The Beatles, the Bee Gees and the terrible Sgt. Pepper’s movie they’d all rather forget

Robin, Barry and Maurice Gibb in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - Alamy
Robin, Barry and Maurice Gibb in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - Alamy

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's a premise that shouldn’t work and - according to most Beatles fans - really doesn’t. Not the album, of course, but the 1978 musical: a film based (literally) on Beatles songs, in which the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton fight with Aerosmith and rescue magical-powered instruments from the clutches of an evil Frankie Howerd. Then a weathervane comes to life, belts out Get Back, and transforms Howerd into the pope.

Not to mention cameos from Steve Martin, George Burns, Alice Cooper, Donald Pleasence, and – in one of the few musical highlights – Earth, Wind and Fire. Yes, the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film is strange.

Hopes were high. Robin Gibb believed their versions of the songs, released on an accompanying double LP, would become the definitive Sgt. Pepper’s for the younger generation. The Beatles would be “secondary”. Though as Bee Gees biographer David N. Meyer wrote, “it might have been speed doing the talking”.

The project was masterminded by Robert Stigwood, the promoter/producer/all-round entrepreneur and outsized persona. Stigwood managed The Bee Gees and had mega-hits with the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks on his RSO Records label. He produced the Tommy musical and harboured long-held designs on turning Sgt. Pepper’s into a movie.

Stigwood first produced an off-Broadway stage version – Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road – which opened in New York in November 1974. The show closed after just six weeks.

Unperturbed, Stigwood approached music critic Henry Edwards to write his film version. Edwards – who had no screenwriting experience – envisioned the film as a twist on golden age Hollywood musicals. He told Stigwood that he wanted to make “the musical of the future”. Michael Schultz, who made Car Wash in 1976, was hired as director.

According to Stigwood it took a year to get the rights to the songs. Though The Beatles, said Stigwood, were “cooperative”. The band were reportedly given script and director approval, plus the option of an on-location rep who could attend daily screenings and report back to Lennon and McCartney. The Beatles, according to Stigwood, had “a big piece of the picture”. Speaking on the Nothing is Real podcast, Beatles experts Steven Cockcroft and Jason Carty suggested this was just “flannel” from Stigwood.

The Beatles actually disliked Robert Stigwood, a resentment that dated back years. Beatles manager Brian Epstein once suggested bringing in Stigwood as a co-manager. The Beatles responded by threatening to record out-of-tune versions of God Save the Queen for the remainder of their contract.

They were, however, pals with The Bee Gees. “They were very good friends,” says Richard Mills, author of The Beatles and Fandom. “John Lennon was buying them drinks when they first came over from Australia – they were all hanging out at the Bag O’Nails, Saville Theatre, and all those nightclubs in London in the Sixties. Maurice Gibb lived near Ringo.”

There was some creative rivalry. The Bee Gees’ first single, New York Mining Disaster 1941, is often likened to The Beatles, and Barry Gibb admitted to being “Beatle-ish in the early days”. David N. Meyer noted that Barry Gibb chose The Beatles as his “nemesis”. Maurice Gibb admitted being “frightened to death” the first time they heard the Sgt. Pepper’s album.

The Bee Gees with George Burns on the set of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Alamy
The Bee Gees with George Burns on the set of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Alamy

Now, the idea of The Bee Gees taking on Sgt. Pepper's seems like a disaster waiting to happen, on the cusp of a disco backlash that forever marked them as uncool. Sgt. Pepper's was another easy target for ridicule. The Gibb brothers always seemed at odds with their own image – sensitive and serious about themselves. As seen when they stormed off Clive Anderson’s chat show 20 years later. But they were, of course, incredible songwriters.

Stigwood cast Peter Frampton as Billy Shears, the film’s poodle-haired, childlike front-man. Frampton was a major star at the time, following his phenomenally successful live album, Frampton Comes Alive.

“It was one of those albums,” says Richard Mills. “Like Thriller or Sgt. Pepper’s – everybody had it. For a short window, Frampton was one of the biggest music stars in the world.”

