Interview with Jim Owen of the Classical Mystery Tour - January 28, 2012

By Vanessa Markov

Even though it’s been 46 years since they last performed for a live audience, The Beatles continue to thrive as one of the most popular and beloved rock bands of all time, continuing to sell original and re-released records while gaining a slew of fans in subsequent generations with their timeless and revolutionary sound.

With the countless tribute bands out there recreating and honouring Beatles music, one band stands out quite a lot, and it’s called the Classical Mystery Tour. Created by Jim Owen in 1996, the show features full orchestral charts performed exactly as they were originally written, with a song list containing some of The Beatles most progressive and notable works such as “A Day in the Life” and “I Am the Walrus”. And if you’re a big Beatles buff, you’ll know that some of the best work The Beatles ever did came after their final performance in 1966. In other words, the Classical Mystery Tour has been coined “the show The Beatles never did”.

Below, Mr. Owen (who plays the role of John Lennon) and I chat a little bit about the show, which is due to stop in Toronto for the very first time on Thursday, February 9.

Vanessa: So, Jim - or should I call you John?

Jim: (laughing) No, Jim.

V: Okay, got it. I understand you’ve been doing Beatles tributes and such since you were 16?

J: Yes.

V: That’s a really long time. Have you always played the role of John or have you tried to do all four characters?

J: When I was first starting out I really liked the guitar, so I wanted to play the George Harrison part and I did for the first few years. That’s when I was young and I thought electric guitar was really cool. Then as I grew up and got more involved in Beatles tribute bands, people started telling me that I resembled John Lennon more than George Harrison and that I should try that. Then, of course, I got more into singing than guitar and that’s when I found I really enjoyed singing John Lennon’s songs.

V: Awesome. I was watching some clips and the four of you really do resemble the members and sound like them too, it’s fascinating.

J: Oh thank you!

V: Do you ever find it difficult staying in character or is it something that comes naturally with practise?

J: It comes naturally from being a Beatles fan from when I was 7 or 8 years old. I was such a huge fan when I was a kid, we would listen to them over and over. We would also try and find videos of them performing, like their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show or any concert footage we could find; we’d watch the Hard Day’s Night movie and Help! movie, anything we could get of The Beatles. So yeah, it comes naturally from just being such a big fan.

V: I guess that’s a lot like when you grow up to become a musician, you draw influences from your past and end up sounding or acting like them without even realizing it.

J: Yes, exactly!

V: I understand you’ve been working on the Classical Mystery Tour for quite some time. It was in the mid-90s that you starting putting it all together, correct?

J: Right, it was in the 90s and our first show was in ’96. I think we started getting ready for it in either ’95 or really early in ’96. That’s when I started trying to see if I could get somebody to help me make the charts. I could try my hand at, say, a quartet for “Yesterday”, but I could never dream of doing full orchestral charts. I’m not trained that way.

I had actually written to Sir George Martin in England asking if I could rent some of his charts. Not just the ones he did for The Beatles in the studio, but I was also interested in having some of his incidental music, film music from The Beatles’ movies, things like that. Well they said no, that he preferred to keep them for his own appearances.

So the next step was to transcribe the orchestral parts right off the recordings and that took a very talented ear that I was so lucky to find. He just listened over and over and wrote it out, part by part, so well that you can’t tell the difference between how he transcribed it from the original. His name is Martin Herman and he’s our conductor, but he doesn’t conduct every show with us. For Toronto, we’ll have another conductor with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.

V: So you have been touring with the Classical Mystery Tour for much longer than I thought. Your website shows dates from January 2011 onward.

J: Yes, the website just lists dates by year. Our first show was November 1996 and it was a little slow going. For the first show, we didn’t get hired to do it. I did everything myself; rented the theatre and paid the advertising and I have to say, if I knew what I was getting into as a kid...(pauses and laughs) I had no idea what I was getting myself into! I just wanted to do this and now that I know what I know about promoting a concert, I’m sure I would have been scared away. But we had to it the first time and after that, we were able to get hired as guest artists with other orchestras. That’s what’s happening with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, they’ve hired us as guests to perform with them in Kitchener and Toronto.

V: I’m really looking forward to it!

J: Oh, you’ll be at the show?

V: Yes absolutely! And I’m very excited, I’m such a huge Beatles fan. As it says on your website – and it’s so true! – that they’re such a timeless band and people of all ages still love them, but if you’re part of my generation where you weren’t even born in their time, something like [Classical Mystery Tour] is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing The Beatles live.

J: Right!

V: I imagine expectations are really high too.

