Gary James' Interview With Mark Benson of
The Beatles Tribute Act
Rolling Stone Magazine has called them the "Best Beatles Tribute On Earth". The group "1964" recreates an early '60s 'live' Beatles' concert with period instruments, clothing, hairstyles and onstage banter. Mark Benson, who plays John Lennon in "1964: A Tribute" talked with us about his group.
Q - Well, in just a week you'll be performing at the New York State Fair. Are you excited?
A - How can you not be excited about that?
Q - That's what I thought you would say!
A - (laughs)
Q - You guys must've played a lot of State Fairs over the years.
A - The funny thing is, it's really the perfect sort of crowd for what we do because it's always filled with all ages and families. That is the typical sort of demographic of Beatle lovers.
Q - Mark, is there a ritual you go through every night to portray John Lennon?
A - Well, I think just the whole sort of getting yourself in costume puts you in that kind of mind set. As you know, it's a different way to dress than people normally dress today. Just getting yourself ready for the show like that. I'm usually doing vocal warm-ups in the hotel rooms before I get over to the theatre. It all just kind of locks it in. This is our 26th year touring. After awhile it's such a part of what you do when you're out on the road. It all starts to flow into you as you start the process.
Q - Is that how long you've been with the band, 26 years?
A - Yup. I've been there every year.
Q - You are a seasoned veteran.
A - Absolutely.
Q - Do you still listen to The Beatles music and John's music or do you not have to do that at this point?
A - Of course you do! Any artist, whether they're a singer or a photographer or dancer, your natural tendency is to progress in some direction. Our challenge is to learn it a certain way and not progress at all. That's not as easy as it sounds. Even if you listen to The Beatles 'live' cuts, they're dramatically different in some cases than their recorded cuts. It's just a natural thing for a creative person. We're always going back and making sure we're not straying too far from what the public wants to hear and making sure we're on the money.
Q - How do you maintain the same level of enthusiasm for doing the same songs and same type of show night after night?
A - Well, it's really the audiences are what helps that. They give us a lot of energy. But having said that, you get a chance to go out and play your favorite music every night. On any given night the harmonies or the guitar parts could just ring so true that it's like being in your favorite Broadway show. It's like seeing Cats when you were ten, and now you're actually in Cats. It's that kind of thing.
Q - John Lennon once said at the age of 25 that he would not be singing "She Loves You" when he was 30. And he was constantly asked "When are The Beatles getting back together?" and he'd answer "When are you going back to high school?" or "You have all the records. Go listen to them." Why do you feel it's necessary to re-create this time in The Beatles career?
A - Because it reminds them of innocence and love. Almost all the songs were in some level about love - "From Me To You", "Love Me Do", "Please Please Me", "All My Loving", "She Loves You". They're all very innocent and very sing-songy, even if you're not a Beatles fan and don't know so much about The Beatles. You walk away hearing the song once, you can sing most of the song. They're such catchy melodies. It's not just that. They were so entertaining. Most bands are a central figure with a backing group. The Beatles were like a four-headed monster where all of them could be entertaining in an interview. They could all sing lead and hold the spotlight. The drummer in that band had a number one hit for Godsakes! What other band has that? It really was one of those things where the variety kept you so interested because they didn't depend on one person to sing every song and put that pressure on one person to be entertaining. They were total variety.
Q - Every song they sang sounded different from the one before it.
A - That's true and yet it had a similar quality. You could tell when Paul or George were singing back-up as opposed to John or George. It was such a nice blend. Today there are very few groups where there isn't a central figure. It's based around maybe Keith and Mick (The Rolling Stones) or Aerosmith with Joe and Steve. Everybody had their favorite Beatle. There are so many bands out there, you never know who's in the band. You know the singer.
Q - Is this your first band? Were you in a band before this group?
A - Yeah. I've pretty much been a musician all my life. I was in lots of groups before this.
Q - Had you been in another Beatles tribute band before 1964?
A - We never really intended this to be full-time. We mistakenly thought this was only going to appeal to baby-boomers and the people you would expect to be nostalgic about this period. We thought we would be doing a show or two maybe a month, oldies parties, class reunions, a nightclub or two. We were kind of moving into writing our own material, helping people write theirs, that kind of stuff. It really wasn't thought of as this major touring thing. After the second year it had blossomed into something that was full-time, clearly. We were as surprised as anyone that there was that much work and that much interest.
Q - I don't think you had all that much competition when you put this band together, did you
A - No. Absolutely not.
Q - You got in on the ground floor, so to speak.
A - Yup.
Q - You portray John Lennon. Have you portrayed another Beatle in another group?
A - No. I never have. I've only been John in this group.
Q - Since you play John Lennon every night, what do you think about the way he sang his songs and played his guitar parts?
A - John was very unique. He had this really earthy kind of rhythm thing that he could do. The sound of the group certainly wouldn't have been the same without him. His voice was so unique sounding, even though I'm sure you read he didn't like the sound of his own voice at all. He always wanted somebody to put some echo or reverb on it and make it sound different or something and yet it's one of the most recognizable voices in music. It's a hard thing to do, especially when someone has such a unique sounding voice that always sounds natural when they do it. It's hard to sing like someone else and make it sound natural, so it doesn't sound like you're trying to do something unusual with your voice.
Q - And as difficult as it is to play John, to find three other guys to round out the group, who not only look but must sound like the other Beatles, must be an incredibly tough job.
A - Well, that's why it's not easy to have a Beatles show where people look and sound like The Beatles.
Q - So, how long do you see yourself continuing on in this group?
A - Another twenty minutes. (laughs)
Q - That's a John Lennon answer if I ever heard one.
A - I mean, I really don't know. I'm surprised it went this far. There's no plans on really ending. I know we won't do this forever, but I know people would like to see this show. That's clear. When you get three generations of a family coming out to see a show and they come out two, three, four years in a row. Those kids are being brought up with it and you know they'll bring their kids up with it.
Q - I don't suppose you ever saw John Lennon in person, did you?
A - I did not.
Q - With all the shows you do, I don't know how you maintain your voice and health.
A - You do have to make certain concessions. Twenty years ago you could go out and party, but now you realize with the increase in travel and the workload, it'll wear you down. You really have to stay in shape for the show. That's really why you're there.