Fixing A Hole: Robert Stigwood’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at 45

Looking back on the project that almost killed the careers of the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton

Sgt. Pepper film poster (Image: eBay)

Normally, if I’m writing a retrospective, it’s for an album with a certain amount of merit, a cachet where it’s remembered with fondness.

This, however, marks the 45th anniversary of an exception to that, an album that the group spread all over it wishes we’d forget existed.

A few years back, HBO aired a documentary — The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart — which mostly did a terrific job of covering the trajectory of the band’s career.

It was quite comprehensive, except for one glaring omission. During the section about the group’s commercial decline in the ’80s, blame for it gets thrown at anti-disco backlash. To be sure, that was part of it, a sort of posturing of rock as “real” and “authentic” as opposed to disco which had its origins in black gay clubs.

But there was also overexposure, especially with them also working for people like Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick and Kenny Rogers while trying to keep their own careers going.

But there was a noticeable gaping hole in the documentary, something left unmentioned as if saying its name three times could wreak havoc, like Candyman, Bloody Mary or Beetlejuice.

The Thing That Shall Not Be Named was, of course, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not the classic Beatles album of 1967, but 1978’s Beatles-free cash-in film and soundtrack.

The movie itself was, to put it kindly, a mess, starting with the decision to cast non-actors in big roles. But more on that as we go along. There’s the matter of the soundtrack, released on this day in 1978, one day ahead before the campy misfire hit movie screens.

Sgt. Pepper lobby card 1 (Image: eBay)

Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood, in addition to managing acts like Cream and owning RSO Records, also had been involved in theatrical productions. He’d purchased the rights to 29 Beatles songs for what became Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road, an off-Broadway production that ran at the Beacon Theater in 1974.

Stigwood wanted to do more with the songs, so he hired Henry Edwards, a man who’d never written a screenplay before. The idea was to incorporate the songs into a sort of MGM musical for a new generation.

Sometimes, first-time screenwriters show great promise or even have a debut hit. But, though he didn’t know it at the time, Stigwood had brought in someone whose only other credit would be co-writing a 1980 B-movie — The Great Skycopter Rescue.

The other red flag? Those MGM musicals, at their best, starred real pros, people who’d come up through the stage and were true triple-threat performers. With all due respect to the Bee Gees, cast as Sgt. Pepper’s band, and Peter Frampton, cast as Billy Shears, nobody thought of them as actors.

Sgt. Pepper soundtrack on vinyl (Image: Discogs)

Michael Schultz was hired as director, with titles like Cooley High and Car Wash in his list of credits. Luckily for Schultz, the fiasco didn’t kill his career as he’d go on to direct movies like Krush Groove and The Last Dragon. He’s still active, directing television well into his 80s.

The only actor to get spoken dialogue was George Burns, who’d made a big comeback in films with an Oscar-winning role in 1975’s The Sunshine Boys. He’d followed that with a charming turn as the Almighty himself in the 1977 hit Oh, God! He was tapped to play Mr. Kite, the narrator.

As the film took shape, there was also the matter of the soundtrack. With Frampton and the Bee Gees as its stars, they would do more of the heavier lifting as a variety of guest acts would contribute a song or two each. The presence of Beatles producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick was a draw. Martin, it’s said, later regretted being involved in the project.

It’s hard to blame him because not only does the bulk of the soundtrack not work, it’s a double album worth of mostly bad decisions to endure.

Tellingly, the album’s two biggest successes — critically and commercially — weren’t produced by Martin at all.

Earth Wind & Fire gives “Got to Get You Into My Life” a jazzy swing. Produced by group leader, Maurice White, it’s another in a run of tight singles when the group was at its commercial and creative peak.


AUDIO: Earth, Wind & Fire “Got To Get You Into My Life”

Aerosmith lays scuzzy menace all over “Come Together”, produced by Jack Douglas, who’d worked with them through their ’70s peak.

