“Oh, it’ll be fine, you watch!”
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a revolutionary album, created at a time when the Beatles were international idols and the world was changing dramatically. Alan G. Parker directs the aptly titled It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond, a documentary which explores the making of this iconic album as well as how the Fab Four evolved from a band that was spending much of its time touring the world to becoming musical masterminds who developed revolutionary approaches to recording.
The story begins during the Beatles’ world tour in 1966 which was most notable for the issues surrounding its American leg following shock-jock radio revelations of John Lennon’s comments in a magazine interview which were perceived to be blasphemous and led to protests and the band’s albums and merchandise being burnt in the US bible belts. In many ways, it is argued, this marked the start of the band’s decision to cease touring and this led to their more studio based musical output. “The Beatles have always progressed, and to progress you need to change,” noted manager Brian Epstein in a contemporary interview. The result of this new approach was double ‘A’ side Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, the germination of the the idea: “a whole album about Liverpool”, which, as is pointed out by a number of interviewees who contribute to the documentary, ironic in that these tracks do not, of course, appear on the final album. Instead these new ideas gave the band the chance to show them to be “the less constrained, the better”. Events during and after the recordings both inside the studio and out are documented which places the album in the context of the band and the era in which it was recorded. It notes the drug taking, with clips of Paul discussing his use of LSD on a TV interview, and also records the issues regarding their excursions with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The ups and downs of the band’s relationships are also discussed, not only the working partnerships between the members but also between their girlfriends, wives and children.
Of particular interest is the segment on how Sgt. Pepper’s famous cover came about, conceived to be a montage of the band’s heroes (yes, you can see John’s deliberately controversial choice of Hitler just obscured from view) but the practicalities of producing such a cover, including the need to locate images and obtain permission to use them, led to the assertion by those in the know, “Don’t think it’s the authentic Sgt. Pepper album (cover) ’cause it isn’t”. As to the actual music, “They did their own thing when doing Sgt. Pepper.” The notoriously lengthy time spent creating it is considered to be the start of a trend whereby groups would spend months in the studio, described here as “the most boring time you’ve ever had in your life”. Central to this was the use of recording technique thanks to the innovative work of their producer, George Martin, who utilised different classical and recording techniques to realise the band’s concepts. The film also documents the Beatles’ other activities, such as the creation and decline of Apple Corp, “a communist Marks and Spencer’s”. More tragic is the death of their manager Brian Epstein, whose life and death is discussed in detail, as was his influence in the creation of the Beatles from the early years on.
A fascinating and insightful documentary that covers much of the Beatles’ later career in the context of what became one of the most defining records of its era. This is achieved through the recollections of those interviewed and media footage of the time that offer memories to those who were there and discovery for those seeking to understand the group from later perspectives. The music by Andre Barreau and Evan Jolly is engaging and appropriate but, rather like the fact that the only dialogue from the band is archival, emphasises the importance of the album because of the sheer absence of Beatles music in proceedings. For those seeking additional input and evaluation this release offers a staggering host of extras to keep on with the story from all perspectives including archive interviews with Ringo and John as well as further contemporary reflections and debates set in a wider context.