Are you ready for legitimate, authorized-by-Apple Beatles mashups and remixes? Incredibly, surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and widows Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison have agreed to let outsiders mess with the quartet’s music in a significant way for public consumption. One catch, though: This ”new” Beatles music isn’t coming to an iPod or even a record store near you. You’ll have to go to Las Vegas to hear it. And you may have to get ”wanded” beforehand.
Journalists were invited to the Mirage this week for a media event previewing Love, a show that brings together two highly prized brand names, the Beatles and Cirque du Soleil. Before entering the new in-the-round theater that was designed specifically for the extravaganza, reporters had to turn in their cell phones and tape recorders, pass through metal detectors, and even submit to individual searches, the kind of procedures usually reserved for meetings with heads of state. But it soon became evident what all the paranoia was about: The Beatles’ music in the show has been tampered with to a far greater degree than anyone on the outside has realized, and producers aren’t about to let these altered versions of some of the world’s most beloved recordings get leaked to file-sharing services for early consumption and debate among Beatlemaniacs.
Only about 15 minutes of the 90-minute production were previewed. Critics will have to wait till the June 30 gala premiere, though previews begin shortly at the Mirage, on June 2. But, based on what we saw (and heard), it’s safe to say that the Fab Faithful, as well as Cirque-aholics, will soon be flocking to the desert by the tens of thousands for the first authorized ”live” ticketed Beatles event since the band gave up touring in 1966.
The modus operandi is evident in the opening number, which has the Anthology demo recording of ”Strawberry Fields Forever” eventually morphing into the official release version; riffs culled from at least a dozen other Beatles songs are then mixed into the tune’s last section, as the full cast takes over the stage. The production design is partly, though far from entirely, inspired by the Sgt. Pepper cover imagery, which meshes well with Cirque’s original circus-style origins. Rusted horn instruments have been cleverly incorporated into just about every costume and prop; one stilt-walker appears to be traversing the stage on a pair of trumpets.
Another previewed number had George Harrison’s ”Within You Without You” set to the backing track of John Lennon’s ”Tomorrow Never Knows.” Sir George Martin, who produced the original tracks and worked on this show, was on hand for the event and explained that the Harrison tune ”wasn’t [fans’] favorite song on Sgt. Pepper… but in this form, it would have been one of the good ones.” Martin added that the surviving Beatles were wary of what was being done with the music till they heard this ”Within You Without You”/”Tomorrow Never Knows” mashup — and ”then the problem was, they wanted them all like that.” Martin and his son, Giles, who did the lion’s share of the remixing, weren’t able to blend many songs so completely. ”The problem was, there aren’t many Beatles songs that stay on one chord,” the elder Martin noted.
Yet they managed a similar effect with a number that begins with the familiar orchestration for ”Good Night,” the closing number of the White Album, sung by Ringo. Only, when the vocal comes in, it’s Ringo singing… ”Octopus’s Garden.” Martin said they wanted to ”create a fantastic world under the sea… but if you use the track as it was, it’s a bit too rock & roll” — hence, making the transition a bit more phantasmagorical with the orchestrated intro. Visually, expect to see lots of floating jellyfish, rays, and eels as a group of children passes through the undersea kingdom in a wagon, marveling at the sights. (But sorry, kids, no SpongeBob.)
”Lady Madonna” has a pregnant black woman and her mate at the center of the action, while all around them white flower children in old-school boots and headbands do an exuberant soft-shoe routine, slapping their thighs. (Listen for the guitar riff from ”Hey Bulldog” mixed in here.) ”Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” focuses on — no surprise here — a female trapeze act. Maybe the oddest visual effect previewed involved a giant white sheet that comes up from the center of the stage and is handed to the audience members, who dutifully pass it from the front to back rows; the entire crowd is under this sheet — Christo style! — until the massive wrap is sucked into the ceiling.
As for the aural wrap, ”The brief was, I could use any sound at all that I recorded with the Beatles,” said George Martin — which means that, while there are only about 25 songs in the show, there are bits from about 130 of the group’s 1960s recordings. ”I’ll probably get a few brickbats from people for what we’ve done,” Martin said, ”but the people behind us — Paul, Ringo, Yoko, Olivia — love everything they’ve heard… Ringo was 100 percent in saying, ‘It’s fantastic.’ Paul said, ‘It’s great, but I think you should go farther out.’ We’d gone pretty far out already.” As a gag, then, Martin put together a bizarre mix of ”Hey Jude” that was set to a reggae beat. ”He was horrified. I said, ‘You did ask me to go farther out.’ Then he realized it was a joke.”
Giles Martin ended up doing more of the aural work than his father, who had said years ago that he was retiring from producing because of being nearly deaf. ”For me, it’s been an experience of going through my dad’s closet,” he said. But Martin senior was heavily involved and determined to create a seamless, nonstop blend of songs, ”rather like what we did at the end of Abbey Road.”
No one pretended that getting the approval of all the notoriously protective parties involved over the last four years hasn’t been a nightmare — or at least a ”long and winding road” — but, said Cirque founder Guy Laliberte, ”It was difficult in the paperwork of making it happen, but worth the pain.” It may not have been just artistry that got the principles or estates involved to agree on the show: A Beatles boutique located right next to the Mirage’s theater provides a reminder of how powerful a motivator merch can be.