The Beatles had been broken up for almost six years by the time I was born, but their music still left an indelible mark on my childhood, albeit in a strange form; an 8-track copy of the soundtrack to the absolutely ridiculous 1978 musical movie, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For those of who don’t know of it, this farce, perpetrated by Robert Stigwood (the record empresario who produced the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever a year before) attempted to tell a rather loose fantasy story using songs primarily from the titular album as well as Abbey Road and Let It Be. It starred Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees and was honestly every bit as bizarre and awful as you might think. The soundtrack, however, also featured covers by artists like Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and even comedian Steve Martin doing a maniacal turn on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”.
We played that tape over and over again until it finally wore out somewhere down the line. At the time, I was too young to really know that this had anything at all to do with The Beatles, which my young mind probably only connected to black and white images of screaming girls and songs like “Love Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. It wasn’t until several years later that I realized that they were the same band that had originally written these songs that I loved. And in the end, that’s the true magic of The Beatles – no matter who is performing them or how many years later, the songs are still amazingly good. Does The Beatles: Rock Band manage to keep that magic intact? Read on to find out.
Approaching a game like The Beatles: Rock Band is a delicate subject. Since the first plastic guitars began infiltrating homes around the world, fans have wished to see these classic songs made playable. Meanwhile, the most reverent of Beatlemaniacs have also worried that simply shoehorning them into DLC packs would feel somehow cheap and disrespectful. When the game was announced as a stand-alone product (a first for the Rock Band series), touted as something of an ‘ultimate Beatles experience’, fans were by turns skeptical and hopeful. Could Harmonix really pull off such an ambitious project, maintaining a level of quality and respect that the fans wanted while still making the game fun? The answer is yes, they did; masterfully so, I might add.
Eschewing the typical “band on the road” format of previous games, Story Mode in The Beatles: Rock Band takes you on a whirlwind tour through the Fab Four’s all-too-short ten year career; from their humble beginnings at the Cavern Club in Liverpool to their final live performance on the rooftop of the Apple Records building. The appearance of the band members are appropriate for each of the milestone periods you’ll visit, which means suits and “mop tops” in the early days all the way down to the abundant facial hair of their later years. The models, while obviously stylized and somewhat cartoonish, never veer into creepy territory at all. In fact, nothing about this product feels in any way ghoulish, gratuitous or cheap. Quite the opposite, honestly; obvious love and care are pretty much gushing out of the package.
From in-studio/on-stage chatter and outtakes bookending each song’s performance to the montage of artwork and photographs you’ll experience when transitioning from period to period, there is plenty for aficionados to love. In addition, every song unlocks a collection of factoid-accompanied classic and rare photos from the band’s history, depending on how well you performed. Collect enough photographs and you unlock neat Beatles rarities like the full-length 1963 fan club exclusive Christmas single, complete with scans of the sleeve, as well as various candid video clips.
The rest of the audiovisual package is rock solid. Giles Martin, son of longtime Beatles producer George Martin, reworked the original audio masters so that individual instruments could be isolated, better facilitating the silencing of a track when a player fails to hit notes and the recordings themselves sound amazing. Also, we would be remiss if we didn’t touch on the subject of the Dreamscapes. While the other five venues in game recreate historic live Beatles performances, from late 1966 onward the band existed as a strictly studio outfit. In this section of the game, each song starts off with the band recording in Abbey Road’s famous Studio 2 before dissolving into a psychedelic landscape. Some draw on existing imagery, such as Magical Mystery Tour‘s “I Am The Walrus” while others pull inspiration from the song’s vibe or lyrics. It’s a elegant design choice that lets you experience one of the band’s most fertile creative periods in a unique, fun way; 20 songs of the band sitting around the studio would only appeal to the most rabid of Beatles fans, after all.
The actual mechanics of the game don’t stray from the Rock Band formula, save for a couple of exceptions. While the whammy bar can be used to extract more power from marked long notes to fill the Beatlemania meter (as Overdrive is referred to here), it doesn’t actually apply any vibrato or pitch bending to the music track. Similarly, drum fills have been eliminated, though you can still trigger Beatlemania by hitting the green pad at the end of appropriate sections. However, their omission wasn’t in any way troubling to me. In fact, not giving people the option to drop blast-beat fills or wah-wah every long note to death is just another one of those decisions that show how much respect for the music Harmonix has.
The standard Quickplay, Score Duel and Tug of War modes are all present, as well as online multiplayer and unlockable Chapter Challenges, which require playing through each of the game’s chapters in a single sitting. Drum training is back, along with a “Beatle Beats” trainer, which gives you to chance to practice up on some of Ringo’s famous quirky drum riffs. The biggest new addition, however, is the multi-part vocals. The Beatles were famous for their lush vocal harmonies and it would seriously shortchange their legacy if the game only offered a single vocal line. Thankfully, this isn’t the case; The Beatles: Rock Band can support up to three mics, allowing even more people to get in on the action. Mind you, singing harmonies isn’t a simple prospect for those who haven’t had vocal training, since most people follow the melody line by default when singing. This is where the vocal trainer practice mode comes in. Using a guide tone, you can isolate which of the harmony parts you wish to sing and get in all the practice you need. It’s hard work, but when it pays off, the reward is sublime.
The only honest criticism that I can level at the game is that it feels a bit too short at only 45 songs. However, with entire albums of DLC inbound (Abbey Road due in October, Sgt. Pepper’s in November and Rubber Soul in December) this will be swiftly rectified, albeit for those willing to spend the money. For me, the opportunity to do the entire 16 minute Abbey Road Medley is more than worth it.
Also, some so-called “hardcore” Rock Band or Guitar Hero players may complain about the songs being too easy, but these people would be missing the point. The Beatles’ music was never about being technically complicated or difficult to play – it was about creating something rich, multi-layered, and uplifting. When internal strife was tearing the band apart (an aspect of their history that the game glosses over in favor of the positive elements), they never stopped making beautiful, inspiring music. Even the most melancholy of their tracks can bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your face at the same time; I freely admit to choking up a little bit every time I play “Here Comes the Sun” because of the feeling of hope it puts in me.
It’s been almost 40 years since the dissolution of the band and two of the Fab Four are no longer with us, but the music remains as vital, powerful and timeless as it ever was. Music games have always done an amazing job at exposing younger generations to bands and songs they never would have paid notice to otherwise by making music an interactive, social experience. One hopes that The Beatles: Rock Band will continue this trend, bringing a new generation of Beatlemaniacs into the fold while reinvigorating the old guard. Now, in the comfort of your own living room, you and your friends can be fab too, even if only for a little while.
Things We Liked: The music (obviously). Trippy Dreamscapes in the Abbey Road years. The obvious love and care that went into the project. Sympathizing with Ringo shouting “I’VE GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!” at the end of playing the drums for “Helter Skelter”.
Things We Disliked: The length was a bit too short. Seriously – that’s the only thing we didn’t like about this.
Target Audience: Longtime Beatlemaniacs. Recent Beatlemaniacs. People who wonder what the whole “Beatlemania” thing was about and want to experience the band for the first time in an interactive way. Fans of excellent music.