Liverpool gears up to celebrate Sgt Pepper's 50th birthday

Three-week extravaganza across city planned with an event for each of the 13 tracks on the Beatles landmark album

It was considerably more than 20 years ago today. Liverpool is preparing to celebrate the golden anniversary of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles album released on 1 June 1967 and regularly voted the greatest album of all time.

The 50th birthday of the pop music landmark will be a three-week romp covering the city from the Unesco world heritage waterfront to living rooms in Toxteth, and featuring an event for each of the 13 tracks.

The festival comes with the blessing of Sir Paul McCartney, but he and the other remaining Beatle, Ringo Starr, are not expected to put in an appearance. Instead artists including the Australian cabaret star Meow Meow – who will tackle Lovely Rita and lead a dancing procession of brass bands and traffic wardens through the streets – will celebrate a track each through media including classical music, film, dance, literature and fireworks.

The US feminist artist Judy Chicago will create her biggest painting, a giant mural for Stanley Dock, and the Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller, the New York choreographer Mark Morris and many others not born when the album was released will also take part.

The Beatles at their manager Brian Epstein’s home for the launch of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The Beatles at their manager Brian Epstein’s home for the launch of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Photograph: Apple Corps LTD

“It’s never been done before for an album, but Sgt Pepper is something extraordinary, though there may have been moments when we wished it had fewer tracks,” the celebration’s artistic director, Sean Doran, said. “It’s got that grab, everyone got it, everyone was up for it.”

He described the festival as using the whole city “as a turntable for the album”.

Morris, who will create Pepperland, a dance piece with a new score inspired by the title track, described Sgt Pepper in a filmed message as “the most incredible album ever made”.

“I think there may have been drugs involved, but I’m not sure,” he said.

The events will include a dawn-to-dark celebration of the Indian music that fascinated George Harrison, with the imposing space of St George’s Hall transformed into a festival village with henna painting, yoga lessons, Indian food and a series of recitals throughout the day and into the candlelit night.

The Hope Street-based Hurricane Films will be making a film across the city on the anniversary day, and then editing it in time for a world premiere on 16 June, a prospect its director, Roy Boulter, described as terrifying.

The album cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The album cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Photograph: PA

The John Cage Trust, heirs to the art of the conceptual US composer whose works include 4’33” - four minutes and 33 seconds of silence - will take Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite as a springboard for a performance at Aintree racecourse that will incorporate circus skills, hundreds of local musicians – as many as turn up – poets, dancers … and horses.

In contrast, the most intimate performances will be a monologue inspired by She’s Leaving Home, created by the Liverpool youth theatre company 20 Stories High working with Phelim McDermott of Improbable. Brodie Arthur will deliver the performance at point blank range to the sofas and armchairs of front rooms in private homes in Liverpool 8 in her first professional acting role.

Arthur is 25, and thought she had never heard the album, though when she listened to it she realised she had once performed When I’m 64 in a youth choir. “I was really excited when I got this, but when I told my Mum she said ‘Oh my God, this is going to be such a big deal.’”

Doran, whose background is in classical music and opera, was only seven when Sgt Pepper came out, and suspects it took a while to reach even the coolest kids in 1967 Derry. Two years later, watching television in his parents living room, he heard the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein compare the Beatles to the German composer Schumann.

“I was so struck by it that I really listened to their music, and I could hear all the classical music layers in it immediately,” he said.

Doran said the record, wrapped in Sir Peter Blake’s infinitely parodied cover which has also regularly been voted the greatest ever, was originally conceived as a Liverpool album, but the most purely autobiographical tracks, Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, were stripped out of it for commercial reasons to release as a double A-side single. Their producer, George Martin, recalled it as his greatest mistake, Doran said.

The festival is called Sgt Pepper at 50: Heading for Home, and the whole album was a way back for an almost burned out band, worn out by touring, said Mike Jones of the popular music institute at the University of Liverpool.

“The Liverpool connection is what these people needed to find out who they were again,” he said.

The Beatles are very dear to their native city, so much so that the council commissioned a study to calculate what they were actually worth. Jones, one of the team which reported, said: “When we came back with the answer £82m a year, many people said to us ‘that’s not enough’, but we only put in what we could actually measure.”

The writer Phil Redmond said the Beatles were threaded through the lives and landscape of Liverpool, still regarded as local boys even when they became global superstars. “You couldn’t get away from them. You still can’t.”

Sgt Pepper at 50: Heading for Home, Liverpool, 25 May - 16 June 2017


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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