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Beatles' extravaganza is a magical mystery tour....
on December 10, 2006
Of all the possible posthumous incarnations for the Beatles, here's one of the most unlikely - as soundtrack to a Las Vegas circus.
It isn't any old circus, admittedly, but Canada's arty, super-acrobatic Cirque du Soleil, whose current Las Vegas show, "Love", is modelled on the story of the Beatles and characters from their songs: "Eleanor Rigby", "Sergeant Pepper" et al.
More importantly, "Love-the-show" - the result of George Harrison's friendship with Cirque founder Guy Laliberte - involved producer George Martin disinterring the group's master tapes from the Abbey Road vault for he and his son Giles to remix and remodel.
The results blast "Love" audiences from a state-of-the-art surround-sound system that includes speakers in individuual seats.
And the first thing "Love-the-album" does, at least in its DVD surround-sound format, is to blow you away with sheer sonic wizardry. Set to a noisy dawn chorus, complete with fluttering wings, the three-part vocal harmonies of 'Because' arrive with the clarity of an ice blue sky. The chugging introduction to 'Get Back' hurtles out of the mix like a train. The pumping fairground organs of 'Mr Kite' reek of steam and sawdust. Hearing many of the familiar tracks is like viewing an old masterpiece after cleaning: the light is brighter, the shadows deeper. Here, the trebles tingle while the bass end booms.
Some of this is painstaking technical restoration. After the Beatles swapped touring for the studio, they and Martin became experts at squeezing a quart of sound into a pint pot, extending the limits of four- and eight-track recordings by 'bouncing down' tracks.
Today's technology has let the Martins reverse the process, giving instruments and voices more autonomy. Ever notice the pizzicato violins on the middle 8 of 'Something'? You will now.
The ambitions of "Love" go beyond renovation, however. Its 26 tracks are set in an ambient flow of sound collages distilled from hours of Beatles tapes and containing fragments and echoes of 130 songs in all. Frequently the effect is ghostly, as the stalking strings of 'Glass Onion' and a snatch of 'Nowhere Man' drift like ectoplasm down a corridor. 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' - one of the few numbers from the moptop days - surfaces from a scratchy haze of screaming.
The most ambitious songs emerge most improved. There is not, after all, much to be done with the rock'n'roll retro of 'Lady Madonna', whereas 'Strawberry Fields' and 'I am the Walrus' sound more than ever like avant-garde masterpieces. Harrison's 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (the slower version from Anthology 3) is given a sumptuous string setting by Sir George.
Throughout, the McCartney/Starr rhythm section has never sounded so heavy, or the group's vocal harmonies so sharp and affecting.
"Love" vindicates the Beatles' status as master musicians and conceptualists. Not only for the spirit of optimism they embodied but artistically, they remain the act to beat. On this evidence, no one else comes close.
My favourite track is 'Here Comes the Sun/The Inner Light'.