That’s how I’ve spent the last three days, with the Beatles. (I didn’t Meet the Beatles, that was a Capitol records construct.) I mentioned back in July that I had pre-ordered The Beatles Rock Band; it finally arrived on Wednesday. Needless to say, I spent five hours playing through all of the songs in solo mode. Now that I’m done with the first run-through, here are some of my impressions:
Above all, the game takes great pains to present the Beatles as we remember them, so much so that some details are glossed over because they don’t fit the popular myth. (More on that later.) The character animations are lovingly rendered, capturing all of the quirks that once identified each member of the Fab Four: John’s spread-legged stance, Paul’s leaning into the microphone, George’s somewhat stiff posture, and Ringo’s head nodding off to the side.
The in-game story begins with the band playing in the Cavern club in Liverpool, their regular gig around the time of Please Please Me being released. They quickly move to the Ed Sullivan Show (in color! I saw that performance on the family black-and-white TV.), then the Shea Stadium concert, ending the live performance phase of their career at the Budokan in Japan. The visuals for these chapters are what you’d expect: screaming fans, the lads in natty matching suits, close-ups of each Beatle. As the songs for the New York performances load, we hear the original Ed Sullivan introductions.
It’s when the game moves to the Abbey Road studio years that things get interesting. The songs all begin the same way, with the band sitting in the studio.
Once a song begins, the visuals morph into a “dreamscape,” a music video that employs the iconography we’ve come to associate with the albums in question. We all know these uniforms:
Some songs are trippier than others, as would be expected for “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”:
If your Fab Four fanaticism doesn’t extend beyond owning the canonical 13-album catalog (the remasters were also released on Wednesday), the Abbey Road chapters provide some insight into the band’s working method in the studio. Each song is introduced with the studio chatter that preceded the take, and each ends with more chat. The closing credits, which run at least five minutes, are backed with the entire run-up to “I Am the Walrus,” a snapshot of alternating brilliance and banality.
The game’s fnal chapter returns to a single live performance, the legendary “Get Back” concert on the roof of the Apple Corps building. It’s windy up there (the wind noise was added at Yoko’s insistence), and you can also hear traffic noises. And it was while playing that chapter – which consisted of most the tracks from Let it Be that Phil Spector didn’t butcher – that I noticed some of the flaws in the presentation of the myth.
Where was Billy Preston? His piano solo anchors “Get Back,” yet he’s nowhere to be seen. Where’s Yoko? She was omnipresent, but has been deleted – some may find this a good thing. Eric Clapton is missing from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The presentation gets a bit disingenuous for the White Album sessions, which shows the band performing all of the songs as a quartet, which didn’t happen during those sessions. “Back in the USSR” correctly has John playing bass, but also has Ringo playing drums; Paul played drums on that track, which is why John switched off guitar.
But these are minor quibbles. It’s still a rush to play along with songs that are burned so deeply into my brain that I can play them back in my head at will. I played through the early live chapters with the guitar, and learned that the Beatles were masters of syncopation – the tunes are full of off-the-beat hooks that repeatedly tripped me up. Once in the studio I switched to bass, because the McCartney bass lines defined the instrument for years. (I ask you : Wouldn’t you rather play the bass for “Taxman” and “Paperback Writer”?) And there’s an unexpected surprise: The version of “Within You Without You” – George’s Indian-tinged contribution to Sgt. Pepper – is the mash-up with “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Love, the Cirque du Soleil soundtrack. The choice was one of necessity: until someone releases Raga Hero, tabla and tamboura will have to be replaced by drums and bass.
The song list hits many of the obvious favorites, but is slightly skewed to provide balance. Each Beatle is represented in each chapter but the final one, to which Ringo made no contribution. I hand’t expectd to perform “Boys” or “I Wanna Be Your Man,” but it was still fun.
One thing became clear before I was three songs into the game: unlike its predecessors, Beatles Rock Band almost demands to be played with a full group (you have the option of adding two more microphones to the mix so you can sing full three-part harmonies). Playing the game solo gives you an almost curatorial feel, as if you’re interacting with a Beatles museum exhibit.
I’m willing to forgive the distance. After all, they’re the goddamned Beatles.