It took the urging of Cirque du Soleil, the acrobatic dance performance group, to bring the music of the Beatles â€“ the most iconic of 1960s baby boomer musical catalogs — into the 21st century.
The bulk of the project is a mashup, the digital-era, technology-enabled ability of taking two different kinds of data and â€œmashingâ€ them together to make something new. Mashups can be a newsworthy online database of crime statistics overlaid onto a Google map, for instance, or it can be cool cultural commentary, like overdubbing Nirvana’s â€œSmells Like Teen Spiritâ€ onto the Destiny’s Child hit, â€œBootyliciousâ€ (they fit so perfectly, it’s spooky).
Or, mashups can be the melding of two generations of music, like producer Danger Mouse’s weaving of Jay-Z’s â€œThe Black Albumâ€ with the Beatles’ own â€œWhite Album.â€
This time, though, the work of reconstructing and reassembling the Beatles’ recordings was a sanctioned deal.
When Cirque embarked on a project to bring the Beatles’ songs to life on a Las Vegas stage (where the troupe has been performing to sold-out houses at the Mirage), those songs needed to be refashioned to fit the choregraphy as much as the choreography needed to fit the musical performances. So, with the blessings of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison, longtime Beatles producer George Martin, joined by his son, Giles, began to rework the classic recordings.
The over-riding rule of the project was that the Martins could only work from existing Beatles tapes from the archives, with the exception of a string arrangement the elder Martin composed to accompany the haunting acoustic demo version of Harrison’s â€œWhile My Guitar Gently Weeps.â€
The result is a 73-minute journey that stands on its own as â€“ surprise â€“ an utterly new Beatles album, by taking a bunch of very familiar songs and putting them both in original contexts. The audio collages inserted here, there and everywhere will trigger sensory memories in older Beatles fans and sound like cool dissonant mashup stuff to anyone younger who hasn’t been overexposed to the Fab Four’s oeuvre.
The tracks can be disorienting at first. The famous opening chord of â€œA Hard Day’s Nightâ€ rings out the way it always has, but suddenly leads instead to the familiar drum break and dueling guitars from â€œAbbey Roadâ€’s â€œThe Endâ€ at the same time as the chunky drumming and strumming of â€œGet Back,â€ while the string crescendo from â€œA Day in the Lifeâ€ snakes in from underneath, before the building cacophony slides into a pretty straightforward take of â€œGet Back.â€ Some of the songs are left relatively unchanged except maybe the intro and outro, but then others have shards of Beatle-bits mixed in like ingredients in a tossed salad, leaving you scrambling to remember where those echoes came from. At times the Martins speed up or slow down the original tapes, and for this project boost up instruments and noises from the background that you may not have ever even noticed before.
Sometimes tracks with the same tempo seem to naturally overlap each other; other times tracks with different melodic arcs seem like they’re sparring for space.
You’ll spend a lot of time trying to remember where certain bits and pieces were pulled from, and in the end you’ll be left wondering, â€œwow, why didn’t I ever hear that cool horn riff/guitar piece/vocal fillip before?â€
For those of you who think of the Beatles’ music as sacrosanct cultural artifacts, fear not. The older recordings are never going away, and let’s face it, Capitol/EMI Records has found dozens of creative and not-so-creative ways to package and repackage the group’s music in its original state. And besides, you gotta admit, the Beatles as a group were never so hung up on their own studio work that they couldn’t resist the urge to tweak and twiddle with the tapes. Lennon’s voice was slowed down and speeded up, tracks were played backwards, and audio collages were regularly thrown in (remember â€œRevolution #9â€ from â€œThe White Album,â€ which was always a mysterious waste of time to my pre-teen ears when it came out in 1968?) to make the songs interesting â€“ and great art.
Something tells me Lennon and Harrison, the two deceased members, are digging the sounds. And McCartney and Starr should be commended for approving this project.
If nothing else, it gives longtime fans a new way to experience the music of a group that’s just about hardwired into our collective cultural DNA, and for others a new gateway into the musical riches of one of the most remarkable, elastic and creative musical ensembles of the rock and roll era.