Jim Owens of Classical Mystery Tour
By Ronnie

After seeing the Atlanta performance of Classical Mystery Tour, I talked to leader Jim Owens ("John Lennon") about what goes into making a Beatles tribute band that incorporates a full symphony orchestra in each performance! Classical Mystery Tour even features guitarist Tom Teeley, who used to play in the metal band Quiet Riot (replacing the legendary guitarist Randy Rhodes)! Jim explained some of the workings of his band and answered a nagging question that I had after seeing them in Atlanta - why doesn't the orchestra play some of George Martin's Beatle film music?!

E.C.: You've been a member of "BEATLEMANIA", so were well accustomed to being in a Beatles tribute band. Classical Mystery Tour was basically your brainchild, how exactly did it come about?

Jim: For all the years that we’ve been playing Beatles songs, we’d always tried to cover all the orchestra parts on keyboards or by hiring a 5th guy to play keyboard parts or guys in the band would try and sequence stuff or whatever – and it was never fully satisfactory. Sort of a thing that came to mind was ‘wouldn’t it be great to play this with a full orchestra and they can play the parts that we need.’ Finally I got serious enough about it onetime, where one of the agents said, ‘if you can get this thing off the ground, we can book it.’ So, I found a guy here in California to help me write out all the charts, scores and parts for the orchestra…that was in 1996.

E.C.: Did you go with the orchestra idea mainly to differentiate your group from the many Beatles tribute bands around?

Jim: Not really, I mean that wasn’t really the thought. The thought was just to do it for the music. Subsequently that’s true…its not every other Beatles band that does this.

E.C.: Does playing with the orchestra pose any special problems? I'm guessing that scheduling would be the hardest. Does your group ever perform WITHOUT an orchestra?

Jim: Scheduling is not too difficult, honestly. Basically when you play with the orchestra, if you have an evening show, you rehearse with the orchestra earlier that day or afternoon – once, and then you’re ready to go. The most difficult part about it has always been the sound – getting the sound reinforcement to make sure that everything is heard in the audience.

E.C.: I was kind of surprised when the orchestra didn't deviate from the recorded orchestra parts on the Beatles songs. Sure, its great to hear a faithful representation, but I was kind of hoping that they would "embellish" some of the recordings. I know that might be sacrilege to some...

Jim: Exactly, that was the whole point of the idea. It’s always been for us playing Beatles music to play it as closely as to the way they’ve done it, because really, they’ve done it the best. That’s what makes it fun when you can sound like they do. There was really no point in writing your own arrangement or making an arrangement of a song that doesn’t even have orchestra in it. So the fun was to take the songs like “I Am the Walrus” piece by piece and make it sound like they did it.

E.C.: I also like the fact that you performed some Beatles solo songs in the context of having the Beatles being "backup" band!

Jim: I guess it really was one of those things that there were a couple of pieces that you couldn’t leave out, when you’ve got an orchestra onstage. And “Live and Let Die” is definitely one, “Imagine” is another one, and I think we did a couple of others.

E.C.: How did you recruit the other members of the band?

Jim: In 1996 when I was putting together the show, I really wanted to call the best guys I knew. The best guys there were because it was so important to have this musically correct and the best you could make it. And having been in the Beatles band world for so many years, I just called my friends who I may have been working with at the time or not. I just called them and luckily pretty much the ones who I wanted to do it were available.

Since the early ‘80s I’ve been playing this. It’s like a lot of the Beatles bands, they have members that rotate in or out, or whatever on a more professional level. Through the years I’ve gotten to know how many different Beatle bands and people would fill in for one another when they needed a guy. We’ve all known each other for all these years.

E.C.: I noticed that there were some songs listed on the website "set list" that you didn't play in Atlanta. How did you come up with a set list and does it change often?

Jim: Yeah, it does and we do have a few songs that we don’t get to play every time. We have more songs than we can play actually, so that means we could play some different songs.

E.C.: Have you ever thought of having the orchestra play any of George Martin's instrumental Beatles film music? That just came to mind when I saw your Atlanta performance-the first half of the show was various '60s theme music, such as HAIR, CAMELOT, etc. I just thought that would be a cool addition.

Jim: I had that idea as well. I mean he had some really incredible orchestrations from A HARD DAYS NIGHT, HELP, YELLOW SUBMARINE…so, that’s what I wanted to do as well, to at least do a few of his pieces in the first half. And I had actually written and requested permission to do that. His assistant wrote back saying that he doesn’t allow for that, that he preserves that for his own conducting appearances. So, we decided not to do that unfortunately.

Click here to read our live review of Classical Mystery Tour