Gary James' Interview With Ron McNeil of
The Beatles Tribute
The Fab Four
They have taken their act all over the world! The LA Times called them "The Best Beatles Band On Earth." They are The Fab Four. Portraying John Lennon in The Fab Four is Ron McNeil. We talked to Ron McNeil about The Fab Four.
Q - I see the LA Times has called The Fab Four "The Best Beatles Band On Earth." That's high praise!
A - That is. We had to pay them a lot of money to get them to say that. (Laughs). I'm joking.
Q - I know you are.
A - Well, we appreciate the compliment coming from them, so we decided to use it.
Q - There are quite a few Beatles tribute acts of there.
A - Yes, there are.
Q - I looked at your schedule. You went to Japan. How long were you over there?
A - They had a Beatles convention in Japan. The Japanese people scoured the Internet and tried to find what they consider to be the best Beatles tribute and hired us on. They had us perform two shows. We were out there five days. I'm still suffering jet lag. It was fun. It was our first time out there as a group. We did go over there individually with other performers. We were excited to be there. What's great about The Beatles is it doesn't matter where you are on the planet, they've heard of The Beatles and they know the songs whether they can speak the language or not. They have a lot of great Beatles fans in Japan.
Q - And of course The Beatles did visit Japan in 1966.
A - They did. That's one of the reasons they wanted to hire us as well. We have those suits that they wore. We actually kind of re-created that concert as part of our show for the Japanese people. So, that was a lot of fun, as our tribute to the Budokan show.
Q - There was some controversy about that show at the time.
A - They didn't want The Beatles performing in that hall. It was considered sacrilegious. It was a big religious theme for them. You know, it would be like Ozzy coming over to play at a Baptist church. That's the way they looked at it. In fact, we took pictures in front of the Budokan on the strip and they wouldn't even let us up the stairs to hang out on one of the little ledges to take a picture. So, it looks like it hasn't changed. You know, people are emotional about their religious stuff and that's fine.
Q - How long has this band been together?
A - Well, total, we've been The Fab Four for almost 15 years now. We've been traveling around and doing our thing. We started out as a local club band and we started selling out clubs. You couldn't get in the club. We moved to another club close to LA and that started selling out. We got a call to go to Las Vegas, which I think helped us out. We started making more of a show and started to hone our skills a little bit and then we took our show on the road after that. We've been playing theaters and different places ever since.
Q - I'm assuming that before The Fab Four you were in a cover band?
A - (Laughs). Yup, just like most musicians. Most of us had an original band with a cover band paying the bills. You know how that works. Yeah, we all did that. Separately, we weren't together at the time.
Q - When did this idea come to you that "I'll be John. All I have to do is find three other guys."
A - Yeah, that wasn't a problem right? Get a guy to play Paul who can sing really high and be really talented and a guy who plays George and Ringo. That shouldn't be too hard. (Laughs). The seed was planted as an early musician. My father took me to a show here in LA called Beatlemania, which is a full Broadway production. I was a very young kid. At that time the tribute thing wasn't an industry like it is now. Here in LA there's a tribute to the group Ratt. You remember the group
Q - I interviewed them when they first came out.
A - They're not even Ratt. They are a tribute to Ratt. My point was, now it's an industry, where before when Beatlemania was out, you never thought "I could be one of The Beatles" or "I could be a Beatle." The Beatles were The Beatles. So, when I saw that, it just kind of clicked in my head. When you are a young musician you learn "Day Tripper" because it's cool on guitar, or you learn "Let It Be" on piano because people will recognize it. I just took that one step further and learned more and more about The Beatles. Then you get to a point in your musical career where the original thing isn't happening. It's hard to make a living doing the club scene. And I met Ardy, who plays Paul McCartney in our group, at a local Beatles convention. His band was on stage as part of an amateur contest trying to see who could sound like The Beatles. I'm telling you, this kid made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. I could not believe how much he sounds like Paul McCartney.
Q - And looks like him too!
