The No. 1 record in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list and one of the top selling albums ever is now half a century old. Released on May 26, 1967 in Britain, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the subject of an ambitious new two-hour documentary, It Was 50 Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond. Alan G. Parker’s nonfiction film combines what press notes calls “incredible rare archival footage unseen since the 1960s” with “rare interviews” featuring key players in and observers of Beatlemania. (Extended versions of these Q&As are included in the more than two and half hour “extras” of the two disc DVD that’s simply a “must-have” for collectors.)
50 sets the stage for the creation of Sgt. Pepper’s by closely examining the events that led up to the creation of what is considered to be rock’s first concept album. The Beatles’ grueling tours in 1966 were marred by controversy. The chickens came home to roost in America’s Bible Belt months after John Lennon commented in England that the Beatles are “more popular than Jesus.” This unleashed an outrage similar to the current brouhaha brewing over the removal of monuments to Confederate soldiers, with Beatles records bulldozed, burned and their songs banned from the airwaves during the band’s U.S. tour, especially in the South. The Englishmen found out that in America, you have freedom of speech – until you publicly exercise that right.
In a black and white interview, the Beatles also recount their harrowing mistreatment in the Philippines after the quartet was perceived to have snubbed strongman President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda.
Other aspects of their 1966 peregrinations also soured the Fab Four on touring, including the placing of crippled children in wheelchairs in the front row seats and then backstage, as if John, Paul, George and Ringo could somehow miraculously “cure” them. But the coup de grace was the foursome’s inability to hear their own selves while playing onstage at venues such as San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. In an amusing recollection, Lennon reveals that he spontaneously changed the words while playing one of the Beatles’ hits to include bawdy lyrics, but nobody complained, because no one, including the musicians themselves, could hear their singing above the screaming of the crowd.
All these factors and more put a kibosh on their touring days – but still in their twenties and at the height of their creativity, the Beatles turned to other pursuits, individually and as a group. Lennon co-starred in 1967’s How I Won the War directed by Richard Lester, who’d previously helmed A Hard Day’s Night and Help! with the Beatles playing versions of themselves. Film critic Leonard Maltin described How I Won the War as “A deliciously cynical parody of the lunacy of war.”
(Like Lennon’s Christ remarks, the movie’s message presaged John’s outspoken antiwar stance – only two years after acting in the comedy, Lennon returned his Member of the Most Honorable Order of the British Empire award to Queen Elizabeth with a cheeky note: “Your Majesty, I am returning my MBE as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts. With love. John Lennon of Bag.” Lennon also composed the antiwar movement’s anthem “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969.)
As a group, during this turning point period in 1967 and shortly after the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s, they became acolytes of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom they followed across the United Kingdom and later on to India in 1968, before becoming disenchanted with the purported Holy Man. While the Lads from Liverpool may not have found true enlightenment under the guru’s tutelage, transcendental meditation – a relaxation technique – likely helped to ease the pressure caused by living life in a fishbowl as four of the world’s most famous men beset by paparazzi, hangers on, et al.
One of the tidbits revealed by 50 is that while Lennon has often been perceived as the edgier of the songwriting team, it was actually McCartney who immersed himself in the urban avant-garde milieu. Unlike John, who during this time lived out-of-town as a married man with Cynthia and son Julian, pursuing what the film calls a “suburban” lifestyle, Paul was still single and residing in London. 50 contends that Paul transmitted elements of the culture – from Carnaby Street fashions to experimental art shows – he was soaked in as a man-about-town to the “lazier” John. McCartney’s early experimentation with LSD (which was still legal at the time in Britain) is also considered.
Of course, the thing that the Beatles most avidly – and memorably – pursued was their music. At the peak of their powers, in lieu of touring, the musicians instead threw themselves lock, stock and barrel into the creative process of studio recording, making what is widely regarded to be the first theme album. Here, using what is by today’s standards pretty primitive four-track technology, the role of Sir George Martin – the expert audio engineer and producer – ascended. At the same time manager Brian Epstein’s influence over the band he’d shepherded to world fame and fortune waned. 50 includes several fascinating interviews with Epstein, who was a sort of casualty of Sgt. Pepper’s. With the band’s touring days behind them Brian was not essential for booking them and so on, as he’d been in the early sixties. A closeted homosexual and imbiber of what are euphemistically called “tablets” in the documentary, the tormented, no longer indispensible Epstein died at the age of 32 mere months after “Sgt. Pepper’s” premiered.