J: I’m sure they are, there are a lot of Beatles tribute bands out there so expectations are high for any of us. About what you said about people who weren’t alive back then...for the people who were – and I didn’t realize this at the time we were creating the show – The Beatles performed live up until 1966, but after that they never did and the bulk of the orchestrated songs come after 1966. They pretty much stayed in studio recording albums, so [Classical Mystery Tour] is like a Beatles concert that they never had the chance to do. That has been pointed out to me and I thought that was very interesting.

V: Have you ever met anyone who had seen The Beatles live who also saw Classical Mystery Tour?

J: Yes, I always love to hear from people who saw the real Beatles. Usually what they say is they couldn’t hear anything. The Beatles would be on stage for only 20 or 30 minutes and, for that whole time, the girls were screaming so loud that most people report they could hear very little to nothing, but that it was so exciting to just see the four original Beatles with their own eyes. I imagine that would be really amazing.

V: That is incredible to think about.

J: I mean I was excited enough the first time I saw Paul McCartney in concert by himself in 1989. That was the first time I saw any Beatle with my own eyes, and when he walked out on stage it was like I couldn’t breathe for a minute. There’s that guy I’ve been seeing on every video clip and in pictures everywhere, and there he is. He’s real! (laughs)

V: What’s your favourite song to perform on the tour?

J: Always a hard question. My two favourites that I can’t pick between are “A Day in the Life” and “I Am the Walrus”.

V: Nice, both rather psychedelic songs. Is that why you like them, because they’re so funky and different?

J: I can’t explain what it is about those songs that hit me personally. I just think “A Day in the Life” live is so different from any other pop-rock song of that time, and it’s got a beautiful opening section, that crazy build-up part, and then the McCartney middle section. And with “I Am the Walrus”, the way they mix the band with the orchestra makes it such a great, bizarre little song with the crazy lyrics. It’s really hard to explain why these songs are great (laughs), they just are!

V: True, sometimes it’s just a feeling you can’t explain. So what was the process behind the song selection? Obviously a factor would be the popularity of the track, but what were the other factors? Were there any songs you wanted to include but couldn’t, or any that didn’t make the cut for a particular reason?

J: No, anything we really wanted to do, we are luckily able to do. When we were coming up with the song list for this show, it was like “Well, if you were going to a Beatles show with a full orchestra, what would you expect to hear?” “Penny Lane”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Long and Winding Road”, “I Am the Walrus”, I mean they just come off so easily – you know which ones you want to hear with the orchestra. Even “Yesterday” with the string quartet, so it was really easy to choose and then, I don’t know how it came up, but one of the best orchestra charts is for a McCartney song called “Live and Let Die”. It’s not a Beatles song but it has an amazing orchestral chart so let’s do that song – and I think Tony (our McCartney) does it really well – but now let’s balance that by doing a solo Lennon song, “Imagine”, which has a nice string section. It was fun to pick the songs!

At first we didn’t do any early Beatles music because they didn’t have orchestra in it, but over time we got feedback from people who thought we were neglecting a very important part of The Beatles early catalogue, so we do a couple of early Beatles songs now to touch on that time. But we don’t arrange orchestration for it; we just play it the way it’s supposed to be done.

V: So you’ve changed and tweaked the song list according to feedback over the years?

J: Yes.

V: In all the years that you’ve been doing this, have you had any contact with or feedback from Paul or Ringo at all?

J: No, none at all. You know, I think that if they ever were to see this show, I really honestly feel that they would be proud of, number one, their work because obviously that’s what shows the most. The music comes through. And I think they would really be proud of the respect we give the music as we’re doing it live on stage.

V: Do you have any more plans for more Beatles-related work once this tour is over?

J: Well, I think we’ll just keep going. It’s been 15 years now and we just keep going with it. I still enjoy it so I think we’ll continue. The best part about it is, the songs we’re performing are great music with a really good message, and after the show the people in the audience are usually so happy and touched. It’s a great thing and we can’t get enough of it. After fifteen years and then some, it’s amazing that we still really enjoy it.

V: You must have known after the first four or five years that you were in it for the long haul just from going on even that long.

J: Yes, absolutely.

V: Was there anything else you wanted to mention about the show?

J: I did want to say that it will be our first time ever playing this show in Toronto! Although we’ve been doing it for fifteen years, we have never appeared in Toronto so I’m really thrilled to be going there for the first time. I know it’s a big Beatles town.

V: It definitely is. Great, thank you so much Jim! Good luck and I can’t wait to see the show!

J: Thank you!