In the story – narrated by George Burns – Frampton and the Bee Gees are the all-new Lonely Hearts Club Band. They play in the memory of the real Sgt. Pepper, a WW1 hero who donated his magical instruments to their hometown of Heartland (which is more It’s a Wonderful Life than Merseyside). The band is snapped up by a shady producer (Donald Pleasence) and plunged into a world of money, drugs, and women. When the instruments are stolen by assorted cronies, the band must save Heartland and rescue Billy Shears’s girlfriend, Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina).

In his 2020 autobiography, Frampton recalled turning the film down initially: “Stop. No. I’m not going to sing Beatles’ songs, I’m sorry. It’s not going to happen.” He agreed after being told that Paul McCartney would co-star. “But the Beatles ran for the hills, and I don’t blame them,” wrote Frampton.

A dance number from the film - Alamy
A dance number from the film - Alamy

The Beatles' stock was at a low point in the UK. “It’s a funny stage with The Beatles, 1978,” says Richard Mills. “At this point it doesn’t look like they’re going to get back together anytime soon. Wings were having No. 1 albums and Beatles Greatest Hits albums were always massive sellers, and they were as big as ever in America, but during and after punk they weren’t quite as fashionable in the UK. There was a fan convention in England around that time, and there was hardly anybody there. The Beatles got a lot of attention again after John Lennon’s murder. A lot of contemporary interest in The Beatles comes out of that horrible tragedy.”

The Beatles may have steered clear of the film but, incredibly, their producer George Martin – the producer of the real Sgt. Pepper’s – agreed to produce and arrange the songs for the film, mostly taken from both Sgt. Pepper’s and Abbey Road. “George Martin's partner, Judy, forced him to do it,” says Mills. “She told him that if someone else did it and made a mess he’d feel bad.”

“If the film is a total flop, my name will be mud,” said Martin. “And if it’s good, it will be mud.”

Robert Stigwood had big plans beyond the film, which included an amusement park and TV spin-off. Critic Janet Maslin noted that the film felt like a cash-in. “This isn’t a movie,” she said. “It’s a business deal set to music.”

Frampton recalled the hype. His first day on the job wasn’t performing, but promotional duties at a press day. On his way to the stage, The Bee Gees tripped him up schoolboys-style. They became friends, however, and Frampton recalled popping pills with Maurice in the morning.

For Maurice, the film was a new experience. “It was ridiculous,” he said. “I walked on to the set at 7am. The crew was in their trailers and I shouted: ‘Has anyone got any cocaine?’ Loads of the stuff landed at my feet.”

Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood
Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood

Robin Gibb was cocksure of success. “Kids today don’t know the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper,” he told Playboy. “And when those who do see our film and hear us doing it, that will be the version they relate to and remember. Unfortunately, the Beatles will be secondary. You see, there is no such thing as the Beatles. They don’t exist as a band and never performed Sgt. Pepper live. When ours comes out, it will be, in effect, as if theirs never existed […] The only credit the Beatles get on this film is for songwriting.” Robin changed his tune later on. “Our Sgt. Pepper?” he said. “With hand on heart, that was the biggest load of s––– ever.”

Taken for what it ultimately is – a series of barely connected music videos for mediocre cover versions – the Sgt. Pepper’s movie is inoffensive-if-strange fluff, close in spirit to Michael Jackon's Moonwalker.

Looked at with a more discerning eye, it's an audacious, bold-as-brass folly. An exercise in “what were they thinking?” that makes as little sense on screen as behind the camera. By the time Frankie Howerd turns up, being massaged by dolly bird robots, it’s veered into point-of-no-return territory.

Just as strange is Alice Cooper as a Frank Zappa-esque cult leader (“He gets decked by Barry Gibb!” laughs Richard Mills); Steve Martin as an evil plastic surgeon, with all the rubber-faced zaniness of his blockbuster stand-up act squeezed into three minutes (essentially a warm-up for his sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors); and Aerosmith as “FVB” – Future Villain Band – who kidnap Strawberry Fields, prompting an unlikely punch-up twixt Aerosmith and the Bee Gees.

