Many Beatles fans will be eager to point out that 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' actually celebrated its 50th-anniversary last year, rather than its 40th this year. They are of course correct with regard to the Beatles' original album, but this is the similarly titled original soundtrack album of the ill-fated 1978 Beatles Jukebox musical. A popular culture oddity starring an eclectic mix of the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Earth Wind and Fire, Billy Preston, Steve Martin, George Burns and – Frankie Howerd. This is the one Beatles record you almost certainly don't have in your collection.
In the summer of 1978, the Bee Gees had already conquered the soundtrack and disco markets with their contributions to Saturday Night Fever. Like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Saturday Night Fever was produced by the Bee Gees' manager Robert Stigwood. On paper, the ambitious decision to increase the Gibb brothers' number to a fab four with the addition of album chart-topper Peter Frampton must have seemed like a good idea commercially, even if not entirely pleasing to The Beatles' late seventies fanbase. Released at the same time that the film hit cinemas, the soundtrack did well initially, tapping into the artists' high profiles and Beatles material, and, all given the blessing of the legendary George Martin, who arranged, conducted and produced.
Alas, the film was less forgivingly received than the LP, and the concept behind the project fell flat. The sales of the record evaporated, and it became the first record to achieve the status of return platinum, i.e., four million copies were removed from the shelves and returned to the label to be disposed of accordingly, but the resulting cover versions of Beatles songs remain intriguing curiosities.
The film's storyline needed to string together some of The Beatles' more psychedelic material into a narrative that allowed the diverse parties listed in the cast to each play their part. As you might expect this requires some suspension of belief, but the same could be said of any musical. We won't go into it in depth, not least as to not give away any spoilers, but suffice to say, characters range from the hero and heroine named Billy Shears and Strawberry Fields respectively to the villainous Mean Mr. Mustard. The latter was portrayed by British comic Frankie Howerd who had already worked with the Bee Gees on another oddity, the 1968 BBC film 'Frankie Howerd Meets The Bee Gees'. Reportedly Howerd later stated: "It was like Saturday Night Fever, but without the fever".
Peter Frampton's Humble Pie days were long behind him in '78 but as he came alive on screen as Billy Shears that soon changed. Joined by the Bee Gees (as the Henderson brothers) the character is conveniently introduced to the audience by the rendition of 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', taking place against the magical landscape of Heartland.
In hindsight, there are certainly worse cover versions of songs. Before their disco period, the Bee Gees' musical history stretching back to the 1960s had seen them cover The Beatles many times – they were reasonably deemed the most capable and popular band to do the job, and there are accounts of the Beatles approval at the time. There was some pleasing intertwining of the bands' stories too. The Gibb's big break came as a result of a demo that impressed Brian Epstein consequently finding its way to music entrepreneur and film producer Robert Stigwood, who eventually signed them on the advice of Paul McCartney. Never the less, many still regarded the Bee Gees as an imitation of The Beatles, and there was no escaping the cringe factor that musicals often prompt in viewers who are used to consuming songs in a more conventional manner.
If the Bee Gees' sincere intentions missed the spot, then the introduction of the film's more malevolent characters was guaranteed to go even further astray. Frankie Howerd's unpleasantly creepy songs as Mean Mr. Mustard have dated beyond reprieve, but Steve Martin's version of 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' as Dr. Maxwell Eddison hints at his future film successes - there's even an advert on his office wall for Brain Transplants. The scene's choreography also illustrates what Robert Stigwood was trying to do - in essence an updated version of the blockbusting MGM musicals of old, indeed, there are some very Wizard of Oz-like qualities to the film and its performances.
Outdoing Steve Martin's character for weirdness, Alice Cooper is the first of the cast's hard rockers to be presented as corruptive opposites to the wholesomeness of the Lonely Hearts Club Band. Playing the character Father Sun, an extra element of Pepper reference is added by the character's likeness to Frank Zappa. Zappa's 1968 album 'We're Only In It For The Money', which took a satirical counterculture swipe at hippies and flower power, had parodied the cover of Sgt. Peppers closely enough to result in legal dispute between the artists' management.
The final youth corrupting element of the film is the sordid and sleazy F.V.B. or Future Villain Band, played by none other than Aerosmith. Their version of 'Come Together' would be one of the singles to be released from the soundtrack and gave them a US chart position that they wouldn't supersede until the next decade's 'Walk This Way' with Run DMC. The bluesy later period Beatles song was a natural fit for Aerosmith, and the recording was considered by critics of the time as one of the project's successful elements.
Earth, Wind and Fire also scored a hit single from the soundtrack with their version of 'Got To Get You Into My Life' though that success probably owed as much to its inclusion on 'The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1', released later the same year. Another notable single release from the OST is Billy Preston's version of 'Get Back', Preston having been credited on the original as a result of his contributions to the 'Let It Be' recording sessions - the only artist to be co-credited on a Beatles record.
The film's finale is a reprise of 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' with the camera craning away to allow for a kind of motion picture update of the original Peter Blake album cover. The key cast members are joined by a strange list of musicians and celebrities, largely chosen it seems on the basis of their contractual availability to MGM. Robert Palmer, Barbara Dixon and Dame Edna Everage join a mixed line up that also featured Tina Turner and Etta James.
Robert Stigwood quickly recovered his commercial reputation with 'Grease' later the same year, which luckily helped absorb some of the financial fallout of the Sgt. Pepper movie. The Bee Gees and Frampton, however, experienced considerable backlash for their involvement.
In a 1979 Rolling Stone interview, George Harrison went on record saying “I think it's damaged their images, their careers, and they didn't need to do that. It's just like the Beatles trying to do the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones can do it better". The critics were less kind than George, and the Bee Gees' musical credibility suffered for years after, adding to the band's troubles as the Disco craze died down taking their Saturday Night Fever fans with it.
40 years on, there's no denying that the film and its soundtrack's faults outway its qualities, but it has attracted a cult following, with listeners and collectors drawn in out of completist compulsion or curiosity, and the film certainly acts as a cautionary tale for those thinking about reworking or updating an icon.