Guitarist Joe Perry told Yahoo Music years later, “We did it for an adventure, just to do it, “They said, ‘Come on out, all expenses paid!’ — throwing money around like crazy,” he said. “A lot of people thought it was going to be what it was, and saw it for what it was, but it gave us a chance not only to cover one of our favorite Beatles songs, but to work with George Martin. And that, of course, was the real hook for us.”

As it turned out, Martin correctly liked how they were sounding with Douglas and didn’t suggest any changes.

The film was highly hyped. Stigwood had a string of successes as a producer — 1973’s Jesus Christ Superstar, 1975’s Tommy, then consecutive smashes Saturday Night Fever and Grease (whose soundtracks dominated the charts from late 1977 into 1978). There were the Bee Gees and Frampton, as well as other successful acts on the soundtrack.

Some bought into the hype, or at least misread the audience for it. The Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb said in 1977, “Kids today don’t know the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. 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, in any case. When ours comes out, it will be, in effect, as if theirs never existed. When you heard the Beatles do Long Tall Sally or Roll Over Beethoven, did you care about Little Richard’s or Chuck Berry’s version?”

Gibb was wrong on multiple levels, including that last sentence, as certainly Little Richard and Chuck Berry weren’t “forgotten” back then. If they’d been forgotten, the Fab Four themselves wouldn’t have covered them in the first place.

Sgt. Pepper trading cards (Image: Etsy)

Nobody had forgotten The Beatles in 1977, either. Their back catalog still sold and an album cut off Revolver – “Got To Get You Into My Life” – had been a Top 10 single the year before. The members themselves, who had nothing to do with the movie, were all out there. Paul McCartney was in a successful run with Wings. George Harrison had released the well-received Thirty-Three & 1/3 the year before. John Lennon was in his post-Lost Weekend homebody years, but would be welcomed back when he returned. And Ringo was still around, although his bizarre choice to do a semi-disco album with Ringo The 4th got him dropped by his label. And there’s no doubt that the four left a lot of money on the table by not reuniting in the late ’70s. Forgotten? No.

And Robin Gibb himself, a man with talent, did not make anyone forget The Beatles with his version of “Oh, Darling.” The man had shown a way with a heartbreaker (see “I Started a Joke”, for one). But think back to the original. McCartney pushes his vocals in almost tongue-in-cheek fashion, one of his more intense Beatles performances. Here, the arrangement removes the rock, for a Muzak version of the blues. There might have been a way to break hearts, but this version is more likely to induce cringing laughs despite Gibbs’ efforts.

So, no Beatles, but you have their producer and you have some talent to work with. The Bee Gees had two successful acts – first with their classic pop years, then the revival that came with their shift to dance and disco that started with 1975’s Arif Mardin-produced Main Course.

Frampton had put out a string of solid solo albums whose songs formed the core of the multi-platinum live Frampton Comes Alive. And even if 1977’s I’m In You had been rushed (and sold disappointingly as a result), the man had talent and audience goodwill in reserve.

Unfortunately, very little of what had made the Bee Gees and Frampton successful translated to their contributions to the soundtrack.

The two aren’t able to overcome the antiseptic arrangements, which lack any real punch while failing to do anything different. The net effect is of sitting in on Frampton and the Bee Gees doing karaoke at one of the Gibb Brothers’ homes, if they were all being held hostage and forced to sing at gunpoint.

In retrospect, there were warning signs. Frampton wrote in his 2017 memoir Do You Feel Like I Do?, “It was a disaster from the beginning. Once I arrived on the set that first day, I guess I could have walked off, but it would have probably cost millions, and I’d have got sued and everything. So, I just went along with it at that point.”

Frampton also wasn’t happy that he’d agreed to do the film believing that McCartney would also be in it, only to find out that Stigwood had misled him.


VIDEO: Aerosmith “Come Together”

Even though Frampton had certain Hollywood aspirations (a three-picture deal evaporated when Pepper flopped), he was a neophyte actor, but one who knew things weren’t set up for success. He couldn’t have been the only one, even if it was just a paycheck for some of the names with cameos.

