Review: It was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt Pepper & Beyond (2017)

The Beatles' Sgt Peppers is one of the most important albums of all time. This review discusses its importance within the context of this music documentary.

A straw poll of the average music fan on what the biggest British albums of all time are is likely to consist of: Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd; (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis; probably 21 by Adele; maybe Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits; Queen’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1, perhaps; but most definitely, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. The latter of these has reached the grand old age of fifty, and so in way of celebration has been remastered and re-released in a sparkly new boxed set, which also includes a plethora of alternative recordings, outtakes and interviews, over four CDs and two DVDs and 100 minutes of extra footage. Imagine the 1995 release of The Beatles era defining anthology series, but focused purely on 1967. The release is also supported by a feature length documentary, directed by long time Beatles fan Alan G. Parker: It was Fifty Years Ago Today!

Parker, not to be confused of course with the Alan (no G.) Parker who directed (amongst many others) Evita and The Commitments, has made a name for himself over the last ten years directing usually music based documentaries on bands such as The Clash, the Sex Pistols and Kiss (and – interestingly enough – seventies crooner David Essex is his next subject). His chief claim to fame up to this point is his continuing obsession with Sid Vicious, and he has so far written three books on his ridiculously short life, and his even shorter-lived time, (sort of) playing bass with the Pistols. His most well-known documentary, 2009’s Who Killed Nancy? focuses on Vicious’ volatile relationship with his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, her death, Vicious’ involvement in it and his subsequent overdose two weeks later from a shot of heroin given to him by his mother. Who actually did kill Spungen we’ll never know – although it was probably Vicious – but that’s not the point of Parker’s documentary. His chief talents as a filmmaker lie in his ability not to idolise his subjects, but deliver his version of how their fate unfolded based on the facts and the words of those that were around at the time, all told from the point of view of the fan boy with a passion for the intricate details.

Not an easy task, to distance oneself from subject matter one is so familiar with, but to look at it anew and from many other points of view. And an even harder task with a subject so intrinsically indoctrinated into a country’s musical culture as Sgt. Pepper is. Immediately on its release in 1967 the album was heralded almost universally for both its technical ingenuity and its development in the maturing song writing of not just Lennon and McCartney but for George Harrison too. It was hard to imagine that just four years previously the band had been shaking their mop-tops and cooing, “she loves you, yeah yeah yeah”. Now they were singing about “plasticine porters with looking glass ties,” and, “fixing a hole where the rain gets in, to stop my mind from wandering”. It was a huge hit and signalled a second phase in the career for a band that just a few months previously there had been much speculation over the split of. After their much publicised decision to stop touring in 1966, all four members went their separate ways: McCartney wrote the Ivor Novello Award winning score for the earnest social-realist feature film The Family Way; Lennon played the role of the wise-cracking squaddie in Dick Lester’s Second World War satire How I Won the War; Harrison decamped to India to hang out with his new mentor Ravi Shankar; and Ringo, well, Ringo carried on being Ringo. Rumours circulated that the band had lost whatever key ingredient it was that bound them together musically and they were now too fractured to create anything as worthwhile as their previous fare.

Parker’s documentary picks up from pretty much exactly where Ron Howard’s 2016 film The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, left off. Beginning with their choice to stop playing live in 1966, partly because of fears for their safety in a post-JFK America, after many of the religious faithful started burning their records when John Lennon claimed the band were bigger than Jesus; but mainly because they couldn’t hear themselves think, let alone play, over the screaming of the girls in the audience. Parker follows this path directly toward their decision that in throwing off the shackles of needing to perform the songs live (and because their recording budget was pretty much a blank cheque), they were at liberty to record an album exactly how they wanted to. It took them four and a half months, the longest time any rock band had taken to date, but the wait for the audience was well worth it, and the album quickly became the band’s most popular and eventually their most well-known. It pushed the boundaries of popular music forward not just musically, but also visually, with Peter Blake’s iconic cover perhaps the most famous and talked about of all time.

All of this, Parker’s documentary covers aptly and concisely, if not shining a light on anything particularly new (there is presumably only so much archival footage of the world’s most famous band to go around), there is at least some of the same material slightly re-jigged, and some nice Yellow Submarine style animation imagery of Carnaby Street in the sixties to excite the real fans. There are some informative talking heads from social commentators and writers from and about the time, however, he misses out on two rather important aspects: none of the real key players are involved, and none of the actual music is used. Obviously after fifty years we are now two Beatles and a producer down, but the fact that Howard was afforded hours of interview time with the septuagenarian McCartney and Starr offering new thoughts developed over a longer gestation period, the pair are noticeable by their absence in Parker’s presumably unintended companion piece.  The closest we have to a Beatle is former drummer Pete Best, who was unceremoniously chucked out of the band in favour of Ringo all the way back in 1962, when they were still wearing leather outfits and sporting Teddy Boy haircuts. Although it is interesting to see and hear his thoughts on the band that must have been the albatross around his neck for much of his adult life, what inner-thoughts he can offer to the recording of Sgt Peppers is unclear.

