In my parents’ record collection lies a double-disc soundtrack to one of the worst films ever made. When I first re-discovered vinyl as a pre-teen, I listened to this album and was amazed, and a great deal frightened, at what I had heard. The soundtrack was to 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film. For years, I had heard that the film on which this album is based is unspeakably terrible, but I have never had the opportunity to watch it until this evening. It was bad beyond even my wildest hopes.
Let me explain the premise of this film for the uninitiated. Robert Stigwood, the evil genius behind Saturday Night Fever, decided to turn his focus on The Beatles’ legacy, and make a film around the band’s legendary 1967 album. What followed was a series of musical vignettes, loosely tied together by a plot, following the meteoric rise of Sgt. Pepper’s band, played by…are you ready for this now… the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. I swear I am not making this up, and it only gets weirder from here.
The soundtrack was appalling, with light-disco rewrites of the later half of the Beatles’ catalog. I’ll give credit where credit is due– the “Sgt. Pepper theme” actually sounds good with Bee Gees harmonies, and there are two standout performances among the dreck. Earth Wind & Fire delivers a terrific soul-infused “Got to Get You Into My Life”, replete in their African diaspora regalia, and Aerosmith does a credible by-the-book cover of “Come Together.” But what is the worst song that is used in the movie? We have several contenders–
- George Burn’s version of “Fixing A Hole”
- Robo-voice version of “Mean Mr. Mustard”
- Spoken-word version of “I Want You/She’s So Heavy”
- Blaxploitation “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
- Steve Martin’s “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, attempted in the novelty vein of something like “Monster Mash.”
The plot itself was confusing and hard to follow. No spoken dialogue exists in the film, save for sporadic interruptions by George Burns, which try to explain the action taking place, but to no avail. In hindsight, this was a brilliant move– would you have trusted the Bee Gees and Frampton’s acting skills in 1978? As far as I can tell, the band rises to fame, gets corrupted, and the evil Mr. Mustard moves in on the town, buys up all the property, and conspires to steal the band’s instruments, which apparently have magical qualities. The band, with Billy Shears’ (Frampton) girlfriend Strawberry in tow, manages to get them back, but at dreadful cost, for Strawberry dies in the fracas, and Billy Shears is prepared to commit suicide. Suddenly, the town weathervane comes to life (again, you have my word, not making things up), in the form of Billy Preston. He zaps some electricity from his fingers, prevents Shears from falling to his death, turns the villain into the pope, makes the town pleasant again, and even brings back Strawberry from the dead. The whole town comes out to celebrate with a rousing reprise of the Sgt. Pepper theme. Perhaps most strangely of all, the director decides to get every star who was willing to show up in the finale. I definitely saw Carol Channing, Tina Turner, Gary Wright (Remember “Dream Weaver”?), Dame Edna, Wolfman Jack, and Leif Gareth, among many others.
Nobody involved with this film made it through with their career intact. The Bee Gees became hated emblems of everything wrong with popular music and continue to be reviled today far beyond their actual crimes. Peter Frampton went from teen idol and into Danny Bonaduce circa 1993 territory. Other artists involved in the soundtrack- Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, etc., didn’t have another hit for nearly a decade.
Ah well. It was the 1970s, and that forgives a multitude of sins. This took over the “worst film associated with the Beatles” title from “Magical Mystery Tour”, and held it for nearly 30 years until “Across the Universe” came out. (Or “Give My Regards to Broad Street” if you aren’t an especially great fan of McCartney’s.) Still, it is difficult to hate too strongly on a film where Peter Frampton and Steven Tyler beat each other to a bloody pulp. That’s the kind of scenario where everybody wins.