In August this year we will celebrate fifty years since Iain MacMillan photographed The Beatles walking across the pedestrian crossing outside Abbey Road Studios. The Abbey Road album would be their last record, some say their best, and marked the end of an era.
There is then a lot of nostalgia fueled Beatlemainia about this year. To be honest when I first heard about the musical “Let It Be” I thought, here we go, another tribute show. But you can’t go far wrong with a tribute show about the Beatles. Then I got to talk to the man behind the show, Jeff Parry.
Jeff is a fast talking, down to earth Canadian, who fell in love with the music of the Beatles when he was just nine years old. His father’s secretary gave him a copy of “Please, Please Me” and something changed. Like any typical child at the time, he’d be off to the record store to buy the next record release as soon as he could.
With a strong affinity to the Beatles, he read every book about them. Not just the band, but Brian Epstein, George Martin and the whole back story. And that is what got him into the business. Without that he wouldn’t be doing what he does today.
But you never got around to opening that record store did you?
Ha, no – I’m from Eastern Canada, Ottawa, the Capital and I used to put on high school dances, back then we’d have bands play. That got me going… in the UK you have schools for this sort of thing, but here in Canada we have the school of hard knocks! I couldn’t get into the business, didn’t really know what the business was.
After university I went and worked in a record store. I got fired and decided I’d open my own record store, but nobody would give me any money. So I decided to go out to Western Canada, to the oil rigs, and raise enough money to open a record store back home. I did that, raised the money ,but ended up putting on a concert instead… and losing a quarter of the money I had earned on the rigs! That was my masters degree and I’ve been getting my PHD ever since.
What advice would you give anyone about to embark on a career in promoting shows?
I’m a small time guy. There is Live Nation, AEG – they are built on a different paradigm model. I’ve worked for myself for forty years and the most important thing is not to bite off more than you can chew. The worst thing that can happen is that you are successful in your first show! You might end up thinking this is a licence to print money, I’ve felt like that at times. The reality is you are going to lose a lot more than you will win. There is no credit granted in this business, because of the nature, the volatility of the business. Make sure you can manage any loss, is what I’d say.
You gotta have a passion for what you are doing, but don’t fall in love with it – it’s a business.
Now you just told me earlier that you didn’t want to do the Beatles show, but you did, how did it come about?
I’ve been doin’ this for forty years, the irony is that I really got going in 1980. December 9th when John Lennon was murdered, I was thinking woah, this is the end of the world, right? But in reality, he got me goin’. The Beatles to me have always been sacrosanct and well, Beatles tribute bands – they all stink! I thought Beatlemania was terrible, its all too cutesy – its not about being left-handed or sounding nasally, its about the music. So, long story short, a friend of mine wanted a band to play at the opening of a radio station, he needed them to do five songs. I found a group called Rain who did Beatles covers, brought them up, expecting a disaster. The first chord of “I’ll be Back”, I go holy jumpin’…. and that’s another thing about this business, if it hits you straight away you know it’s good. And it grew from there. We built the show up, it was a concert, we brought it across Canada, into the States. In my mind I wanted to play theatre – people said you can’t play theatre it’s a tribute show! But I said its more than that, it’s a history of the Beatles, in a chronological order with video – it doesn’t waste a lot of time on narrative, it just plays the songs and gets the point across without some dumb story.
I was told it couldn’t play theatres. Then in Dallas, Texas, there was an Elvis show that was supposed to happen in a theatre that ran Les Mis and Phantom and whatever. Anyway the Elvis show fell out and they were desperate to try to find something to fill it – we were there on their doorstep – the show was hugely successful. After that, the whole theatre community in the States took it on. We did really well, to the point where we took it to Broadway and The West End. I then separated from Rain and created “Let It Be” and here we are today.
I was fifteen when the Beatles broke up, their music had a big influence on my youth. Are your audiences mainly made up of my generation or are you bringing their music to a younger age group?
That is the thing that is cool about this, some shows only cater to their generation. I compare this to Mozart or Beethoven – those are classic artists who appeal to generations who are not their own! It’s all about the songs. I’ve seen whole generations, eight-year-old kids, with their parents and grandparents. Yes, the target demographic is our age, but the show is multi- generational.
In this revived show there is a little bit of a twist. You have imagined a re-union.
When we split from the original group Rain and wanted to cut our own teeth, I said to my production manager, is it possible to shrink the whole show of two and half hours plus intermission down to one half and do a re-union in the second half. I thought he’d tell me no way – but he said yeah, we can do that!
So I wrote the set list, it is October 9th 1980 – John Lennon’s fortieth birthday we go into a happy thing, a re-union, a fictitious situation. So what songs would they play? I’m sure they would have been more eclectic. They would have done Why Don’t You Do It In The Road, and PIggies and who knows what! But we had to keep It to an audience that knew the songs. I wanted to start with Helter Skelter because I thought Paul would want to just come on and rock it. Someone said why don’t you start with Because, so we do, with a video montage of what happened. How they broke up, how they were at each other’s throats and then we say what if…
Each of the band plays a song of their own then we split it up between Beatles songs. The Lennon songs are heart felt. No one has heard Watchin The Wheels or Starting Over live.
You get people looking at each other because they’ve never heard the songs in this context before, its really fun watching people’s reactions. I was told in Britain that this wouldn’t work, we had to wait two years to find a partner and it’s the re-union that’s getting the attention.
I was looking forward to the show anyway, but Jeff your enthusiasm is infectious, I now have to go and see it. But finally, what is your favourite Beatles song and why?
To be honest, it depends on what I feel like. “And Your Bird Can Sing” is one, it’s not always the big hits, but “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” whenever I hear those first chords that still does something for me. “I Need You” – a Harrison song with Lennon messing about with the amp.
Thank you for your time Jeff, it has been a pleasure talking to you. I am looking forward to this show even more now.
Yeah – go along, have a drink, have some fun!