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Beatles Forever: The Fab Four’s legacy lives on and on

You would be hard pressed to find a music fan in most parts of the world who hasn’t been exposed to the Beatles. And now, with third and even fourth generations being introduced to the music of the Fab Four for the first time by relatives who are anxious to share their love of the band, the lasting legacy and enduring appeal of the Beatles is sure to carry on for decades to come.

And of course the various record companies involved in the Beatles prodigious back catalog (Parlophone, EMI, Capitol, and Apple) consistently capitalize on each new batch of fans, as well as the completists out there who seek out each new reissue no matter how many copies of Rubber Soul they already have in their collection.

The recent vinyl reissues of the Beatles’ remastered back catalog are meant to get a jump on celebrating the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the release of their 1963 debut album, Please Please Me, and follows hot on the heels of the massive roll-out of both Mono and Stereo CD box sets (and repackaged individual discs) of their remastered albums from 2009.

And the Beatles’ records, which are consistent big-sellers year after year, will continue to make money for the record companies who are, even now, trying to keep Beatlemania alive and well while still remaining on the lookout for the next iteration of the Fab Four to add to their roster. So what’s the motivating factor for a fan to shell out their hard-earned money for yet another copy of Help!, even though they have other perfectly suitable versions of the record at home already?

The remastering certainly helps, brightening up and expanding their familiar sound while also delivering their music in stereo, which most modern music fans clamor for. And for those fans who grew up with the original mono recordings, the record companies catered to those listeners as well, with mono remasters for fans who want to hear these records exactly as they did back in the ’60s.

The repackaging is a nice touch as well, with additional liner notes and an exhaustive batch of photographs of the band from the different eras of their evolution. The new CDs also take advantage of modern technology, with CD-ROM videos and movies accompanying most of the new reissues, enhancing the listening experience for listeners who didn’t experience Beatlemania firsthand.

But even when the Beatles were still recording, there were many different versions of the same album, with UK pressings using different track listings, running orders, and even album art than their American counterparts. Not to mention all of those “unauthorized” albums, which capitalized on the Beatles growing popularity as well as the somewhat lax copyright enforcement of the day. With each reissue and remastering of the Beatles back catalog, the record companies are counting on the strong financial support of the fanatics who originally tracked down all these various releases, from 7-inches to full-lengths, whose record collections wouldn’t quite be complete without each new pressing or subsequent box set.

All of this obsession and enduring acclaim for the Beatles would seem misguided and a bit silly if their songs and records themselves didn’t hold up as well as they do. Not only did they change the music industry as a whole while putting the focus of the fans on entire albums in a society where singles long ruled the charts, but their indelible, thoroughly original numbers still sound as fresh today as the moment they were written. Their music has not only aged remarkably well, but their memorable pop confections seem to inform and influence each new batch of artists and musicians, as well as pop culture as a whole. The Beatles never seem to go out of style, and in fact continue to refine and refashion the trends and tendencies of generation after generation, even though they haven’t played a note together in over 40 years.

We here in Minnesota certainly do our own part to keep the legacy and pop power of the Beatles alive and well, with Curtiss A’s 33rd Annual John Lennon Tribute set to take place at First Avenue on Saturday night. That evening will also celebrate the release of Minnesota Beatle Project Vol. 4, a collection of Beatles covers by (mostly) local musicians, that benefits music and arts education for Minnesota public school students.

This year’s collection represents a nice cross-section of the varied musical talents we have in the state, with singer/songwriters John Mark Nelson and Haley Bonar smoothly settling next to the countrified bluegrass of Trampled By Turtles and the expansive arrangements of Van Stee, Halloween, Alaska, and Big Trouble. Even rapper Astronautalis gets involved with a rocking, decidedly non-hip-hop take on “Back In The USSR,” while Denver’s DeVotchKa brings some national flavor to the record with an ornate, gypsified version of “Girl.”