A - Yeah, well that came later. He was just a pudgy little kid and kind of grew into himself. At the time, he was playing right-handed and taught himself to play left-handed. Like I say, Vegas really helped. We learned how to draw The Beatles faces on our faces and get the right wigs and cut them in the correct way. It really helps to add the whole thing. So, that's basically where it started. I met Ardy in LA and we haven't looked back since.
Q - I don't know how old of a guy you are, but did you ever get to see John Lennon in person?
A - No. In fact, our group is getting younger and younger all the time. (Laughs). Our drummer Eric has been in the band two years. None of us are old enough to have an original Beatle memory, but The Beatles have touched our lives. The music touched our lives. I grew up more with the Paul McCartney And
Wings. That was more my era. But it still works. It's timeless.
Q - Besides Japan, where else have you performed?
A - All over. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Brazil, Buenos Aires, Australia. You can go anywhere and play those songs and everyone will know them. It's global. (Laughs). Global music is what I call it. We've been very fortunate to have our passports filled a couple times.
Q - And so, you perform how many shows a year?
A - It used to be a couple hundred. Now, it's more like less than a hundred. Obviously the idea in life is to work less and get paid more. Right? That's kind of the idea. So, that's what we've been trying to do. Up our visibility and make our trips prosperous so that we don't go somewhere for a low amount of money. Sometimes we'll go out to New York and we'll make sure we hit a couple of cities. We don't just go out for one nighters, but sometimes that's the way it works out.
Q - So, if you wanted to, maybe you could work 200 shows a year or more.
A - Oh for sure. It's no big secret our rivals are a group called
Rain. Rain has been around for a long time. They are my inspiration. When I was a kid, I went to see them. I just said the same thing when I saw Beatlemania, "Wow! It's so cool." Rain took their show to Broadway. I don't know, maybe Broadway is our future. But, a show about The Beatles is always going to be a good thing. I think if you have a good one, which Rain does and I think we do, who knows where you can take it?
Q - You have all the costumes and vintage equipment The Beatles used. Was that expensive to do that?
A - (Laughs). It is. More than you know. You'll have Beatlemaniacs who know the washers on John's guitars. So, you become an expert overnight. I know a lot about The Beatles and what guitars they played and those different things about what costumes they wore. Now, it's a whole industry. There's a place online called Beatlesuits.com, which makes these replica suits. The guy owns John Lennon's black suit, one of them, and owns Paul McCartney's Shea jacket. He just made knockoffs of those using the ones he has in his possession as a template. As far as the guitars go, at some point... We have four sets of gear. I have four or six Rickenbackers and the Gibson J160 E. We have four of those. At some point, it got really expensive. But, we realized by plugging those instruments in, it got us closer to those sounds. I can play "I Want To Hold Your Hand" on a Strat through a Fender amp. I'm talented enough to make it sound okay, but it still won't sound like it does when I play the Rickenbacker through the Vox. You're going, "Okay, there's the sound!" A lot of it was out of necessity.
Q - When you go overseas you can't possibly take all the costumes and gear with you, can you?
A - Well, we take as much as we can. (Laughs). We rented I think six guitars when we went to Japan and we brought over seven on our backs. Then, we rented Vox amps and took all of our costumes with us. When we travel in the States we have three sets of gear that basically hopscotch around the country. All the Ludwig drums are in there so we can just show up to a theater in Arizona, unpacked the stuff, do the show and then fly to Florida and another set of gear is waiting for us there. So, that's how we do it. That's what we figured is the easiest way to do it. Some of the other bands haven't figured out how to do it yet. (Laughs).
Q - Are you trucking the equipment in?
A - Yeah. There's shipping companies that will truck all that stuff for you. So, the one equipment that was in Arizona, maybe that goes back to California for another gig in a week or two. And it just hopscotches around and someone keeps track of where everything is. They ship it to the next venue for us. It gets a little involved. Someone has to be in charge of that.
Q - And that someone is probably you!