The lack of key personnel and the recycled archive footage of the band wandering up and down the steps of Abbey Road studios talking to BBC journalists gives the film a made for TV feel, exposing nothing new that the anthology series didn’t already cover more than twenty years ago; but the main disappointment comes from the lack of using the actual music everyone in the film spends two hours talking about. Watching a film about the making of a classic album whilst not being able to listen to what they were recording (or see inside the studio whilst they were recording it) is a little like going to an art exhibition with no art in it. Or being told all about a fantastic steak by a waiter in a restaurant that you can’t order. For all the hype surrounding the album the key aspect of a fiftieth anniversary is to see how well the songs have dated and whether they are still relevant in today’s forum. They have, and they are. The chirpy staccato guitars of Getting Better are just like those used by any modern indie band; the sophisticated string and harp lines laid underneath the hauntingly bittersweet ode to a teenage runaway She’s Leaving Home, are still taught in school music classes to date; and cover versions of With a Little Help From my Friends reached number 1 in the UK in 1968, 1988 and most recently, 2004.

The album at the time was heralded as one of the first concept albums, but as Ringo says in the anthology series, after they got past linking Sgt Peppers with Help from my Friends they thought, “sod it, let’s just do tracks”. Sgt Pepper’s strength lies not in the shared identity of the songs but in how the two chief songwriters were actually pulling decidedly and dramatically apart by this point in the band’s history, and so creating music much more eclectic than any of the other bands around. For every straight forward rock-n-roll song such as Getting Better there’s a starkly psychedelic Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Fixing a Hole, a song which deals with the individual’s tendency to focus on the mundane task to avoid slipping into the darker parts of the mind, is one of McCartney’s more introspective compositions, in response to writing it, John Lennon produced Good Morning, Good Morning, the lyric of which was taken from the side of a cereal box. Due to the many years of practice and touring the band still gelled together effortlessly, but the only real synergy in the song writing on the album is perhaps the band’s greatest achievement, and ironically enough came from two sources as polar apart as the old friends’ work was beginning to become. It was George Martin’s idea to marry together the two different compositions that make up A Day in the Life. John’s mournful acoustic half-song about the death of a Guinness heir he had read about in the paper, builds via a George Martin orchestral composition toward the optimistic slice-of-life Paul McCartney half-song, and then back again to finish with another orchestral climax. This reveals just how important Martin was to the making of, not only this album, but of all their work. It is taken as read that the technical achievements were due to his ingenuity, but would the songs too have been created the way that they were if it were not for his intervention? George Martin is of course sadly dead, but his son Giles worked with him on remastering the Beatles back catalogue for many years before he passed away, and it was Martin junior that remastered the Sgt Pepper re-issue here. His absence in this film is felt just as sorely as that of the two surviving Beatles.

Parker covers the band’s bourgeoning use of drugs throughout this period and despite their protestations, there is little doubt that this is one of the first albums if not written on drugs, then certainly influenced by the taking of them. Lennon claimed that rather than representing the LSD that it spells out, the title of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was taken from a picture that his son Julian drew, despite the fact that we are also told that, “the flowers grow so incredibly high,” in much the same way that, “I get high with a little help from my friends,” and, “I went upstairs, and had a smoke, and somebody spoke and I fell into a dream…” This idea of expanding one’s mind was subsequently taken and made quickly into a cliché by bands such as The Byrds, The Doors and Pink Floyd, but with Sgt Pepper there was something new and fresh about the approach they had taken. Another example of how they pushed the barriers of popular music and challenged the preconceptions of what was and wasn’t acceptable in modern British society.

There is little doubt that the subject matter in Parker’s film is engaging and the excitement surrounding the anniversary of the Beatles’ landmark album shows both that there is just as much interest in the band today as there was fifty years ago, and that their music has stood the test of time; but whether the best way to experience that album either as an old guard fan or as someone coming afresh to the Beatles’s work, the answer is probably ‘no’. However, for those that have an in-depth knowledge of the album, and immediate access to it, then this film sits as a comfortable companion piece to the background of the world surrounding its monumental place in musical history.

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