­joy the show.

When word first started to cir­cu­late in 2000 that The Bea­tles were col­lab­o­rat­ing with Cirque du Soleil, the spec­tac­u­lar Mon­treal phys­i­cal per­for­mance com­pany, there were rea­sons to be scep­ti­cal. Fol­low­ing an ex­haus­tive An­thol­ogy, and then a chart-con­quer­ing com­pi­la­tion album, 1, the sus­pi­cion was that Ap­ple Corps was now en­gaged prin­ci­pally in rec­on­cil­ing dif­fer­ences be­tween the rights hold­ers in or­der to repack­age The Bea­tles’ back cat­a­logue for new mar­kets. Af­ter all, wasn’t this just an­other juke­box mu­si­cal?

Har­ri­son’s idea

How­ever, the show, Love, be­gan as Ge­orge Har­ri­son’s idea, not long be­fore his death, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Cirque du Soleil co­founder Guy Lal­ib­erté. Three years of ne­go­ti­a­tions fol­lowed be­tween the sur­viv­ing Bea­tles, Paul McCart­ney and Ringo Starr; Har­ri­son’s widow, Olivia Har­ri­son; and John’s widow, Yoko Ono. But a ne­go­ti­a­tion that mat­tered more took place be­tween their pro­ducer, Ge­orge Martin, his son Giles and the band’s mas­ter tapes.

The re­ceived wis­dom is that the Love sound­track is some­thing like an el­e­gant mash-up, strip­ping the songs back to their com­po­nents and re­con­fig­ur­ing them as though in a chatty con­ver­sa­tion. Be­ing For the Ben­e­fit of Mr Kite!, for in­stance, a song fit­tingly in­spired by a 19th-cen­tury cir­cus poster, here lurches into the hard stag­ger of the gui­tar line to I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and the dive-bomb­ing as­saults of Hel­ter Skel­ter – a pleas­ing pan­de­mo­nium as an on­stage car­ni­val grows chaotic.

But the real sen­sa­tion – aided by a pur­pose-built, 360-de­gree au­di­to­rium and a phe­nom­e­nally com­pli­cated stage, all wrapped up in dig­i­tal back­drops and given a per­fec­tion­ist’s sound sys­tem – is that of a live per­for­mance, where im­mor­tal songs sound freshly re­con­sid­ered, mu­si­cal ideas tum­ble to­gether in some­thing like free as­so­ci­a­tion, and the band ap­pears to us ei­ther in sur­ro­gate fig­ures or in iconic sil­hou­ette, to do what is still most wanted of them – to come to­gether and play.

Three am­bi­tions

The am­bi­tion of Love in per­for­mance – di­rected by the ef­fer­ves­cently named Do­minic Cham­pagne, pre­sum­ably no stranger to pop – is to make the mu­sic do three things. It pro­vides a chron­i­cle of the lat­ter half of the 20th cen­tury, from the Blitz to the 1970s; it gives a veiled bi­og­ra­phy of The Bea­tles them­selves, from in­di­vid­ual tem­per­a­ments to sep­a­rate dis­cov­er­ies; and it sets the char­ac­ters of their songs spin­ning through­out the space, as though John, Paul, Ringo and Ge­orge were in­sep­a­ra­ble from Sgt Pep­per, Lucy, Doc­tor Robert and a clus­ter of Nowhere Men.

It had its pre­miere in 2006 and was re­tooled last year for its 10th an­niver­sary (“Brighter! Bolder! Big­ger!”). It doesn’t all work. The Bea­tles pushed ev­ery bound­ary they could find, but even the most skilled dis­play of aerial theatre comes up against a strictly lim­ited vo­cab­u­lary. When Lucy in the Sky with Di­a­monds is per­formed as a sylph-like trapeze act high above a lake of dry ice, it feels as though John Len­non’s eu­phoric hal­lu­ci­na­tions have been re­duced to some­thing like a fam­ily-friendly mi­cro­dose.

Else­where, though, A Day in the Life con­veys not just the chaotic dark­en­ing of a decade, but the death of Len­non him­self, meet­ing its spi­ralling ca­coph­ony with a sear­ing red glow. In a town where love seems like just an­other com­mod­ity in abun­dant sup­ply, All You Need Is Love (which The Bea­tles de­buted just weeks af­ter the re­lease of Sgt Pep­per’s), feels like a nec­es­sary salve; its coda here is in­ter­spersed with the group’s ebul­lient stu­dio chat­ter, jib­ing and jok­ing in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­glow of cre­ation.

Sit back and let the evening go, as you are com­manded, and that is the clos­est many of us will ever get to see­ing The Bea­tles in con­cert; re­united at last, live at the Mi­rage, and per­form­ing for­ever.

Cirque du Soleil’s Love, with The Bea­tles mu­sic and themed pro­duc­tion at the Mi­rage Ho­tel in Las Ve­gas. PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY

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