They've been described as "the next best thing to seeing The Beatles." Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles is one of, if not the finest tribute Beatle groups touring the country today. Keyboardist, percussionist Mark Lewis is the founding member of Rain. We spoke with Mark about his group.
Q - Mark, let me see if I have this right, you've never been part of the four members of Rain. You're in the background playing keyboards.
A - Correct.
Q - You're kind of like "The Fifth Beatle" then.
A - Yeah. Well you know when Rain started, it wasn't planned to be doing Beatles. We were big Beatle fans and we did a lot of Beatles. But it was a band that planned to do their own original material and put out their own records. We happened to do Beatles, and there happened to be five of us. So the four guys that played rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass and drums wound up doing the character they had to perform. I felt like I joined this band to do originals, but if we're going to do Beatles, what do I do? (Laughs) I kind of felt a little bit out of place. Then we started to specialize in doing a lot of the Sgt. Pepper and a lot of the later Beatles stuff, where I just did a lot of the orchestrated parts and keyboard parts. But I never had a character or a costume or anything like that. I was kind of off to the side.
Q - You put the group together in 1975?
A - Yeah, well actually the group kind of evolved out of a Top 40 Band. We found that by specializing in Beatles it was a means of giving us exposure and going out and doing originals. We used to do three sets. We'd do two sets of Beatles and one set of original material. In the early days we figured if we're gonna do something other than Top 40 like a million other bands and getting nowhere, we might as well do something that we like and do some really good music. Being that we were all Beatles fans, we specialized in doing Beatles. We began to build a cult following around the Los Angeles area. We used to play a lot of the local clubs. We did a lot of high schools and colleges. It really started to take off. It was before the show "Beatlemania", before the idea was even conceived that I know. It was too close to The Beatles to almost be nostalgic in 1975. They only broke up in 1969. It wasn't like they were gone that long. We started to do it and got an absolutely phenomenal response. We started to pack nightclubs around the Los Angeles area, to the point where eventually Dick Clark heard about us and he came down and saw us when he was looking for someone to do the soundtrack to his movie Birth of The Beatles. He gave us four songs. He asked us to go into the studio and produce them. It was sort of an audition for the soundtrack. He really liked it and we wound up doing the soundtrack, which led to getting a lot of national coverage. It sort of put us on the map as far as Beatles groups go.
Q - Did your original material sound like The Beatles?
A - It had the influence because all of us were big Beatle fans. If I had played it for you, you wouldn't go "that sounds like the Beatles", but I think you'd probably put it into the category of an ELO, 10cc and a lot of Beatle influenced groups. A lot of harmonies. They were songs that made sense. The solos made sense. The vocals were really important and up front. There were four guys in the band that all sang lead. A lot of different guys wrote. There was stuff that was orchestrated. We did some songs with a string quartet. The influence of The Beatles was definitely there.
Q - How expensive was it to launch "Rain"?
A - It was actually not that expensive. At first we really didn't have costumes. We didn't try to look like the guys that much. The bass player had a Hofher bass. We had a lot of the instruments. If you're a Beatles fan, you want to get a lot of that stuff, because you idolize the guys. Our first costume when we decided to do Beatles was black turtlenecks, which was just like the "Meet the Beatles" cover. We went to JC Penney and got the black turtlenecks, which was the cheapest costume you could get. When the time came when we started to get gigs as a Beatles band, we wanted to get Sgt. Peppers and then the collarless suits, we had friends and parents and aunts make 'em. We went out and got the material and we had people we know make 'em for us. The music was always there though, 'cause the guys were really good musicians. They always tried to be as true to the record as possible.
Q - It's gotta be hard to find guys who not only look like The Beatles, but also in the case of McCartney play a left-handed bass. Is there a high turnover rate in the group?
A - In all the years we've been together, there's only been a few guys who've done McCartney. There's been two George Harrisons. There's been a few drummers and a few John Lennons. The band we have now has been intact with the same members since around 1983. The fact of the matter is, yes it is hard to find people who are really good. The McCartney that is in our band does not play left-handed, but it was never a pre-requisite. Although you do have to bear some resemblance, if you saw the guys out of costume, you really wouldn't think of any of them as looking like The Beatles. When the curtain goes up, the physical resemblance is the first thing people look for. Rain is the strongest band around as far as sounding like, note for note, duplicating the sound of The Beatles, from their earliest tunes all the way through side two of Abbey Road and some of their solo stuff. The amount of material we do is phenomenal. By all reason we should be burnt out and a fried band. We're all getting older. We've been doing it for a long time. But the band seems to get better and better and better, because all the guys care. The point I’m getting at is that the longevity of the band and the success of the band is because of the musical quality of the band. When the curtain goes up everybody looks and goes, well that guy looks like him, and that guy doesn't really look like him, but that lasts about 30 seconds. After that it's like wow, they really sound like them. Half way through the set, they're standing up and cheering and they don't even care. Their mind and their imagination make up for whatever physical resemblances you may lack. They don't care. The McCartney in our band sings the parts beautifully. He plays the bass parts perfectly. He plays piano excellent. He plays guitar great. He does McCartney all the different styles from screaming to pretty, you name it, note for note. To turn around and go, he's not playing left-handed, the fact of the matter is, he could play left-handed. He worked on it. But he's not as good. So should I say "To hell with the music, do it left-handed!" It just doesn't make sense.
