A (Really) Hard Day's Night
Joe Peppercorn pulls off the ultimate Beatles show – and lives to do it again
By Travis HoewischerPublished December 1, 2011
Santa Claus. Scrooge. Rudolph. The traditional Christmas characters still hold their place in the Peppercorn family.
But, for the second year in a row, local musician Joe Peppercorn will also spend a great deal of his holiday season with Jude, Rocky, Polythene Pam, Michelle, Eleanor Rigby, Mean Mr. Mustard, Vera, Chuck and Dave.
While everyone else is cleaning up wrapping paper and stowing away leftovers, Peppercorn will be putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece, his Handel’s Messiah – a complete chronological performance of every Beatles song ever recorded.
If you think it’s crazy to put on a 13-album, 213-song show without interruption ... that’s because it absolutely is. Two weeks from Christmas last year, Peppercorn calmly informed his wife, Juliette, that he had lost his mind.
“I said to my wife, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea, and it’s going to mean you being a single parent a lot for the next two weeks,” he laughed. “‘But if it works, I think it’s going to be totally worth it; no one else is doing anything like this.’”
And it nearly came to be that no one ever would. A classically trained pianist, Peppercorn estimated he came into the hastily-planned opus with about 50 tunes already in his arsenal; the resulting dash to learn the other 75 percent of the Beatles’ catalog left him without a voice days before the show. Rehearsing roughly 100 hours in two weeks will do that to you. Plus, Peppercorn is quick to point out, as great as the Beatles were, not all of their songs are winners.
“I mean, there are some bad songs,” he laughed. “Just bad. And then you have to sit there and rehearse them … I had to listen to “Hold Me Tight” like 20 times, and that song is soooo horrible.”
When the show finally did arrive, it survived an auspicious start – not unlike the early days for the Fab Four themselves. Armed only with a wavering voice, a guitar, a piano and a Rock Band guitar he programmed through his laptop to act as a key-tar, Peppercorn limped through the first few hours.
“The beginning was rough, because my guitar kept going out of tune and people kept coming in and out … “Taxman” was just brutal,” he said. “There were some older dudes that must have read about it in the Dispatch and you could tell were just like, ‘What the hell is this guy doing?’ and they walked out, so that was discouraging.”
Ironically, Peppercorn’s Temporary Hearts Club Band, a collection of friends and onlookers, he invited to join him on drums or bass, really started to hit their stride during some of the Beatles’ early complex pieces, like Revolver’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
“Whoever was playing drums didn’t know it, but I just started singing the beat and they started playing it perfectly,” he said. “I got these loops going that were perfect and it just clicked from there; it really worked. I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m so glad I did this.’”
When Peppercorn held out the last note of Abbey Road’s fitting “The End,” an intimate crowd swooned and sang, both immersed in a musical moment and witness to a pretty damn impressive feat. A sweat-and whiskey-soaked Peppercorn knew almost immediately he had to do it again.
“Even though I’ve only done it once, I consider it to be one of the more important things I do. Especially as a musician, but also as a dad. I get to listen to the songs a whole lot with my son, and you know, last year a big part of it was just driving around with him listening to those early songs I didn’t know too well,” he said.
He insists that this isn’t a sanctimonious Beatle tribute per se, but more an homage to the individual meaning attributed to history’s most enduring pop songs.
“I think that’s why I’m a candidate to do this, too, because you don’t want a Beatle maniac doing this stuff, you don’t want it too reverential,” he said. “It is not perfect music. It’s fun, it’s in everyone’s vocabulary and it is some of the best pop music ever made.”
The Beatles are more like family, according to Peppercorn, which provides a fitting backdrop for the December 29th show.
“You know, it’s something that’s so deeply engrained in you; you don’t remember when you met your family, just like you don’t remember when you heard the Beatles for the first time,” he said. “You know it, you love it, kind of unconditionally – even though it sometimes annoys you, even though you sometimes spend years apart from it.”
Which is part of why Peppercorn holds so closely to the attitude that the Beatles Marathon is not just a virtuoso performance meant to show his musical stamina, although that’s part of the hook.
“You can find 100,000 people just in Columbus who can sing the Beatles better than me,” he said. “But the whole point is, it’s not supposed to be just a Beatles cover band; this is supposed to be something different. The thing I’m trying to do is inject some of that energy and spirit they had into their music and just make it this thing where people are enjoying the spirit and the energy, not necessarily sitting back and being like, ‘Oh, that’s out of tune.’ That being said, I do take this seriously and I do want it to be as quality as possible.”
In other words, it’s meant to fun and a little rough around the edges at the same time, said Peppercorn.
“I’m on stage, and it’s a performance in a bar, but if it’s done right, it should feel like the greatest house party you’ve ever been to; this crazy house party where the guy happens to know every Beatles song.”
Joe Peppercorn’s Second Annual Beatles Marathon will be presented by KOBO on December 29th, beginning at 4:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.kobolive.com.