In 1966, John Lennon made an infamous — and, by his reckoning, misunderstood — comment that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus now."
Thursday night in Huntington Beach, the Fab Four met religion again, and it was evident which side won.
At the opening of a two-day engagement at First Christian Church, the Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts performed the group's self-titled 1968 double album, better known as the White Album, from top to bottom. On 29 of the 30 songs, the students stuck with the original lyrics and arrangements, or at least as much as possible (sadly, there was no animal on hand to oink at the end of "Piggies").
When the ensemble got to Paul McCartney's rocker "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?", though, the lyrics mysteriously morphed to "Why Don't We Go Out in the Road?" On the screen above, a photo montage showed students goofing around in the middle of the street — vacuuming, eating, sleeping, clutching a stuffed animal and more.
I wondered if the theological setting had anything to do with that change. After the last song, I flagged down teacher Jamie Knight, the show's co-director, and my hunch turned out to be correct.
"We felt that on 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road?' it just didn't feel appropriate in the church, and that was all," he said, adding that the presence of the church's congregation members in the audience played a part in the decision.
That minor edit proved to be the only conservative move of the evening, meaning that lyrics from "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" ("Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face / and in the evening, she's a singer with the band") and "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" ("When I hold you in my arms and I feel my finger on your trigger / I know nobody can do me no harm") stayed in the set. And I'm old enough to remember when administrators considered Bart Simpson T-shirts too edgy for school.
What Thursday's show proved, more than anything, was what an out-there creation the Beatles' double disc really is. Compared to an effort like "Rubber Soul," which shows the band soberly crafting a masterpiece, the White Album sounds like the work of four rambunctious kids trapped in a musical arcade all night.
Tape loops, barnyard noises, every imaginable genre from vaudeville to country to heavy metal — it's a work of delirious fun, however much the band may have bickered between takes.
In that spirit, the APA band favored sonic muscle over subtlety Thursday. With 120 students taking turns on vocals and instruments, delicate numbers like "Dear Prudence" and "Martha My Dear" sounded tougher and more percussion-heavy, and watching Ryan McNamara belt out "Helter Skelter" in a leather jacket evoked images of the Beatles' Cavern Club days as much as their reclusive later years in the studio.
Considering how many tracks on the White Album are essentially solo performances, it's inevitable that a massive group show would put a new twist on some of them.
On the record, George Harrison's ballad "Long, Long, Long" comes off as an ethereal ode to God; in APA's arrangement, a duet between Molly Bruland and Addison Love made it seem like a joyous reunion song between lovers. Meanwhile, the closing "Good Night" replaced the original orchestra with warm choral vocals — giving it a sound of camaraderie missing on the studio version, which Ringo Starr croons alone.
Before the White Album, the show opened with a tribute to Linda Ronstadt, who recently announced that she has lost the ability to sing because of Parkinson's disease. With the artist's discography heavy on covers, the set amounted to a jaunt through early rock history, with tunes by the Eagles ("Desperado"), the Everly Brothers ("When Will I Be Loved") and Chuck Berry ("Back in the U.S.A.") included.
The program noted that Ronstadt made the set because "so many young ladies" need songs to sing, so "it made sense that we focus on a female artist." That might indicate that the Beatles portion of the show left girls on the sidelines, but in reality, only 10 of the 30 White Album selections featured male lead vocals.
So why the discrepancy? I asked Knight about that as well.
"In high school, a lot of boys are still insecure about singing," he told me. "The male vocalists that we have, we use all the time, but we have a tremendous amount of female vocalists."
Ah, yes, I remember those days vividly. I was once a gawky teenager myself. But now that girls have pulled the vocal weight on most of the White Album, I propose that APA's boys repay them with the sincerest tribute of all: a salute to Lilith Fair.