A - No, no, (Laughs), it used to be. I'm glad you noticed that. It used to be me booking all the flights, making sure all the equipment went around, but I don't do that anymore. We have proper management, agents, and people who do that stuff.
Q - The Fab Four have their own office.
A - Yeah. I'm the president of the whole thing. I have three other partners, the guys who started The Fab Four, 15 years ago. But we've all moved into different areas. There's still two of us on stage who are still performing, but we consider it a company. We own the logo and the trademark. We are serious about the business now. Before it was fun and just goofing off. Now it's almost become a real business for us. We had a business meeting this morning. I can't believe it.
Q - How The Beatles hated those business meetings!
A - Well yeah, it's true. I didn't get into this business to be an accountant. If I wanted to be an accountant, I would've been an accountant. I wanted to be a musician. I loved The Beatles. I wanted to play their music on stage. But you know, there's some necessary evils. In the early days it was a lot harder because I had to be the manager. I was the booking agent. I was the travel agent. I was everything. Writing the guys checks. Giving 'em 1099's. We don't do that anymore. It's gotten a lot easier.
Q - There's no show without the business.
A - Yup. That's exactly it. It's both of those things. It's show and business. You gotta be good at both of 'em.
Q - Do you ever see yourself tiring of the material? You probably rotate the songs, don't you?
A - We do a little bit, but basically it's the "hits" of The Beatles and the songs that hit certain milestones in their career, so it doesn't change that much. When we do a show in LA, people have seen that show many times, so we'll do an entire Budokan show or all of Abbey Road one night instead of doing "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You". I personally don't see myself tiring of it, but there's two guys in the original cast that are not performing anymore. There's a point where it makes sense. I'm way too old performing as a 23-year-old John Lennon performing on The Ed Sullivan Show. At some point it does make sense that younger kids are coming in, and they are. But we look at it more as a business. I've said it before. I've probably sung "Imagine" more than anyone on the planet. We were in Las Vegas performing every single night. At some point you would think it would get tiring, but it doesn't. "Imagine" is not even a Beatles song, but I put it in the show because of what it meant to John and what his message meant to the world. I was the first one to put it in a Beatles group. Now, everyone plays it in a Beatles show.
Q - When you put the group together, you decided you wanted to be John?
A - (Laughs). Yeah, it's a funny thing. I'm more of a Paul fan. I bought all of Paul's albums when they came out. When John was murdered I really started getting into his solo material and what John was more about and I started getting into more alliance with John. I tend to fit John's mold a little bit more. I play lead guitar, but not great. So rhythm was good for me. I play a lot of keyboards in the show, which also helps. I had to learn how to play harmonica. It just seems like I was more aligned with John than Paul or George or Ringo. I certainly wouldn't be able to play the drums.
Q - When you get offstage, is it hard to get out of character?
A - If I walked around the house with a British accent, the wife would just kill me. She'd say, "What are you doing?" It's serious business when you put on the wig and you put on the suit and you look in the mirror. And I look over and see Ardy, Gavin and Eric as the other three Beatles, it's real easy to get in character. It's fun. It's a great time. It's a thing I've loved. We know we do a good job imitating The Beatles, but we know at the end of the day, people are applauding because they love The Beatles, and we do too. So, it's a great thing to be involved with. I feel honored every night to be performing a loving and respectful tribute to our heroes.
Q - There will never be another Beatles.
A - Nothing connected like they connected. That was the main thing. I think they connected with people and the reason why I say that is because you can see none of us in the group are old enough to have an original Beatle memory, much less some of those kids that are coming to the show that are 12, 13, as young as 7 or 8 years old, singing all the words. So, something is making a connection there. It has nothing to do with the '60s. It has nothing to do with the time. People say "Oh, they were of their time." No. Evidently it's not true.
Q - The Beatles transcended time.
A - And they bridge gaps. That's another thing I've learned. Generation gaps. Age gaps. All races. All languages. It's amazing. It's truly amazing.