In addition to these fascinating glimpses into the doomed Epstein, 50 also discloses interesting insights into the months John, Paul, George and Ringo spent in the studio crafting and recording the intricacies of Sgt. Pepper’s at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. As the process dragged on, it became more and more expensive. One of the film’s talking heads makes the point that the Beatles operated under an incorrect assumption – that the time spent in the studio was on the recording company’s dime. However, the interviewee insisted this was untrue for a band of the Beatles’ stature – “it was an advance on royalties. The musicians were really paying for the studio time.” Nevertheless, with more than 30 million copies sold, from a strictly financial point of view, the band’s investment paid off handsomely.
The rock doc went on to note, however, that the label was “shocked at how much money the album’s sleeve cost,” finding it “hard to understand” the pop pantheon of figures ranging from Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan to W.C. Fields to Karl Marx, to earlier versions of the Beatles during their “cuddly mop top” stage, etc., who the band wanted depicted on the intricately wrought album cover. Adding to EMI’s befuddlement was why the Beatles wanted the lyrics to their songs superimposed on the sleeve (the first album to do so) – not to mention the cover’s cut-out mustaches!
Nevertheless, as that old expression goes, “the rest is history.” And it is history well told in an extremely entertaining way by director Alan G. Parker, who was Emmy-nominated for Monty Python: Almost The Truth. At the age of 20 Parker started working in the music industry, then went on to bring his love and knowledge of music to filmmaking. As a “rock-umentarian” he has directed films about musicians including Rebel Truce: The Story of The Clash; Hello Quo; Never Mind the Sex Pistols, An Alternative History; and Who Killed Nancy?
While 50 does have lots of archival footage and news clips of the Beatles and insider interviews, the closest thing the documentary gets to an original interview with the surviving members of the Fab Four is a Q&A with Lennon and McCartney’s first drummer during their Quarrymen days, Pete Best. Among the many revelations the band’s pre-Ringo percussionist offers is that the medals worn by the Beatles in their Lonely Hearts Club Band regalia on the album sleeve belonged to Best’s war veteran father, and that true to their word, the musicians returned the medals to the Bests after shooting the cover art.
John Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird, who eerily resembles her older sibling, provides in-the-know background information. So does Jenny Boyd, whose sister Pattie married George Harrison in 1966, when Jenny was intimately involved with the band. A former model, Donovan immortalized Jenny in the pop tune “Jennifer Juniper.” Tony Crane & Billy Kinsley of the Merseybeats, who like the Fab Four rocked Liverpool’s Cavern Club – and have been together an astounding 56 years (about 46 longer than the Beatles were!) – are also interviewed.
As are Freda Kelly, the group’s former fan club secretary, and various chroniclers of all things Beatle, like Steve Turner, author of 1994’s A Hard Day’s Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song. Other interviewees include: Brian Epstein’s secretary Barbara O’Donnell, Steve Diggle of the Buzzcocks, Beatles associate Tony Bramwell, Hunter Davies, Simon Napier-Bell, Ray Connolly, Bill Harry, Philip Norman, Andy Peebles, etc.
In addition to no original McCartney or Starr interviews, 50 suffers from an even more grievous omission: To the best of my recollection there is actually no Beatles music in this entire documentary about what were arguably rock’s greatest musicians. The doc’s score was composed by Andre Barreau (Sliding Doors, Dangerous Parking) and Evan Jolly (co-composer The Crown and Hacksaw Ridge) and recorded in London and Prague with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.
Nevertheless, 50 offers a magical mystery tour down memory – or Penny – Lane, dispensing lots of wisdom and trivia about the creation of what Rolling Stone called “The most important rock & roll album ever made.” This film is essential viewing for Beatlemaniacs. To paraphrase the Fab Four: “A splendid time is guaranteed to all!”
It Was 50 Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond is being released in the U.S. on DVD & VOD on September 8. For more information: www.50yearsago.com.