LIVERPOOL, England – It was 50 years ago, almost to the day, that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.
The band is long gone, but the music of The Beatles still reverberates – and nowhere more loudly than in Liverpool, where the 50th birthday of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is the spark for a citywide festival.
The album, released in the U.S. on June 2, 1967 – just after its British debut – was a psychedelic landmark whose influences ranged from rock to raga to English music hall. For many critics and fans, it’s the Fab Four’s finest achievement.
Half a century on, Liverpool has asked 13 artists to respond to the album’s 13 tracks, for a “Sgt. Pepper at 50” festival that runs through June 16. The artists come from Britain, the U.S., France, India and Australia, and their works range over theater, dance, public art, puppetry, film, fireworks and music.
The festival is endorsed by surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who have both sent messages of support.
Claire McColgan, director of public body Culture Liverpool, said the festival aims “to take something that is so iconic, that is so known throughout the world, and give a whole contemporary, fresh interpretation of it.”
“These four boys from this city never left here,” she said. “Their songs tell a story of this place.”
“Sgt. Pepper” was partly the product of The Beatles’ frustration with fame. Exhausted by touring, they played their last live concert in August 1966 and devoted their energies and creativity to the studio. Working with producer George Martin at London’s Abbey Road Studios, they made a multilayered, technologically innovative album that was never intended to be played live.
Half a century on, “Sgt. Pepper”-inspired artworks are springing up across Liverpool. A dockside grain silo sports a colorful pop-art mural by American artist Judy Chicago. Roadside billboards, the work of Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, proclaim “Brian Epstein died for you.”
There are concerts of Indian classical music – a major influence on George Harrison – and a film set on a city bus route inspired by “A Day in the Life.” Meter maid “Lovely Rita” is the starting point for an “outlandish procession” through the streets by cabaret artist Meow Meow, clad in a fabulous dress made from parking tickets.
To say Liverpool is proud of The Beatles is an understatement. The group is a cross between guardian spirit and major industry, one that has helped the port city rebuild after the decline of its once-thriving docks. Today, there are Magical Mystery bus tours , a Beatles museum and even a Beatles-themed hotel .
Director Julia Samuels of youth theater company 20 Stories High said that for younger Liverpool residents, the band is “part of their subconscious.”
Her colleague Keith Saha compared it to the way Liverpudlians are either “red or blue” – a supporter of Liverpool soccer club or its rival Everton.
“Everyone’s got their favorite Beatle,” he said. “Everyone’s got their favorite album.
“The good thing about Liverpool is we haven’t Disneyfied The Beatles, and that’s what’s really important about this festival.”
The troupe’s contribution to the festival is a play inspired by the song “She’s Leaving Home,” performed in a house around the corner from Ringo Starr’s childhood home.
Liverpool has been through tough times since The Beatles split in 1970, and the festival includes notes of melancholy amid the celebration. Carl Hunter’s short film “A Day in the Life – Twenty Four Zero Hours” focuses on a young care worker employed on an impoverishing casual contract. Deller’s giant billboards commemorate Beatles manager Epstein, who died three months after the album was released.
“Without him there wouldn’t have been The Beatles as we know them,” Deller said.
Deller, who takes his inspiration from the song “With a Little Help From My Friends,” says he is interested in “the darkness in pop music and popular culture, which is all about light and color and brightness.”
The festival insists it’s not a nostalgia trip, many of the artists were not yet born when The Beatles split up.
One who does remember the 1960s is feminist artist Chicago, whose mural “Four Lads From Liverpool” was inspired by the song “Fixing a Hole.” But the 77-year-old artist said she was not a huge Beatles fan at the time.
“I’m not the groupie type,” she said. “I was really busy working. But music filled the air, and the hope charged the environment. We were all part of that. It was an incredible period. I think it’s a period that young people now can’t actually quite imagine.”