For Beatles Impersonators, A Long And Winding Road

Steve Landes is shocked at the mere suggestion that listening to the Beatles too much may get tedious.

Fair enough. But that’s coming from a guy who taught himself guitar at age 10 by listening to the Fab Four and who for the past 13 years has made a career by playing dozens of the band’s songs on stage week in and week out while acting as John Lennon.

Tired of John, Paul, George and Ringo? Not Steve.

“How in the world could you ever get sick of the Beatles?” he asks. “I play these songs a million times and then I’ll hear them on the radio going home and it just fills me with the same sense of enthusiasm and energy.”

Landes is a member of “Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles,” a Fab Four cover band that has crisscrossed the globe over two decades despite grousing from some that what they do is just glorified karaoke.

Landes’ crew is merely one of the better-known groups belting out “Twist and Shout.” Other cover bands include 1964 the Tribute, The Get Back Band, The Bootleg Beatles, The Fab Four, The Fab Five and The Fab Faux.

They’re helping quench a thirst for Beatles-related music that’s virtually unquenchable, illustrated by the popularity of the play-along Beatles video games and the 5 million songs and 1 million albums downloaded from iTunes since late last year.

“I think there’s just something personal about their music that touches everyone, whether it speaks of a romantic love or a greater understanding,” says Landes. “There’s some sort of positive message – usually of peace and love and togetherness – and it hits people and it stays with them, whether they were there at the time, whether they’re just finding out about it now.”

Photo: AP Photo

Members of “Rain” have performed for over 1.5 million people around the world and regularly rank in the Top 20 grossing concert tours, with a consistent weekly revenue of over $500,000, according to the trade publication Pollstar. They’ve lasted far longer than the Beatles were actually together.

Their recent visit to Broadway illustrates their draw: Originally intended as a 12-week stand, the show got extended, recouped its $2 million investment in seven weeks and has now moved into a smaller theater for another run starting Monday, even as a national tour with a different cast roams the U.S.

“I think we’ve hit a nerve with Beatles fans,” says Mark Lewis, Rain’s founding member and now its manager. Like the other band members, Lewis put his own money in the show and nurtured it from its roots in the 1970s as a struggling club band in southern California to an international hit.

“We worked our way from bars to amusement parks and casinos and cruise ships and private parties and county fairs – you name it, we did it all – and always maintained the integrity and always tried to do it better and better,” he said.

“Now all those people who told me I was crazy are calling me up for house seats.”

The show is essentially an extended Beatles concert with near-perfect reproductions of “Hard Day’s Night,” “Yesterday,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Strawberry Fields” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” among many others. There’s no plot, except for some between-song patter in fake Liverpool accents. With very little production costs and no big stars to pay, the show was able to gross more than $1.4 million in the week from Christmas to New Year’s Eve.

In the show, the faux Fab Four mimic the Beatles’ Feb. 9, 1964, first U.S. appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” then mutate into their Shea Stadium concert at the peak of American Beatlemania, in 1965. The audience gradually sees them mature – and change outfits – until they finish in their Abbey Road days.

“We fill the void where you can go and actually buy a ticket and see what it must have been like to be there,” says Joey Curatolo, who sings and plays bass, guitar and piano as Paul McCartney.

The two – who often perform with other founding members Joe Bithorn, who plays George Harrison, and Ralph Castelli, who drums as Ringo Starr – are veterans of “Beatlemania,” a 1970s-era show about the 1960s that used music by the Beatles and others.

Both Landes and Curatolo take their roles seriously and get visibly upset when they are compared to cover-band artists. They see what they do as a labor of love.

“Would you say Jamie Foxx was just doing a tribute or an imitation of Ray Charles in that great film? No, he’s telling a story. We’re telling a story that really needs to be told,” says Landes, referring to the movie “Ray,” which earned Jamie Foxx an Academy Award for best actor.

“We write our own music. We’re musicians outside of this. … We came at this from a standpoint of, ‘We want to do this and we want to do it right.’ You have to be at the top of your game to pay tribute to the greatest band ever.”

Both men have pored over concert and backstage footage, pulled Beatles songs apart to see how they were made, learned to play more than 200 songs and imagined how Fab Four performances may have looked in later years since the real band stopped playing live in 1966.

“We’ve studied every subtle nuance, every chord phrasing, every vocal harmony to the point where not only do you know how they did it, but why they did it,” says Landes. “It’s a constant looking into their character and translating it to the stage.”

“You become an authority,” adds Curatolo.

They are licensed by Sony/ATV, the Beatles’ publishing company, and are proud to be the only performers beside Cirque du Soleil to have access to the Beatles’ catalog, although not for recording their own cover albums. They have even taken their act to one of the toughest crowds in the world and survived: the Cavern Club in Liverpool, where the Beatles once held center stage.

“Going in, I thought, ‘They begat The Beatles. Why in the world would they want four Americans coming in?’ But they realize: The Beatles belong to the world,” says Landes.