TV Cream

Films: S is for...

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Say goodbye, Gracie! They could actually sound like the Trumpton Fire Brigade band with those instruments

When Ben Elton revealed to the world he’d created a rock muscial by taking loads of Queen songs, sticking them together and doing little plot holes round the edges, good folk recoiled in horror. Those with long memories and plush, strokeable beards, however, merely nodded sagely and noted with sorrow the return of Sergeant Pepperism. After all, Elton was doing nothing that Robert Stigwood, spoon-toting record impresario and Saturday Night Fever mastermind, hadn’t attempted twenty years before.

Decadence! More decadence!

In the town of Heartland, presided over by Mr Kite, Billy Shears, with a little help from his friends The Hendersons, reforms the titular mythical band in order to reclaim the magical brass instruments of peace, which have been stolen by evil estate agent Mean Mr Mustard and plastic surgeon Maxwell Edison, who turns people into head-wobbling versions of the Hitler Youth with his silver hammer… and it goes on like this. If it sounds like someone had just thrown bits of paper with Beatles songs onto the floor, then joined them up with “and then”s, that’s petty much the case, by the admission of the scriptwriter (who mysteriously doesn’t seem to have worked on anything else since). With so little effort made on the script, it was only natural that all the stops would be pulled out for everything else.

Ditto. A dirty old man

The cast groans with the great and good. Oh, and Peter Frampton, who takes the romantic ‘lead’ as Billy Shears, aided on his quest to retrieve the crappy cornets by The Hendersons (The Bee Gees) and the hitherto unknown Dougie Shears (Paul Nicholas). We say ‘lead’ as there’s no real acting involved: the only spoken dialogue comes from Mr Kite (George Burns), who links everything together in the most cumbersome way, suggesting enormous rewrites at the last minute.

A wild and crazy guy, Leni Riefenstal style Isn't Sybil Ruscoe a twat?

While Frampo and the Gibbs shoulder most of the numbers (some not too badly, we’ll admit), the rest of the cast get a tune each, with varying results. Burns creaking around a bandstand in a white suit mumbling Fixing a Hole to a couple of unidentified children may have a certain geriatric charm, but Frankie Howerd vamping his way through When I’m 64 to tied up heroine Strawberry Fields in the back of a computerised camper van doesn’t. Steve Martin’s goofball rendition of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, meanwhile, may murder the song, but at least he has the audience on his side. Best of the bunch is probably Aerosmith’s fairly straight version of Come Together atop a pile of giant film canisters, and it’s a tie for worst between Alice Cooper’s reverb-drenched Because and She’s Leaving Home (Vocoder version). Sad to say, George Martin willingly offered his production services for the heavily-remaindered soundtrack.

Yes, it's Henry the Horse. On rollerskates, natch. No time to explain what's going on here, sadly.

What went right? Well, the production design, while bizarre in places, does look grand in the plastic fantastic style you’d expect from Brian Eatwell of Abominable Dr Phibes fame. The depiction of Barry Gibb gleefully snorting cocaine is unique in cinema history, we feel. And, er, it’s a small amount of fun perusing the closing scene’s “just like the LP cover” gathering of gratuitous guest stars to spot the likes of Robert Palmer, Peter Noone, Barbara Dickson, Marcella Detroit and Dame Edna. We’re reaching here, as you can see. Oh yes, Earth, Wind and Fire are quite good, but have nothing at all to do with the rest of the film.

More Aryan symbolism. Er, Mr Stigwood, sir... And Billy Preston makes everything better again!

As with most ’60s hangeover fare, the ‘message’ seems to be that, hey, music just wants to be free, stop using it to make piles of cash, you cynical breadheads. Which would be rich coming from the Stigwood stable at the best of times, but in a film that embodies that cynicism in quite possibly its purest state, it’s palpably obscene. By all means watch for head-slapping retro giggles, but be prepeared to feel strangely soiled afterwards.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Richard Davies

    December 8, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    The soundtrack album often gets on lists of “Bad albums by artists who should know better”.

