The matchless catalog of The Beatles is perhaps the most covered in music history. From major artists such as Neil Young and David Bowie to quirky celebrity interpretations by William Shatner and Eddie Izzard, it seems as if anybody who has ever been anybody has tried their hand at a Beatles remake.
But for all-out originality and unabashed reverence, guitar master Al Di Meola's recent all-acoustic re-imaginings of 14 Lennon-McCartney classics on the album All Your Life stands as one of the most beautifully realized and brilliantly sustained tributes ever.
And make no mistake about it: The jazz fusion legend is no Johnny-come-lately when it comes to the Fab Four. "I've always loved The Beatles," Di Meola says. “As a kid, I saw them live on Ed Sullivan, which was just extraordinary. They changed everything in one night. My sister is seven years older than I am, and she and her girlfriends were totally into The Beatles. I had the pleasure of playing some of her friends’ guitars, and that really helped bring me into the whole idea of wanting to take lessons. But The Beatles kicked the whole thing off; it was a captivating new sound.”
"It's the same floor, same walls, same everything," Di Meola says of Abbey Road Studios. “We used a lot of the equipment that The Beatles used."
From The Beatles, Di Meola was introduced to unique chord changes, which he says, "are things that every jazz artist has utilized over the years. The Beatles employed such beautiful harmonic elements into their songs that are just unbelievable. And every single song is so wonderfully melodic without sounding goofy or kitschy – there's a brilliance to that." But Di Meola also stresses that it was the power of The Beatles as singers that put their songs over the top: "To this day, I’m amazed at what a brilliant vocal team John and Paul formed – and George, too, was right in there. They sounded so much better than all the other groups at the time – and they still do."
In recording All Your Life, Di Meola's intention was simple: to keep things simple. Each song was performed in a stripped-down acoustic manner, and any percussion was achieved by the guitarist either slapping the wood body of his instruments (his signature Al Di Meola Conde Hermanos nylon-string model, a Gibson steel string and a 1948 Martin acoustic) or by muting the strings to provide the rhythms.
"It's an approach that really worked," he says "Let’s face it: The Beatles already did huge productions of their music, and a lot of artists who have done these songs tried to follow suit. I didn’t want to go there. I mean, you can't top those productions, so why even try? So I came up with a way to play the music with syncopation that has an originality to it.”
To record All Your Life, Di Meola made the pilgrimage to the place where it all began: London's Abbey Road Studios, which he describes as "a magical place, with the best-sounding rooms I've ever been in." To his amazement, he found that very little has been changed in the studios since the days when The Beatles were fixtures behind its hallowed environs. "It's the same floor, same walls, same everything," he enthuses. “We used a lot of the equipment that The Beatles used – the same microphones. It was an incredible experience, and I think being there really helped to create the right mood that I was trying to capture on this record."
And that extends to the intangibles, as well. "The Beatles' presence is still in that place no matter where you go," Di Meola observes. "In every room, you just feel them. Even the smell was distinctive. If you asked Paul McCartney about the smell in Studios 1 and 2, I think he’d know what I’m talking about. There's no place on this planet quite like Abbey Road. I'm so glad that I got the chance to make this record there. It was the single most rewarding experience I've ever had."
You can purchase Al Di Meola's All Your Life at iTunes. On the following pages, the guitar virtuoso runs down his top 10 favorite Beatles songs.