The story of a rare flop, the movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Movie - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Finale (lecinemadreams.blogspot.com)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – Finale

Introduction

Until recently I had only heard about the musical/movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band, which is known for its failure. A few weeks ago I spent 1 hour and 50 minutes watching, well, what was it?

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the album

On May 26, 1967, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a classic album in the history of (pop)music. In many lists the album is still branded as the band’s best and most influential album. For me personally, it’s not my favorite album by The Beatles, that ‘honor’ is bestowed on either Revolver or Abbey Road. But, any album that produces a song like A Day In The Life, is a masterpiece by definition.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band On The Road - John Lennon at the Beacon Theater (meetthebeatles.com)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band On The Road – John Lennon at the Beacon Theater

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band On The Road – the musical

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band On The Road the musical, was conceived in 1974 by Tom O’Horgan, who was an exponent of experimental “total theater” and had big successes to his name with productions like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. The show premiered on November 17, 1974, and ended its run in January of 1975.

John Lennon played an active part in the production. He helped during rehearsals, was present at many performances and actively promoted the show. He attended the premier with his (temporary) girlfriend May Pang. Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, John Phillips and Yoko Ono (!) were also present. Paul McCartney visited one of the show performances.

Not much is known about the show, but the story goes that the show was initially planned to go on tour, but after 66 shows at the New York Beacon Theater the show was cancelled. The cast was made up of Ted Neeley, Alaina Reed and David Patrick Kelly, amongst others.

Film - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Movie poster (13thdimension.com)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – Movie poster

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the movie

The theater production was produced by Robert Stigwood, manager of RSO Records who was responsible for two of the greatest box office hits of the 1970s: movie and soundtrack Saturday Night Fever and musical/movie and soundtrack Grease. The idea was that the next movie, with all the major stars of the moment, would pulverize all sales figures. A movie with The Bee Gees, who had written music for both Saturday Night Fever and Grease and Peter Frampton, who had become a superstar with his Frampton Comes Alive album. Nothing short of a great idea. The story of the theater production, for which Stigwood already owned the rights, was turned into a movie script.

The Bee Gees & Peter Frampton - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (ultimateclassicrock.com)

The Bee Gees & Peter Frampton – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

But…

The story is downright stupid. In short: it tells the tale of a band that falls victim to ‘corporate greed’ in the music industry. It also details a fight between good and evil as thugs try and steal the band’s instruments (that serve as some kind of talisman) and want to corrupt the gentle soul of the sweet town of Heartland. Weaved in is a love story, evil robots appear and some kind of cult (whose motto is the utterly stupendous “we hate love, we hate joy, we love money”). The Beatles songs serve to propel the story, with narration by George Burns.

However, the musici the most appalling. It’s nearly impossible to do anything bad with songs by The Beatles, especially with the music coming off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road (and a few songs from Rubber Soul and Let It Be), but this movie manages and how! Of the 29 Beatles songs in total, only 4 are adequate. The vast majority is shockingly and utterly bad. Earth, Wind & Fire’s and Aerosmith’s performances are both fine, but the main characters fail miserably with their interpretations, let alone the actors, who all possess a shocking lack of vocal skill, rhythm and musicality. And yet, Beatles producer George Martin produced it all, even Billy Preston, who played with the original Beatles in the studio, plays along.

The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton ‘act’, but it’s impossible to take anything even remotely serious. The movie never moves and seems primarily designed for cringe and embarrassment. Never before have I seen anything this bad and I have seldomly heard a band’s body of work being slaughtered like that.

The closing scene of the movie contains the crème de la crème of 1978’s showbizz. An impressive list of stars could be seen and heard at the performance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Finale):

Peter Allen, Keith Allison, George Benson, Elvin Bishop, Stephen Bishop, Jack Bruce, Keith Carradine, Carol Channing, “Charlotte, Sharon, and Ula”, Jim Dandy, Sarah Dash, Rick Derringer, Barbara Dickson, Donovan, Dr. John, Randy Edelman, Yvonne Elliman, José Feliciano, Leif Garrett, Adrian Gurvitz, Billy Harper, Eddie Harris, Heart, Nona Hendryx, Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage), Etta James, Bruce Johnston, Joe Lala, D.C. LaRue, Jo Leb, Marcy Levy, Mark Lindsay, Nils Lofgren, Jackie Lomax, John Mayall, Curtis Mayfield, Bruce Morrow, Peter Noone, Alan O’Day, Lee Oskar, The Paley Brothers, Robert Palmer, Wilson Pickett, Anita Pointer, Bonnie Raitt, Helen Reddy, Minnie Riperton, Chita Rivera, Johnny Rivers, Monte Rock III, Danielle Rowe, Seals & Crofts, Sha-Na-Na, Del Shannon, Joe Simon, Connie Stevens, Al Stewart, John Stewart, Tina Turner, Frankie Valli, Gwen Verdon, Diane Vincent, Grover Washington, Jr., Alan White, Lenny White, Margaret Whiting, Hank Williams, Jr., Johnny Winter, Wolfman Jack, Bobby Womack, Gary Wright

The list is a living testament of the confidence the producers of the movie and soundtrack had in the project. It’s also a testament of how so many people can be so wrong.

