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Jeff Meets the Beatles on MP3

The Beatles waved bye-bye in 1969,
but we still have good ol' Jeff

The Beetles Question: What's free and sounds hauntingly like the Beatles?
Answer: The Internet.
Question: How can that be?
Answer: Read on.

The lava lamp to my left fires slow liquid blobs aloft as the sandalwood incense stick smolders to my right. I'm sitting cross-legged in the dark corner of someone's apartment with a bunch of long-haired tie-dyed types. Heavy vibes of déjàvu wash over me. If this were Star Trek, I'd say we're trapped in a feedback loop. The group is talking animatedly about the breakup of the Beatles as if it's still 1969.

Thirty years have drifted by like blobs in that lava lamp since Star Trek premiered, astronauts walked on the moon, Woodstock rocked and the Beatles split. But hold on a minute! From where I sit, history is repeating on itself like a guy in a Bromo commercial. In 1999 miniskirts are back in style, John Glenn is back in space and Woodstock is back in the headlines. I'm feeling less like some old fossil, than a freshly thawed Austin Powers, ready to groove again in flower power retro-chic.

Which brings us back to that darkened scented Portsmouth apartment where a group has come together over a new Beatles-inspired compact disk by singer-songwriter Jeff Landrock (pronounced land-ROCK) and his band. Brought up in the little factory town of Newmarket on the Lamprey River, Jeff has been a Beatles-freak since the dawn of the British Invasion. A recording engineer by trade, Jeff still performs with a Beatles "tribute" band called "Get Back", and the crowds love it.

Distinctions are important here. Jeff is an avowed Beatle freak. He has studied all the Beatle albums like a scholar, playing them backwards in search of hidden messages. He has made the pilgrimage to Liverpool and probably knows the lyrics and chords to all 256 songs in the Fab Four canon. He has attended Wings concerts, met John Lennon's son Julian and his first wife Cynthia. He is not, however, a "Bea-tard" which is the Beatles equivalent of a hardcore Trekkie, the kind of person who dresses up like an alien at conventions and speaks only the Klingon language.

Jeff knows, more or less, how to draw the line. He has a life, a wonderful wife and two normal healthy children living in South Berwick, Maine. Not to put too fine a point on things, but "Get Back" is a "sound alike" tribute band. That means they do not dress up like the Beatles, which is a whole separate genre of tribute bands made popular since the Broadway show "Beatlemania" turned a healthy profit two decades back. Today the world is infested with carbon-copy Beatle bands that walk, talk, joke, toke, smoke and bow exactly like the real McCoy. They're as big as Elvis impersonators in Europe and Japan.

"Get Back" doesn't look much like the Beatles, although at 46, Jeff retains some of Paul McCartney's baby-faced charm. Tommy Moore, a guitar salesman in Natick, Mass, comes closest to John Lennon in voice and stance and co-writes new music with Jeff. Lauren Passarelli, a music instructor at Berkeley, is "Girl George" playing much of the George Harrison music. Twenty-something drummer Ace Bailey takes the Ringo Starr role, when he isn't delivering packages for Federal Express. Though they'll never be mistaken for the real thing at a photo session, close your eyes and the similarity is uncanny.

"People really get into the music," Tomny says. "They kept coming up to us at concerts and asking if we have an album! I tell them to just go to any record store and buy a Beatles CD, and then we thought -- hey why not?"

And so was born the Back Pack -- an all original band, but with a sound that is distinctly Beatlesque. "We can't deny our heritage," Jeff says. "We decided that, if our new music has a familiar Beatle sound, well -- let it be." Their first effort, in homage to the Beatles famous "White Album" and their own mature age has been dubbed "The Gray Album." Self-produced and distributed, at first, only to friends and relatives, the Gray Album is more than a history lesson in middle-aged nostalgia.

Back Pack Something big happened in 1969. Trekkies would call it a rift in the time-space continuum. If you were there, you felt it. If you were not, you can still feel it all around. Movie makers have been trying to capture it since the release that year of "Easy Rider." Movies like "That Thing You Do", "A Walk on the Moon" and even a film called "1969" struggle to represent a complex time. It was a weird, dangerous sensitive moment -- the last days of the "love" generation, before the experiment turned dark and when we could still kid ourselves into thinking we were actually changing the world for the better. Elated by Woodstock and the moonwalk, in shock over the King and Kennedy assassinations, a booming blooming youth culture seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown when the Beatles told us they couldn't hack it anymore.

If you were there, you could feel the rift, a split that had been building up since the Beat generation went on the road after World War II. If you weren't there, you can still read the signs in the archeological strata of pop rock music and cultural fissures that were formed. You can hear it just distantly in the "Gray Album" which harkens back to a time when it was still acceptable to just be cute and clever and full of fun.

Back Pack Marcus DelGrecco of the Mind-Minded web site heard the distant sound -- and he's just a kid by our standards. He probably got his first dose of the Beatles in the womb. And that brings us back for the third time to his "pad" where this ramble started. A long-haired insurance company worker by day, Marcus runs a funky web site for local artsy types. He's the one who put the music of the "Back Pack" on the Internet for the world to hear. It's in the new controversial format called MP3, which means anyone on Earth can download Jeff's music into a computer for free. Free! The record companies hate the idea.

As of this morning, over 100,000 selections are available in MP3 format. A listener with the right software can find a song and hear it in seconds. Jeff's band is up to #786 in the charts and climbing. One Back Pack song, "John Lennon is Watching Me and You" is already #40 in the Pop/Rock category. Hundreds have listened or downloaded the song into their computers and can ship it by email. That makes Marcus a sort of Brian Epstein to the Back Pack. Epstein was the young London entrepreneur who discovered the Beatles before they discovered themselves.

Listeners who like the music can click a button and order a compact disk by mail. CD's are made one-at-a-time by the MP3 people and the artist gets half the income. With music performers getting a tiny percentage of sales from their work through traditional commercial CDs, it's no wonder a great rift is forming in the music industry. Whether listeners will actually buy music that they already can taste for free is the question of the millennium.

But who cares? Isn't it the song, the feeling and the message that matter? Shah-la-la, live for today. This is going to be a full blown revolution in music, the biggest in history since - well, since the Beatles. Right on, man! If John Lennon is really watching over me and you, he's getting a kick out of 1999.

© 1999 SeacoastNH.com

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Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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