Bringing Sgt. Pepper home: the Artistic Directors reflect on Sgt Pepper at 50
Following the success of their Happy Days festival, celebrating the life and work of Samuel Beckett, curatorial duo DoranBrowne were invited to Liverpool to curate a celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Here, Liam Browne writes for Culture about the project, and the enduring magic of Sgt. Pepper five decades on.
When my colleague Sean Doran and I were approached by Liverpool City Council in early 2016 to curate an event response to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, it was a step into the unknown.
We learnt subsequently our work on Happy Days, a multi-arts festival celebrating the life and work of Samuel Beckett, had caught Liverpool’s eye. Happy Days is profoundly local in its relationship between arts and place (incorporating site-specific spaces throughout Enniskillen and County Fermanagh) but was at the same time international in its scope and programming. It demonstrates, we like to think, how a festival can knit organically into the wider community to deliver an authentic artistic event.
Liverpool’s brief for Sgt. Pepper was simple: a ‘forward-facing celebration’, avoiding nostalgia. We in turn were inspired by Paul McCartney’s declared mantra “Let’s not be ourselves’” for the band’s work on the album – hence his creation of the Beatles’ alter ego, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The destination arts events that Sean and I have worked on recently under DoranBrowne focus on Irish writers such as Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Oscar Wilde and Brian Friel. Before any programming begins, we spend a great deal of time researching the life and work of the artist concerned as well as walking the streets and landscapes of each festival’s location over and over again.
We took exactly the same approach, but this time to a single artwork – the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album – and like all great works of art, the more you engaged with the work the more it deepened and repaid you. Sgt. Pepper has a plenitude to it, brimming with new ideas, approaches, instrumentation and production. You sense The Beatles (and McCartney in particular) stretching and pushing themselves towards new and innovative ways of writing and recording their songs.
Whilst you couldn’t describe it as a concept album, Sgt. Pepper is not simply a collection of individual songs. It has a musical architecture and a soulful integrity. When Lennon and McCartney went into the studio in November 1966, they had just finished four years of non-stop touring, of constant deadlines, of living in an eternal present. This was a chance to draw breath and they had in mind an autobiographical album; perhaps not surprisingly therefore they sought inspiration in their own early lives, recording Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, songs potent with childhood memories. But the direction the album might have taken changed irrevocably with the decision to release these tracks as a double A-side single in February ’67 rather than include them on Sgt. Pepper (a decision the producer, George Martin, described as ‘the biggest mistake of my life.’) Yet, we believe Liverpool remains subtly present through the album and both these songs hover like ghosts over the upcoming 13 events of Sgt. Pepper at 50.
In its musical sweep, Sgt. Pepper seems to gesture towards the classical. The title track with which it opens acts as the Overture, revealing what is to come, and, following the Reprise on Side 2, the album ends with the Coda of A Day in the Life. We took this to heart and strove to maintain this chronology – so we opened on May 25-27 with the Mark Morris Dance Company creating a newly commissioned world premiere to the music of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and several other tracks of the album (the only artist of the 13 to be given multiple tracks by us as the song shares the title of the overall album) and will finish on June 16th (Joyce’s Bloomsday, purposely chosen) with a collaboration between writer Frank Cottrell Boyce and film-maker Carl Hunter as they respond to A Day in the Life. In between, artists and organisations such as Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, cabaret artist Meow Meow, musician/polemicist DJ Spooky, and feminist artist Judy Chicago as well as Liverpool-based arts organisations such as 20 Stories High, Metal, Tate Liverpool and MILAP are all involved in the challenge of responding to individual tracks on the album.
The relationship between the communal and the personal is a key element of the album, in songs such as She’s Leaving Home and Within You Without You, as is the importance there and elsewhere of friendship, mutual support and love – there are few cities in the world that can carry that sense of the interconnectedness of the individual and the collective as strongly as Liverpool. Inspired by the simple physicality of placing an LP on the turntable (plus the presence of those letters in Liverpool’s name) we sought from the first to have the festival’s events ripple out concentrically from the city centre out past the Docklands, Toxteth, Woolton and Aintree to the outer fringes of the city.
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on June 1st, 1967 but in the early hours of April 21st, 1967, just after the album was actually completed, The Beatles took an acetate of the album with them from Abbey Road Studios and headed straight for Mama Cass’ flat in Chelsea, where, as morning dawned, they opened all the windows and, at top volume, played the album to the world for the first time. It’s a wonderful image and feels very representative of its time. In our own small way, we too hope we are opening the windows and through the artistry and vision of the commissioned artists, offering a new, pristine engagement with this extraordinary album.