BWW Interviews: Becoming John Lennon a Real Challenge for McNeil
Every time he looks at his niece Angela, Ron McNeil remembers John Lennon. McNeil's niece was born Dec. 9, 1980, a day after Lennon was shot and killed outside his apartment in New York City.
"My sister (Melissa, who was nine months pregnant) and I were watching LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRE when a news reporter came on the television and said 'John Lennon was shot outside of his apartment building. We'll have more in a moment,'" and then they went right back to LITTLE HOUSE," says McNeil who portrays Lennon for The Fab Four, one of the preeminent Beatles tribute bands. "I looked at my sister and said 'Did he just say John Lennon?' It was bizarre. I hadn't really lost anyone close to me at that point.
"Right after the news broke, my sister told my mom (Maria) she wasn't feeling well and the next day my niece was born. It was bittersweet obviously but it helped me understand the circle of life. You lose someone you love and you gain someone you love."
McNeil and bandmates Ardy Sarraf (who plays Paul McCartney), Gavin Pring (George Harrison) and Erik Fidel (Ringo Starr) are part of that circle when they perform as The Fab Four. The quartet, which will perform 8 p.m. March 8 at the Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts in New Albany, helps older fans remember the Beatles and younger fans appreciate the group.
The group was recently featured on a PBS special and has toured around the United States as well as Japan, Australia, France, Hong Kong, The United Kingdom, Germany, Mexico and Brazil as the Beatles.
"It's great to see the people's reaction to the music of that era," McNeil says. "The girls still scream. They're just a little bit older now. People are appreciative of the attention to detail that our group takes to recreate their own memories. That's really what we do. We mirror their personal connection to the Beatles."
None of the band was old enough to remember the Beatles when Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr were at their zenith. The closest McNeil came to seeing the Beatles was when his father Frank took him to see BEATLEMANIA in Los Angeles.
"(Growing up) I borrowed my sister's (Beatles) records and never gave them back," McNeil says. "When I started to learn music, I wanted to know how they did it. What chords they were playing? Who was singing what? Why did that bass line work with this chord? I never thought I would've a job (playing Beatles music)."
McNeil had a gift for mimicry when he was growing up. He'd often do imitations of cartoon characters to entertain friends. However, taking on Lennon as part of the Fab Four was a completely different undertaking.
"There are so many different things when you're asked to become one of the most famous people that ever walked the earth," McNeil says. "The Beatles were such great vocalists. I'm a decent vocalist but you won't find me on American Idol or anything like that. There are certain notes that John hit, like the way that he sings on 'Twist And Shout' where he was losing his voice to 'A Day In The Life' where he's just whispering."
But there's more to becoming Lennon than just singing. McNeil has to talk, look and play instruments like a Beatle as well as be somewhat of a comedian. McNeil has mastering Lennon's thick Liverpool accent was one of the hardest things to master. Pring, a native of Liverpool, serves as the band's unofficial dialogue coach.
One of the things that helped McNeil make the transition was picking up Lennon's "chip on the shoulder" attitude.
"The hardest thing was getting (dropping into Lennon's trademark Liverpool accent) getting the accent down and trying to find my Yoko somewhere to help you out," McNeil says. "Getting John's attitude helped. Losing his parents so early in his life gave (Lennon) sort of an attitude of 'I don't care if I'm on the Ed Sullivan Show. I'm on stage and having a good time. Forget you. I'm doing my thing.'"
The Fab Four divide their show into the Beatles' Ed Sullivan Era, the Sgt. Pepper Era and the Abbey Road/Let It Be Era version.
Each epoch has its own distinct sound and look, requiring the four members to change costumes as well as instruments. None of the Fab Four's performances are prerecorded so the quartet often uses synthesizers to pull off some of the sounds the Beatles could never duplicate on stage.
"We make things difficult for ourselves by doing that," McNeil says. "The Beatles stopped touring in 1966 so they didn't have to perform 'Eleanor Rigby,' 'Strawberry Fields Forever' or 'A Day In The Life' on stage. We had to figure out how to reproduce that sound."
McNeil has his personal favorite tunes of each era, picking 'Twist And Shout,' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' and 'Imagine' as some of his favorite moments from the show.
"Not many Beatles (tribute) groups do 'Imagine' because it's not a Beatles song. I felt it meant so much to John," he says. "That's how he felt about peace and love in the world. It's important to his legacy to have that song in there."
What makes the Beatles' music special is the way it speaks to different people. McNeil says the band has played in places like Japan where they may not understand what all the words mean but it still is moving to them.
"I think the Beatles' music touches so many people because it's good music," McNeil says. "There are fans who don't understand what the songs are about but once they find out what the song is about it means that much more. They have that universal message of love and peace. It translates to all generations and bridges all gaps."
The Fab Four will perform 8 p.m. March 8 at the Jeanne B. McCoy Center, located at 100 W. Dublin-Granville Road in New Albany. For tickets to the show, please visit www.mccoycenter.org for box office and online ticket purchase information.