The album’s executive producer Mark Gehring explains that the rapid development of the project is due both to the talented artists who generously contribute their music and time to the cause, as well as the endless appeal of the Beatles themselves. “The Minnesota Beatle Project has grown into a living entity with a life all its own. I consider myself to be the steward of the project and am there to usher it along, providing it with what it needs to breathe and try to stay out of the way of what is at its core: incredibly talented and creative artists re-imagining some of the greatest compositions that the world has ever known.”

The wealth of local talent, and the continued generosity of the music community, also goes a long way towards making the Minnesota Beatle Project a smashing success, something that Gehring readily admits. “If we choose the right mix of musicians and provide them with a vehicle that properly showcases their art, it all falls into place,” he says. “I think we are all lucky to live in a state that’s overflowing with talent, in all forms, that believes in working together to give back to the community and support the future artists that will eventually walk in their footsteps.”

One of those talented modern artists taking part in the project, Haley Bonar, says the Beatles were a band she made an early connection with. “Honestly, they were one of the first bands I was obsessed with at a very young age,” she says. “I know a lot of people probably say this, but it was a big deal for me as a kid because I quickly realized that not everyone felt this way, especially in my mostly modern country listening middle school, where I was teased for my Beatles shirt, watch, and pictures in my locker! I felt like it was my own little secret.”

Bonar’s approach to her spirited cover of “Mean Mr. Mustard,” was part reverential, part fun, and draws on how Lennon himself felt about the song. “John Lennon said of ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’ — ‘It was a piece of sh*t I wrote in India,’ says Bonar. “When I was a kid, I was in love with Abbey Road, and was particularly taken by this song and ‘Polythene Pam.’ Who the heck were these weird people he was singing about? As a songwriter myself, I have songs that I think are pieces of sh*t that other people love. So I chose this one. We just played it a few times through based on my demo arrangement and recorded it live. I’m happy with how it turned out.”

And as far as the enduring appeal of the Beatles, Bonar is both in awe and quite jealous of their talents. “They are just too good. Everything pales in comparison. As I get older, I realize with both astonishing joy and horrendous self pity that they truly are the greatest band that ever existed.”

John Mark Nelson, who kicks off the current volume of the Minnesota Beatle Project with a gorgeous, plaintive take on “A Day In The Life,” had to discover the majesty of the four lads from Liverpool entirely on his own. “The Beatles weren’t really listened to by anyone in my social circles growing up. I have no idea why. So as a young kid, I never really knew anything about the Beatles,” says Nelson. “Finally, I decided to try them out for myself. I remember going to Walmart when I was probably 10 or 11 and buying my own copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, using my precious allowance money. I was completely drawn in on the first listen, and the Lonely Hearts album has always been my personal favorite.”

As to how he approached his cover on the record, Nelson said there was a bit of nervous trepidation as he reworked one of the Beatles most memorable songs. “I approached my cover with a lot of careful thought and planning. Covering something that is a brain child of Lennon and McCartney, is slightly daunting,” Nelson explains. “‘A Day In The Life’ is my absolute favorite Beatles tune, so I wanted to give it all I had. I decided to, for the most part, honor the original structure and feel. What is good to begin with doesn’t need to change. All I really did was just bring in some different instrumentation and bring a little of myself to it. I hope people see it as more of a rebirth of the tune, rather than an invasion of its genius.”

And that is perhaps the ultimate achievement of the Minnesota Beatle Project as well as the countless reissues of the works of the Beatles: breathing new life and spirit into songs that continue to be reborn within the ears of new listeners who are bound to eventually take these numbers to heart, just like all of us already have and continue to do each and every time we put on one of their albums.

Nelson elucidates the timeless quality of their music perfectly. “I think the lasting appeal of the Beatles is the fact that they brought essentially the entire world together, through creating and performing music,” he says. “That is something that we all hope to do with the art that we create, unite people around a common element, invite them to share an experience together. The Beatles were able to do that on the largest scale to date.”

The 33rd Annual John Lennon Tribute and Minnesota Beatle Project Vol. 4 release show is happening tomorrow night, Saturday, December 8, at First Avenue. More info here.

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