Eric Sandberg speaks with Ardy Sarraf, The Fab Four's own Paul McCartney, about their upcoming live performance of Abbey Road to honor the albums 50th anniversary
Ardy Sarraf as Paul McCartney Photo courtesy of Manny Dominguez Photography
I've never been overly fond of tribute bands. I'm not against nostalgia but I'd rather listen to someone sing his or her own songs, or at least spirited versions of classic songs by a variety of artists, than see a band fall all over themselves to look and sound like one established act. I especially don't get tribute acts for bands that are still around. What is the point of a Cheap Trick tribute band when the real Cheap Trick is more than likely going to play your town four times this year?
My general disdain for tribute acts has one notable exception — Beatles tributes. Among the thousands of rock and pop acts to emerge since Little Richard began abusing his piano in public, The Beatles are a law unto themselves and an integral part of worldwide culture. When Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil no one calls it a Mozart Tribute act. The Beatles are on that level.
There are many, many Beatles tributes operating throughout the world. Notable ones include Rain, The Fab Faux, England's Bootleg Beatles and, of course, Southern California's The Fab Four who, in my opinion, are the best of them all.
They do it right. For example: Ardy Sarraf, who has been portraying Paul McCartney since the show's inception in 1997, is normally a right-handed player. We've all tried to write, throw, or maybe play an instrument with our opposite hand at one time or another — it ain't easy. That's dedication.
It doesn't stop there. There are the costumes, the accents, the banter, the staging, the Ed Sullivan impersonator; along with the breathtaking skill and attention to detail brought to the musical arrangements and performances. Over the years The Fab Four have progressed from a Tuesday open-mic night lark, to a Disneyland attraction, a Vegas headliner and, ultimately, the globe-trotting, ticket selling phenomenon they are today.
Over the years there have been several changes to The Fab Four cast, the most recent being the semi-retirement of founder and President Ron McNeil from performing as John Lennon. Ron has been ably replaced by veteran John Lennon impersonator [and dead ringer] Adam Hastings who most recently held that position with Bootleg Beatles. This leaves Ardy Sarraf as the only constant cast member since the show's inception, currently abetted by Joe Bologna as Ringo and Liverpool native Gavin Pring as George Harrison, along with Hastings.
Ardy Sarraf and Gavin Pring
"It's different..."Sarraf tells me on the phone from Baton Rouge where the Fabs are preparing for a gig. "...but because we've all substituted for each other over the years it's not that big of a deal. We're all used to seeing different guys on stage with us but, you've seen pictures of Adam [It's uncanny], he looks great on stage and, to be honest with you, the blend that Adam and I have is like the Everly Brothers. Everyone knows John and Paul were going for that Everly Brothers vocal sound with the contrast between Paul's soft, smooth voice and John's gravelly voice.
With Ron, we never quite had that sound because our voices were too much alike. Ron doesn't have that nasally type of tonality. So vocally, we sound much better. Instrumentally, it's hard to touch Ron, especially with the keyboard stuff, but I will say that Adam has been working very hard, with us and on his own, which is commendable.
People have been saying for years 'If only the John from Bootleg Beatles would join the Fab Four — that would be the ultimate.' Now it's happened and it's a big boost for us as a whole. It gives Ron time off to be with the family. Adam is excited and we're excited to have him."
Though The Fab Four are continually playing gigs all over the world, they always come back home to Southern California and one of their most important traditions is to play a huge, special show at the Pacific Amphitheater every summer during the Orange County Fair. I recall seeing them perform a tribute to Beatles movies a few years ago, featuring appropriately costumed sets of tunes from A Hard Day's Night, Help! and Let It Be. For this summer's extravaganza the theme is obvious. 2019 is the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' brilliant swan song Abbey Road.
For me, Abbey Road is the album that set the standard for the FM radio revolution that was to come. Without the sonically superior Abbey Road you never get to The Dark Side of The Moon or Steely Dan's Aja. It was certainly an album that was never meant to be performed on stage.
As I peruse the back cover of my Abbey Road LP a number of challenges spring to mind in terms of performing all the tracks live — not the least of which include how to keep the patrons from heading to the bathroom during "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Octopus's Garden" [thank goodness the can't miss "Oh Darling" sits between them].
"It's funny..." Sarraf muses, "...because Ringo didn't even play it ["Octopus's Garden"] a month ago when I saw him. That was one of the songs he did not play, which was...interesting. But it's a fun song, I like that song. We'll be able to pull it off."
On performing "Because": "That is a great vocal harmony. It's not that tricky because we are competent musicians and singers — we each know what part we are going to sing. We've already started dissecting this stuff and putting them in our set here and there.
On "Maxwell's Silver Hammer": "We're trying to work out who is going to play what. Joe is probably going to play the synthesizer part because the song has no drums. Ron is also going to be playing on stage with us for some of the songs because you can't recreate the whole album with just four guys. There's places that need tambourine, there's acoustic and electric [guitars], extra percussion...so we'll have Ron and Joe, when he's not playing drums, on keyboards, percussion or whatever else is going on.
I've played "Maxwell's Silver Hammer before and it's a bit tricky, especially on bass when you're also singing. I might be performing it at the piano this time just to change things up. I think that and "She's So Heavy" are going to be the most challenging ones for vocal and sonic reasons. Luckily we have Mike [Amador, the band's original George Harrison and current manager] mixing us because he knows the stuff, he's played the stuff, so he knows what to listen for. By now you know what it's all about...the devil is in the details, still."
On Playing the big side two medley: "The medley...well that's...it's not like it's sacred or anything but everybody knows it. For us it isn't any different than doing the Sgt. Pepper's album which we did a couple of years ago. That was a bitch to do that stuff live. "Lovely Rita on the bass, left handed, while singing — that was a little bit of a chore but we pulled that one off.
We're trying to work out where I will switch to guitar [for the famed three-way solo-trading section]. Visually it would look cool if the three 'Beatles' were up there trading the solos. I've never done it like that, I've always just played the bass and let the other two handle the solos. We'll have to see how it works out.
Gavin, Joe and I have never done "You Never Give Me Your Money" all the way through. "Sun King," "Polythene Pam," "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window" — to me, that's the tricky stuff right there. Even when there is no singing going on, all that instrumental stuff, solos and counter solos. It's all about relearning and rehashing it. It's fun stuff for sure."
How will they handle "Her Majesty?": "I don't want to give it away."
Finally, I asked Sarraf, as the last man standing, how much longer he'll be doing the Macca Mambo with the Fabs. Is it starting to get old for him? "No but I'm starting to get old though! It's funny because Ron and I started out about the same time, playing in other bands. I played with different Beatles bands around the world, I went to Japan when I was twenty.
It's just like any career, especially with all the traveling. You've got to know when to hang up the boots. On stage you've got to look good and sound good. I've got a few more years yet, before I hang up those boots.
The Fab Four return to Southern California next week for four shows before heading out for a run of shows up and down the eastern seaboard. You can check for dates near you at the link below.
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.