Earth, Wind & Fire - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (lecinemadreams.blogspot.com)

Earth, Wind & Fire – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Reception

The studio had high hopes and expectations. Millions of albums were pressed and shipped, the movie opened in a large number of theaters, but it was an instant flop. The soundtrack still holds the record of most sent back albums of all time. The albums didn’t sell and the retail stores sent them back to the distributer, literally by the millions. However, the movie did raise around $20 million (total costs were $13 million).

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were present at the movie’s premiere. I suspect they still haven’t recovered from that shock. In 1979 George Harrison commented: “The reports on it were so bad that I didn’t want to see it”. The movie rides high on lists containing the worst movies of all time and is part of the most shocking events in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

Review

I’m not going to waste too many words: the movie was a waste of my time. An absolute stinker:

The soundtrack doesn’t fare much better, but it contains the performances of Earth, Wind & Fire and Aerosmith. But then again, it also contains a truly nauseating version of one of my favorite songs by The Beatles, I Want You (She’s So Heavy):

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Soundtrack (discogs.com)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – Soundtrack

Soundtrack

All songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, unless stated otherwise.

  1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  2. With A Little Help From My Friends
  3. Here Comes The Sun (George Harrison)
  4. Getting Better
  5. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
  6. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
  7. Good Morning, Good Morning
  8. She’s Leaving Home
  9. You Never Give Me Your Money
  10. Oh! Darling
  11. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
  12. Polythene Pam
  13. She Came In Through The Bathroom Window
  14. Nowhere Man
  15. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
  16. Got To Get You Into My Life
  17. Strawberry Fields Forever
  18. When I’m Sixty-Four
  19. Mean Mr. Mustard
  20. Fixing A Hole
  21. Because
  22. Golden Slumbers
  23. Carry That Weight
  24. Come Together
  25. Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite
  26. The Long And Winding Road
  27. A Day In The Life
  28. Get Back
  29. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Finale)
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Soundtrack - Drawing (discogs.com)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – Soundtrack – Drawing

Musicians

  • The Bees – vocals on 1
  • Paul Nicholas – vocals on 1
  • The Bee Gees – vocals on 2,4,6,7,8,12,13,14,15,21,23,25,27
  • Peter Frampton – vocals on 2,4,7,13,15,22,25,26
  • Sandy Farina – vocals on 3,17,18
  • Dianne Steinberg – vocals on 5,6,9
  • Stargard – vocals on 5,6
  • Paul Nicholas – vocals on 6,7,9
  • Donald Pleasance – vocals on 6
  • Jay MacIntosh – vocals on 8
  • John Wheeler – vocals on 8
  • Robin Gibb – vocals on 10
  • Steve Martin – vocals on 11
  • Frankie Howerd – vocals on 18,19
  • George Burns – vocals on 20,25
  • Alice Cooper – vocals on 21
  • Maurice Gibb – vocals on 25
  • Barry Gibb – vocals on 27
  • Billy Preston – vocals on 28
  • Complete cast – vocals on 29
  • Max Middleton – keyboards, synthesizer
  • Robert Ahwai – guitar
  • Wilbur Bascomb – bass
  • Bernard Purdie – drums, percussion
  • George Martin – keyboards
  • Peter Frampton – guitar solos
  • Tower Of Power horn section – horns
  • Earth, Wind & Fire – instruments and vocals on 16
  • Aerosmith – instruments and vocals on 24

With help from:

  • Jeff Beck, Larry Carlton, Ricky Hitchcock, Ray Russell, Freddie Tacket – guitar
  • Clive Chapman, David Hungate – bass
  • David Paich – keyboards
  • David Dowell, Jeff Porcaro – drums
  • Tommy Reilly – harmonica
  • Francis Monkman – Moog synthesizer
  • Ray Cooper, Victor Feldman – percussion
  • The Bee Gees – special effects on 8
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Comic book NL (stripboekmuseum.nl)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – Comic book NL

After Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

The studio went all-in with merchandising as well. A real comic book was developed, in cooperation with Marvel. By the time the cartoon was finished, the movie had already bombed. Therefore, the comic wasn’t released in the US, but it did come out in The Netherlands, Belgium and France, where the movie was distributed at a later time.

Both Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees would never perform as actors in a movie again. Their respective careers were harmed by the experience. Frampton would never again regain the same amount of popularity and The Bee Gees, besides their attachment to the film, soon fell victim to the anti-disco sentiments and their popularity would suffer consequentially.

The soundtrack is nowhere to be found on streaming services. No loss there, in this case.

In closing

Rarely has the music by The Beatles been so badly interpreted as in this movie and on this soundtrack. An exceptional flop, especially for The Bee Gees, the group that doesn’t excel in misses of this magnitude. But this movie wasn’t the only music flop in 1978. In October 1978 Kiss would release their very own movie, the flop Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park, more on that later.

What’s your opinion on the movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Let me know!

Video/Spotify
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: The story of a rare flop, the movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.

2 comments

    • Emily Rader on 11/18/2023 at 9:42 PM
    • Reply

    Personally, I am one of few that liked the movie. No, it isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, but it was fun and entertaining and the music was awesome. I own the DVD as well as vinyl of the album and watch it from time to time. But everything has to be so serious.

    1. Hi Emily, thanks for replying. I love that you enjoy the movie so much!

Compliments/remarks? Yes, please!