One could spend volumes writing about the mess of the movie itself, a production beset with problems where cocaine was readily available and consumed.

It’s a basic tale of the smalltown innocent, played by Frampton, who opts to leave wee little Heartland to seek musical success in the big city. He finds it, only to run across temptations and greed that threaten not only himself and the woman he loves, but Heartland. The ever-so-flimsy plot is just there to shoehorn the cameos and Beatles covers into. The leads couldn’t act. It all culminates with a deus ex machina that could make even the least cynical moviegoer want to chuck their remaining soda and empty Raisinets box at the screen.

Frampton’s Spears is despondent over the death of his beloved Strawberry Fields, played by singer-songwriter Sandy Farina, who was done no favors by a script that treats her as a teenage girl and denies her agency for much of the runtime. Spears decides to end it all, jumping from a tall building. But before he could hit the ground, the Sgt. Pepper weathervane at the top of City Hall suddently comes to life for the first time in the movie. And who is Sgt. Pepper, but Billy Preston, dressed in a gold lame marching band outfit, complete with future Ron DeSantis gogo boots? He starts singing “Get Back” and magically reverses Billy’s attempted suicide, brings the dead Strawberry back to life, gives a couple of the film’s villains a “wacky” comeuppance and basically sets everything right in Heartland.

You know, Sgt. Pepper, you could have fixed all this ten minutes in and saved us all from the rest of the movie. Thanks for nothing, pal.

Another bad sign? Frampton’s mother attended the movie’s premiere in his stead, as he was in the hospital after a car crash in the Bahamas that easily could have killed him. At the moment where Spears is pondering leaping from the window, audience members could be heard yelling “Jump! Jump! Jump!”

And it’s all capped off by a salute to the Sgt. Pepper album cover where celebrities of varying note (apparently they tried to get anyone with a pulse who could get to the studio that day). The end result is shots of people singing/miming to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, given an arrangement that sounds like it had been left on the cutting room floor of Ethel Merman’s disco album. 

All the while, there were shots putting one in the mind of alternate universe Love Boat casting (Carol Channing and Tina Turner! Wolfman Jack and Bobby Womack! Chita Rivera and Stephen Bishop! And Sir Monti Rock III!).

While the movie didn’t lose money, making $20.4 million on a $13 million budget, it was a definite flop. Grease, released just over a month earlier and Saturday Night Fever, released in December, 1977, would combine to make over $603 million on budgets that totaled $9.5 million. 

That carried over to the soundtracks. Grease and Saturday Night Fever sold over 70 million copies. Sgt. Pepper only sold two million, with reportedly many as many as twice that that being returned to RSO. 

The majority of the guest appearances didn’t help. Steve Martin was a huge standup comic and popular Saturday Night Live host, but as for his take on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”? There was not enough glaze in the world to cover that ham. And even not seeing the movie, one could picture his shameless mugging just by listening to the soundtrack and start wishing they could angrily tell Martin the physically impossible things he could do to himself.

The harmonies of the original “Because” are shoved aside for Alice Cooper to do his Alice Cooper shtick, which was unintentionally funny given that his most recent successes had been as a balladeer with “I Never Cry” and “You And Me”. Even moreso, Cooper couldn’t be bothered to sing, turning into an SNL Bad Poetry sketch.

Burns’ “singing” on “Fixing a Hole” went as well as you’d expect, which is not at all. At least he tries, unlike Cooper, but the results belonged on one of those future Golden Throats compilations.

English comic actor Frankie Howerd alternates between speaking and singing, poorly, on “When I’m 64” and “Mean Mr. Mustard ”, the arrangements ever-so-slight. He barely appears on the latter, as Mr. Mustard’s robots, voiced by vocodered Gibb brothers, handle the vocal duties. As ridiculous as that sentence reads, it’s even more ludicrous in execution.

The arrangement on “Strawberry Fields Forever”, strips away the original’s psychedelic glory, attempting to turn the Fab 4 into the Carpenters. The same thing happens with her “Here Comes the Sun”, which dissolves the pop loveliness into adult contemporary goo, as if Rita Coolidge had been shot with tranquilizer darts.

