Pepper Spray

It was 20 years ago this week that Sgt. Pepper dropped a bomb on movie theaters, so where's all the rerelease hoopla?

In 1978, RSO Records was the most successful record label on planet Earth. From Christmas of 1977 to May 20 the following year, the Robert Stigwood-owned label maintained a 21-week stranglehold on the top position of Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart. No other record label has ever managed to score six consecutive No. 1s, and before summer's end, RSO clocked in an additional 11 weeks at No. 1.

Meanwhile, on the LP charts, RSO boasted two double-album movie soundtracks that spent a combined 36 weeks at No. 1. The first of these, Saturday Night Fever, became one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. Next came Grease, which was the fifth top-selling album of the '70s.

Before anyone knew what a huge hit Fever would be, Stigwood signed off on a third movie project with an accompanying double album. There was every indication that this was going to be huge. After all, it starred the Bee Gees, who had a hand in both those RSO soundtracks, and Peter Frampton, whose Frampton Comes Alive! was the all-time biggest-selling double album right behind Saturday Night Fever. Even Capitol Records was optimistic enough to slap on its latest re-pressings of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band big word-balloon stickers boasting that this was "The Original!"

But the splendid time guaranteed for all turned into a bomb of Nagasaki proportions. Legend has it that the Sgt. Pepper soundtrack was the first album to ship double platinum and return triple platinum, meaning that even the counterfeit copies were being returned by retailers. In tandem, the Pepper film tarnished the careers and reputations of its talented cast (see accompanying Pepper curse list). When a flop of such magnitude is unleashed on the unsuspecting public, you don't just pinch your nose. No, you drop your jaw in utter awe of every ill-conceived and poorly executed idea. This was no mere flop rock musical. This was an unstoppable doomsday device. The book Hollywood Rock likened the film to "watching human life descend several rungs down the evolutionary ladder."

So while the 20th anniversary of Grease was recently observed with a major theatrical rerelease, a home-video rerelease and a slew of media coverage, don't expect the same wave of nostalgia for Pepper, which reportedly lost all the cash that Fever and Grease made for RSO. No one's marking this anniversary with anything but stone silence.

"No one's making any noise about it at all. It's really upsetting, actually. It's kinda bumming me out."

Meet Denise George, a 28-year-old working actress from Brooklyn, New York. When she was 8, her sister took her to see Pepper. Being such an impressionable young girl, she naturally identified with Strawberry Fields, Peter Frampton's virginal love interest in the film. "When Strawberry fell down the little stair thing [chained] to a neon dollar sign and died, I lost my little mind. My sister said, 'Are you crying?' And I said, 'No! There's something in my eye.' It was pathetic."

Denise didn't realize until returning to school in September that just admitting you saw the movie could lead to immediate peer ostracism. "I told friends, and they went 'eeeewwww.' There were a lot of rock 'n' roll kids in my town, so that 'death to disco' thing struck me pretty early. I realized straight out that this movie was going to be a guilty pleasure of mine and no one else was going to share it with me, except a few handful of people on the World Wide Web which I discovered recently. But I've gotten 4,000 hits on it already."

Denise has a hilarious Web site dedicated to this celluloid zero, the only site in cyberspace of its kind with full-blown information on this rock-movie abomination. For some inexplicable reason, VH1 keeps running it as part of its Rock Movie series, and it gets frequent midnight showings on the WB. Whenever people run across it and fail to catch the name of the girl with kaleidoscope eyes, they look up the movie on the Internet Movie Database and it links back to Denise.

Among the more recent curiosity seekers is Martin Lewis, a man who's creating the George Martin Web site. He's corresponded with Denise because the Beatles producer, who also produced the Pepper soundtrack, didn't remember much about his involvement in the 20-year-old movie. "He's not sure which artists he produced or co-produced. He could just look at the record," says Denise, "but he doesn't even have it." From the sound of it, this key participant blotted the whole thing out of his mind.

So what's the appeal of the movie to Denise now? "It's so bad, it's good. The battle to the death between the Bee Gees and Aerosmith, that was it in a nutshell," she says laughing. "The only real redeeming quality in the movie was the Bee Gees. Their music stood on its own, but their image took a definite nose-dive. Those silver suits and the blow-dried hair [in the movie] were exactly what all the metal kids were against."

In Aerosmith's Walk This Way biography, drummer Joey Kramer revealed that rather than fight with the Gibb brothers, Aerosmith chose to just muss up their hair.

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