Q - How long of a show do you perform?
A - It depends on where we're playing. Typically we do about two hours, two one hour shows. A lot of places want less and some if it's really a full blown concert, we do more. If you came to see us in a venue such a Vegas, Reno or Tahoe where we play six nights a week for two weeks and we do two shows a night, you would not see two sets that are the same. A lot of acts will do the same show over and over. We'd get bored. We have so much material that we've worked out, that we pull songs out of the hat. Now when I say we don't do the same show twice that doesn't mean that we don't have the same songs. We may have "I Saw Her Standing There" or "I Am the Walrus" two nights in a row. The way the set is presented and most of the songs are interchanged, you can come to see six shows and not see a song repeated. But it would just be a matter of chance, we literally write the song list 10 minutes before we go on.
Q - How much does the group work, at least twice a week?
A - If you pushed all the gigs together, we're spread out, we work all year round. Typically we don't go out for more than two weeks in a row as far as roadwork. Some groups go out for 3, 4 months, 6 months, a year. We all have families. We're all kind of settled down. If you push all the gigs together, we do about six to seven months a year. None of us have second jobs. This is our only job, and it's been that way for a long time.
Q - You're also like the manager for Rain. You're handling all the business.
A - That's correct. Although the decisions we make about business, we have meetings and discuss everything. One of the reasons we've lasted this long is because we communicate with each other. I'm not gonna take bookings that I know the rest of the guys don’t want to do. The fact that I’m on the road working with them keeps it clean. We sort of stopped doing bars about five, six years ago. We do mostly concerts, special venues and casinos, cruises, private parties, concerts in theatres, county fairs, special event type things.
Q - Have any of The Beatles ever acknowledged your existence?
A - Not to my knowledge. I've heard through the grapevine that they have heard positive things about us. I once heard that Ringo came to one of our shows. But, I never saw him so I'm not gonna tell you absolutely. I would like them to. My impression of The Beatles, especially McCartney, is that they probably have a negative attitude towards a lot of the tribute bands that are around. They probably think its guys who put on costumes, shake their heads, a cutesy type thing and don't take the music very seriously. I'd love to get one of these guys into our shows. I think they'd be very impressed and it would change them. They'd find a lot of work goes into what we do. The costumes are secondary to the show. We're really musicians that love The Beatles and take it very seriously. I think we're the only band that approaches it the way a classical musician would approach music. In other words, we're not there to jam it or interpret it, we're there to do it the way it's meant to be done. We're true to the music, true to the creators of the music, note for note. We take very few liberties with the music. I think you'd be amazed how close to the record we actually get on some very, very complicated songs.
Q - How many bands are there like Rain who perform Beatle songs for a living?
A - I know that there's three or four of 'em that do it pretty regularly.
Q - What kind of comments do people come up and make to the band after a performance on a cruise ship?
A - Whether it be a cruise ship or anywhere, it's that they were really surprised. They didn't expect the quality show that they got and it made their entire trip or vacation. That's a very common thing, and I consider that the ultimate compliment.
Q - You said, "People wonder if we're that good, why we're not playing our own material." To me that's like going to (violinist) Itzhak Perlman after he's finished playing Mozart and saying "Well, that's great, but let's hear something you wrote."
A - (Laughs) Yeah. I did say that.
Q - So to be playing Beatles music in a Beatles tribute act is the ultimate then. It doesn't get much better than that.
A - It does if you're a musician and a big Beatles fan. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to be putting out our own records of our own music. But if you're not doing your own music, I think there's nothing I'd rather be doing than The Beatles, if you gotta be doing someone else's music. It's all a matter of how you approach it. When I used the analogy of Itzhak Perlman, it's kind of silly, because it's a totally different type of music. It's not Beethoven or Mozart. It's not classical music in that sense, but in terms of Pop Contemporary music, it is Classical music. I think there's gonna be groups and musicians playing and performing as The Beatles maybe 50, 100 years from now. They'll be looking for tapes and playing the records.
Q - Do you ever get tired of The Beatles music? Does it ever start to sound dated to you?
A - People come up and say "don't you get bored doing Beatles", and we don't. We really don't. We enjoy it. We love doing it. I think that's what separates us from the rest of our competition. We don't get bored. I've had guys in the band that didn't last very long in Rain because they were constantly looking for something else. It was like they had an attitude of I'll do this thing until I get something else going. Whereas the guys in Rain now are let's see how far we can take The Beatles thing. Let's see how successful we can make it. Let's see how good we can get at it.
Q - How far can you go as a Beatles tribute act? What exactly are you striving for?
A - Well, we're striving for recognition for being the best at what we do. We think we are the best at what we do. We think we're one of the world's greatest secrets if you haven't seen us, and a lot of people who have seen us will say that. I would like to be able to see Rain take their place as more or less the best at what we do at not being a Beatles imitator or look-a-like, but being a true tribute to The Beatles, in a sense that we're the band that really has the music nailed. That's what's important to us. I'm not just saying playing it note for note, but note for note with full energy, a full blown concert with a lot of feeling and a lot of heart. Rain also has the costumes and the look-a-likes and the feel and the moves and all that. All that is secondary. The music is what really matters. The music is what separates us from all the other acts that try to do the same thing. They play the same songs, but not the same way.