Elsewhere, there’s more surgical excision of psychedelia (Dianne Steinberg’s “Lucy in the Sky of Diamonds”) and more Golden Throats moments (Donald Pleasance talking on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” making one wish Stigwood had cast Shatner). And even accounting for the possible presence of cocaine, what possessed the powers-that-be to arrange the latter as if it were being performed by a Steely Dan tribute band?

The Sgt. Pepper fiasco certainly didn’t help relations between the Bee Gees and Stigwood. In 1980, they filed what was, at the time, the largest lawsuit in music business history, asking for $136 million, alleging mismanagement and asking for unpaid royalties. Stigwood countersued for over $300 million. The two sides went at each other until, quietly, the suits were settled in May, 1981 with undisclosed terms and both sides making nice in the press. The Bee Gees finished out their RSO contract with 1981’s Living Eyes, with the label itself disappearing two years later. Stigwood pretty much left the music business to focus on film and stage production.

While the film might be unmentionable in the Bee Gees’ official history, its ill effects on their career were part of the overexposure problem, but not the sole cause. It didn’t happen immediately. Their next studio album, Spirits Having Flown, sold 30 million copies upon its 1979 release with “Too Much Heaven”, “Tragedy” and “Love You Inside Out” all topping the singles charts.

It should be noted that years later, when the Bee Gees regained control of their back catalog, the only album they refused to reissue was the Sgt. Pepper soundtrack. 


VIDEO: The Bee Gees perform “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

The aftereffects hit Frampton harder. Already stinging from the commercial disappointment of 1977’s I’m In You (an album he regretted not spending more time on to get right), he had one more Top 40 single in 1979’s Can’t Stand It No More. And while still a popular concert draw, he never had another album reach gold, let alone platinum again.

For years, it was That Which Shall Not Be Named for Frampton as well, though he was able to put it in perspective years later. He also had more positive Hollywood experiences working as a technical adviser on Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (where he played Humble Pie’s manager). He also showed a nice of sense of humor with his appearance in the Simpson’s classic Homerpalooza episode, where exasperatedly chastises Sonic Youth for breaking into his cooler. Later, he delivers one of the episode’s best lines — “You’re damn right I’m gonna be pissed off! I bought that pig at Pink Floyd’s yard sale!”

Aerosmith’s post-Sgt. Pepper fallow period had nothing to do with backlash, but rather the combination of heavy drug use and ego that they wouldn’t recover from until 1987’s Permanent Vacation.

All in all, as much as I’d like to say that the soundtrack to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is some sort of overlooked, hidden classic and that it was unfairly maligned at the time, I can’t. Only a few songs don’t induce secondhand embarrassment — the contributions of Earth, Wind & Fire, Preston and Aerosmith. As a whole, this is a fiasco that deserved the blowback it got.

Regardless of the talent involved, there was no overcoming the reality that it was being spearheaded at the top by people who viewed the Beatles’ songs as property without liking the Beatles all that much. Then it set those songs to a film scripted without sense, wit or even the willingness to lean into the camp.

In short, it was like being forced to sit through the world’s worst jukebox musical, a ’70s Super Bowl Halftime Show where Up With People had been filled with popular conscripted into the movie as if they’d been given some sort of twisted community service by a judge with a sick sense of humor.

You know, the more I think about it, I can’t blame the Bee Gees or anyone else for wanting to use a Men In Black neuralizer to erase it from our collective memory.


VIDEO: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band official film trailer

Kara Tucker

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love—music. She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

One thought on “Fixing A Hole: Robert Stigwood’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at 45

  • July 26, 2023 at 12:58 pm

    I was a college radio DJ when this came out — Aerosmith’s track was the only thing worth playing. Good retrospective — and Robin Gibb’s arrogance is stunning: “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.” Puh-LEEZE! If only this fell into the so-bad-it’s-sorta-good territory. Not even close. It just sucks all around.


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