  2. Luke Elwick

    December 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Aerosmith are not playing on giant film cannisters, they’re playing on large banknotes and stacks of coins (there is a sign on the door that says “we hate joy, we hate love, we love money”

  3. Glenn Aylett

    January 22, 2021 at 6:13 pm

    How Robert Stigwood, the man who saved The Bee Gees from the dole queue and made the 1950s fashionable, came unstuck. What the man behind the unstoppable RSO record label and production company thought when he made a Beatles film without The Beatles and with George Burns singing beats me. Also ten years too late as psychedelia had long since faded, which made Sergeant Pepper look very dated in 1978.

  4. Sidney Balmoral James

    January 22, 2021 at 8:37 pm

    Ooh er – no, don’t, it’s wicked to mock the afflicted etc. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, this can now be seen by everyone – and what a crummy mess it is. The Bee Gees have been quite honest about how much coke was doing the rounds during the making of this, but that doesn’t explain the bizarre casting (Frankie Howerd?), the poor cover versions (perhaps only Earth, Wind and Fire coming up trumps), the sets (much of it is clearly just filmed on a studio backlot), the plot (only joking, there isn’t one), and of course, the aforementioned absence of spoken dialogue. I can see why you might want to avoid non-actors like the Brothers G, and Frampton from having much dialogue, but why you’d cast the likes of Steve Martin and Frankie Howerd, and then not give them any dialogue is beyond me. I did think that the excision of spoken dialogue was a late decision in production, but Francis seems to be overcompensating in his bits. Now if you want a really good Frankie Howerd film from the 70s, I recommend the peerless House in Nightmare Park.

  5. Richardpd

    January 22, 2021 at 10:58 pm

    I heard RSO had a load of copies of the soundtrack pressed up as they thought it would be another blockbuster after Saturday Night Fever & Grease, but ended up being lumbered with a then record number of unsold albums.

    George Martin & Jeff Emerick were recruited late in the day to perform some emergency surgery on the songs once it was clear things weren’t going well.

  6. Glenn Aylett

    January 23, 2021 at 12:53 pm

    I suppose by 1978, Stigwood considered himself to be invincible and thought with the fifties nostalgia boom he’d created with Grease, maybe reviving the sixties was the next step. Problem was Sergeant Pepper was a self indulgent mess and without The Beatles or a Beatle( couldn’t he have approached Mc Cartney), the film wouldn’t work and anyway, the hippy era was still discredited in 1978.

  7. Richardpd

    January 23, 2021 at 1:46 pm

    The basic idea might have worked a decade later when the CD reissues of the Beatles albums were getting them back into the public eye and late 1960s nostalgia was stronger.

    • THX 1139

      January 23, 2021 at 2:26 pm

      Beatles nostalgia was pretty huge in the 1970s when there was still the chance they could reform. The nonsense above, All This and World War II, that terrible Beatlemania stage musical Americans queued round the block to watch, The Rutles, Lorne Michaels offering a wad of cash for them to get back together on Saturday Night Live, not to mention all the reissues and solo material (thus explaining how Ringo was having hits).

      • Richardpd

        January 23, 2021 at 11:48 pm

        I was too young to experience the 1970s Beatles nostalgia, which was big enough for them to get a number one live album in 1977. There was a stage play about the Beatles early years in the late 1970s with a young Trevor Eve in, which came to notice when casting Shoestring.

        I just about remember the mini-boom of about 1981-3 when John’s death and the 20th anniversary of Love Me Do lead EMI to release a compilation and some singles. I have a 1980s copy of Love Me Do around somewhere.

  8. Droogie

    January 24, 2021 at 7:27 am

    Don’t forget the first Stars On 45 medley which featured The Fabs. This was such a big hit, an official Beatles medley featuring songs from their movies was released and was a top 10 hit ( though its’s been long deleted ever since.)

    • Richardpd

      January 24, 2021 at 2:06 pm

      Stars on 45 was a big international hit and spawned a few other medley hits that the BBC4 Top Of The Pops repeats of 1981-2 managed to chronicle.

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