- School of rock: Beatallica singer-lyricist Jaymz Lennfield (right) sees the band as "a kind of educational tool."
Unlikely but true: The Beatles and Metallica have plenty in common. Both had remarkably long hair for their time. Both quickly grew from nightclub cover bands to stadium-sized sensations, bringing their style of music to unprecedented numbers of fans. Both had infamous tastes for intoxicants. And both suffer from a weakness that's beyond their control: After 20 years or so, even your favorite songs from both bands get a little, well, old. Playing on these obscure connections, the Milwaukee band Beatallica simultaneously pays tribute to both groups, mashing up the Fab Four's cerebral melodies and Metallica's monstrous thrash riffs to create a fresh take on both. And -- assuming you can appreciate the well-conceived placement of the phrase "trapped under ice" -- it's funnier than hell.
Beatallica singer-lyricist Jaymz Lennfield sees the band as "a kind of educational tool." He intertwines his own lyrics with the works of Lennon, McCartney, and Metallica's James Hetfield, delivering them as they might have sounded if they'd been written by a hoarse young headbanger with a gut full of bile and Jägermeister.
"We try to bridge the gap between these two great bands," Lennfield says. "We say, 'Do yourselves a favor: Listen to how the Beatles' songwriting progressed and how Metallica's songwriting progressed. They actually became not just punks or pop stars, but songwriters.' It's somewhat of an outreach program: There's more to music than being stuck in one genre."
In Beatallica's capable hands, "Got to Get You Into My Life" becomes "Got to Get You Trapped Under Ice." Shoehorned into the melody of the Beatles' love song, Metallica's breakneck-speed story of slow death not only slows down, but becomes downright perky. And after a few listens of "The Thing That Should Not Let It Be," it's hard to remember where the lyrics to "Hey Jude" stop and "The Thing That Should Not Be" begin, despite the fact that one evokes Christian imagery and the other warns of aeons-old evil.
Beatallica launched at the 2001 gathering of Milwaukee's Spoof Fest, an annual charity event that Lennfield organizes, during which local groups "emulate and desecrate famous bands." Lennfield's partner in his presentation was longtime running buddy Krk Hammettson (the guitarist's nom de rock). Driving to rehearsal, Hammettson heard the Beatles' "For No One," and its chromatic guitar runs reminded him of a Metallica riff. He suggested to Lennfield that they metalize the song. It worked, and they quickly wrote much of their debut EP, A Garage Dayz Night, over a 12-pack, conceiving the group as "us trying to be Metallica trying to be the Beatles." They burned 50 copies, handed them out for free at the festival, and put it behind them. Lennfield and Hammettson returned to their day jobs (as an occupational therapist and a high-end lighting-fixtures salesman, respectively), playing rock in assorted projects, unaware that they had created some kind of monster.
Internet radio host Dave Dixon was in the Spoof Fest audience, and he immediately began playing their songs on his show, Radio Freedom. Six months later, Dixon contacted Lennfield through a mutual friend and presented the singer with a stack of e-mail from all seven continents. Realizing that they were on to something, Beatallica spent a year recording Beatallica (also known as the Gray Album, for its simple cover), released this April. A dramatic improvement from their hastily assembled debut, the album joined the Rutles and the Danger Mouse/Jay-Z Grey Album at the top of a long list of Beatles reimaginings.
Fearing the potential wrath of two of music's best-bankrolled legal teams, Beatallica has attempted to limit its financial liability, should the notoriously touchy groups become litigious. Beatallica distributes its music exclusively as free mp3 files via www.beatallica.org, forgoing the revenue stream that would attract lawyers. And it could have turned ugly quickly. "We Can Hit the Lights," the first track available from the new album, was downloaded 10,000 times in its first five days. Beatallica.org clocked over 100,000 visits in the 30 days following the April 1 posting of the Gray Album. Fortunately for Beatallica fans, live music doesn't attract the scrutiny that recorded music does.
Beatallica recently hit the concert circuit, performing shows that are one part parody of both bands, two parts tribute to early Metallica. Based on vintage videos, the sets (like the recordings) incorporate stage banter from Metallica shows. The band combines stage presentations from both groups, wearing long wigs and playing in gray band-collar Nehru jackets. ("It gets hot, dude," says Lennfield, a longtime Browns fan who plans to take the stage in Cleveland in an Eric Metcalf jersey.) Since finishing the album, the core duo has added a rhythm section for live shows. Bassist Kliff McBurtney plays a replica of McCartney's violin-shaped bass. Drummer Ringo Larz's father-in-law works at a theater-prop company that has taken on the band's cause; Beatallica will soon add a submarine that shoots bubbles -- its lettering will be yellow, but its hull will be black.
"One of the biggest compliments we've received is people on the website saying, 'You don't realize how much homework these guys have done and how well they know the bands,'" says Lennfield. "You feel like you're not just half-assing it. It gives the project some legitimacy."
As postings on their website testify, some fans take grave offense at seeing their favorite bands become part of something less than serious. But Lennfield says that most generally get it.
"The Metallica fans after 1990 don't like it nearly as much as the early-Metallica fans," says Lennfield. "But those fans probably don't have as much Beatles in their lives. If you started getting into Metallica in 1995, you have no memory of the Bay Area thrash days."
And, yes, Beatallica has been exposed to the toughest audience possible, Metallica itself. Rock journalist James Doorne played Beatallica for Metallica during an interview. Reportedly, guitarist Kirk Hammett and drummer Lars Ulrich found Jaymz's dead-on Hetfield imitation hilarious, ribbing their bemused singer. Hammett later referred to the adaptation as "cool."
Lennfield is glad his metal heroes took the songs in the spirit they were intended.
"We're not rebels with some revolutionary cause, trying to shut down Metallica," Lennfield says. "We're just guys. We think we can be funny. But we also like to play music."