Aerosmith signed up for a chance to work with George Martin on a decent cover of Come Together. Martin, who knew that Aerosmith were notoriously slow in the recording studio, spurred them on with the promise of going to see Jeff Beck in concert. When Martin scarpered with the recording, Aerosmith realized they had been duped; there was no Jeff Beck concert.

“The Sgt. Pepper? Are you kidding?” said Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer. “It was a disaster. A real debacle. The Stones refused to do the part that was offered to us. Now we know why.”

There are a few other passable songs: Robin Gibb’s version of Oh! Darling and Earth, Wind, and Fire’s Got to Get You Into My Life, which reached No. 9 in the US. “The Bee Gees were pissed!” said Earth, Wind, and Fire singer Philip Bailey. “They wouldn’t speak to us because they thought we stole their thunder.”

Most of The Bee Gees’ covers fail to hit the right notes. “The problem is, Lennon and McCartney’s voices are so distinctive,” says Richard Mills. “If you’re going to do a Beatles cover you’ve got to add something to it – like Aretha Franklin or Wilson Pickett or someone like that.”

Barry Gibb agreed – they needed to do more with the material. “I don’t think George [Martin] should have produced Sgt. Pepper again,” he said. “George was religious with the original arrangements – he didn’t want to change them. What the people were looking for was something totally new.”

There are also amusingly literal interpretations of the songs: She’s Leaving Home as Strawberry Fields, well, leaves home; The Long and Winding Road on a long and winding road; and A Day in the Life – “I read the news today, oh boy” – while Barry checks out the newspaper.

Peter Frampton in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Alamy
Peter Frampton in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Alamy

Things take a dark turn when Strawberry Fields is killed and Frampton’s Billy Shears attempts to kill himself. All is saved in the film’s final, head-spinning twist: a weathervane in the shape of Sgt. Pepper comes to life, transforming into the singer and real-life Beatles pal Billy Preston, who magically saves everyone.

The film finishes with an ensemble rendition of the Sgt. Pepper’s title track – a rabble seemingly inspired by the original album cover. Singers among the rabble include Tina Turner, Donovan, Robert Palmer, Wilson Pickett, and Sha-Na-Na.

Expectations were high for the album-film combo. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was released during the making of the film and was an instant sensation – the biggest selling album of the year. Bootleggers assumed that Sgt. Pepper’s would be a similar hit and produced countless knock-off copies.

The film was panned but wasn’t a bomb – it made back $20 million. The album, meanwhile, was hurt by the film's reviews. It debuted at No. 5. In the US but dropped out of the top 100 within six weeks. There were so many bootleg copies in circulation that retailers returned 4 million albums – a million more than had been distributed in the first place. It went reverse platinum. The FBI claimed that bootlegs were being dumped on California roadsides by the truckful.

George Harrison commented on the film. “I just feel sorry for Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees and Pete Frampton for doing it,” he said, “because they had established themselves in their own right as decent artists and suddenly… it’s like the classic thing of greed. The more you make the more you want to make, until you become so greedy that ultimately you put a foot wrong. And even though Sgt. Pepper is no doubt a financial success, I think it’s damaged their images, their careers, and they didn’t need to do that.”

It wasn’t a totally wasted venture for the Bee Gees: they wrote three No. 1s during an afternoon break on the film — Tragedy, Too Much Heaven, and Shadow Dancing. “The drugs must have been good that day,” said Maurice.

Peter Frampton’s career was hurt, but more likely by a car crash he had the same year – he broke both hands, both feet, an arm, and ribs. Frampton didn’t entirely regret the film. “I wouldn’t want people to see it, but it was fun to do,” he wrote.

But watched now, taken an ironic helping of salt, the Sgt. Pepper's movie is bordering on fun – a lurid, naff fairground of a film. “It's a curio,” says Richard Mills. “With a little bit more care, in a different context, it could have been good. What is it they say in Spinal Tap? There’s a fine line between clever and rubbish.”