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.
For local pop musician Adrian Smith (late of Sugar High/Autumn Teen Sound, currently with Crashbar), the Pepper film was his entree into Beatle music and, more important, Aerosmith.
"I didn't even know it was a rock 'n' roll movie, I thought it was going to be a war picture. I remember really digging the movie and feeling really sad when Peter was singing 'Carry That Weight' when Strawberry was dead. I've always been kind of a sap," Smith says. (Smith fesses up to using the "something in my eye" defense, too.)
"But I did get something out of that flick that stays with me to this day, and that's a huge love for Aerosmith. Remember Aerosmith played the Future Villain Band. They were like this nasty, sexy, sleazy, dangerous bunch of guys, and I remember being affected. I went out and bought the single ["Come Together"], held a portable cassette recorder to my close-and-play phonograph speakers and filled a whole 60-minute tape front to back with that song. The Aerosmith version. When I first heard the Beatle version, I was disappointed."
A lot of people were similarly disappointed to see their fanciful image of "Henry the Horse dancing the waltz" translated into two guys roller-skating in a musty mule costume. "Those guys had too much money, and they were riding too high," Adrian says, nodding. "Like one of those great ideas you get when you're drunk. No dialogue. We'll tell the whole story with Beatle songs. It was an odd movie, but there were a lot of overly ambitious musicals coming out at the time, like Xanadu."
Surprisingly, in a recent Entertainment Weekly home-video roundup of the worst rock films, Pepper is conspicuously absent among dross like the Village People's Can't Stop the Music and the recent Spice World. Is Pepper on its way to becoming a misunderstood cult classic? Well, let's come together right now and watch it again, okay? You bring the popcorn and I'll man the stomach pump.
Amazingly enough, this script was cooked up by a New York Times film critic, Henry Edwards. Maybe he remembered the earlier film All This and World War II, which showed grainy newsreel footage to badly rerecorded Beatle tunes. Anyhow, in this turkazoid, World War II officially ended because Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play so splendidly that everyone put down their weapons to listen. Or maybe it was to cover their ears to escape George Burns' listless narration (more on that later).
It takes Pepperland 20 years to decide it needs a new band after the original Pepper kicks, so Billy Shears (Frampton)) enlists the Hendersons (the Bee Gees) to play. A big cigar-chomping record executive flies them out to L.A. and signs them to a record contract after a PG-rated orgy.
Meanwhile, back in Pepperland, evil people who hate joy and love but somehow manage to love money plot to steal Sgt. Pepper's instruments, which magically maintain the peace. Edwards must've also remembered seeing the animated Yellow Submarine, which handled the same convoluted themes in a far more adult manner.
Noteworthy Observations About the Movie:
1. What looks like it could turn into a lesbian love scene early on (yay!) turns out to be Sandy Farina (Strawberry Fields) kissing the girlish Peter Frampton (boo!).
2. Maurice Gibb, an exceptional bass player in real life, is forced to be the drummer in Sgt. Pepper's band because he has less hair than the other two Bee Gees. That's scalp discrimination!
3. The fictitious record label BD Records has a bloated red pig for a logo, a dead ringer for RSO's red cash cow.
4. All the evil people in this movie smoke and hang out with black girls. Mean Mr. Mustard even has two black chickaroo robots!
5. Denise's Web site points to this reality check--Lucy's band Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds has three songs in the Top 10, yet she's the chauffeur for BD Brockhurst, the record executive. You've heard of people, er umph, sucking up before the deal is inked, but after? Hold on, aren't the Bee Gees doing this grunt work for Stigwood after releasing the biggest-selling album of all time?
6. As silent film stars, The Bee Gees' enthusiasm seems inappropriately placed, which means their next film shoulda been an infomercial. In stark contrast is the constantly squinting Frampton. Unless he's singing, Billy Shears looks as if his dick is about to be sheared by a pencil sharpener. When he's about to be seduced, he looks as bashful as the Beaver going to Wally for secondhand carnal knowledge.
7. The actor who portrays Strawberry Fields' dad is some loser in Felix Unger's opera group on The Odd Couple series. Thank goodness he doesn't get to sing, but Donald Pleasence, Frankie Howerd, George Burns and Steve Martin, who have no singing ability whatsoever, each gets at least one number!
8. Getting George Burns to narrate must've been an afterthought because the musicians couldn't execute any lines that weren't chopped up on a mirror.
9. When Burns' character, Mr. Kite, is captured, bound and gagged, the movie loses linear narration for about 15 minutes. Then try following this sequence. Strawberry leaves Pepperland, which has become an orgy of disco-video arcades and motels with adult movies, rooms by the hour and (shudder, shudder) waterbeds!! Once she ventures out to Los Angeles, she sees billboards of Sgt. Pepper and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. Suddenly they come to life, Lucy seduces Billy Shears and they kiss. The song's over, and Strawberry realizes, Whew! they were only billboards. Later, she goes to the recording studio and confronts Billy that his billboard likeness has been unfaithful. Look, we told you she was virginal!
10. So virginal, in fact, that when an unconscious Peter fantasizes about her, she's dressed up in the trampy costume Lucy in the Sky is wearing. All men are dogs, dogs, dogs!
11. Sgt. Pepper's band members go to retrieve the stolen instruments and let themselves get beat up by a buncha nurses.
12. The Future Villain Band (Aerosmith) captures Strawberry and threatens to turn her into a "mindless groupie," something she's been all along--for that sucky Sgt. Pepper band!
13. Aerosmith, at the height of their druggin' and drinkin', look almost cherubic here. In the script, it called for Frampton to kill Steven Tyler. Tyler threatened to walk off the film unless it was made to look like an accident. So what happens? He lets a girl push him off a platform to his death, leaving the other guys in the Future Villain Band to form the Joe Perry Project on the spot, natch!
14. Fans of those crash test dummies will want to play Strawberry's death tumble over and over. It looks really painful. Along comes grieving Peter Frampton, looking slightly bummed, as if he's got to make alternate luncheon plans.
15. After Strawberry's funeral, someone remembers--the eye dropper! Now Peter looks sad! In a sequence that starts out looking like an ABC Afterschool Special, suicidal Frampton comes alive, goes on the ledge and actually jumps off. Just then the Sgt. Pepper weather vane comes to life in the form of Billy Preston singing "Get Back." Zap! Frampton is prevented from killing himself. Zap! Then he's zapping all the bad people into clergy robes and nun habits. Zap! Then he zaps Strawberry back to life. You wonder why Preston doesn't zap himself back to the roof of Apple studios to jam with the Beatles, and to hell with these impostors.
Let Me Take You Down: The Sgt. Pepper Career Curse:
Anytime some actor or actress in Rebel Without a Cause or The Wizard of Oz dies, the National Enquirer will run a half-baked story on how the cast was cursed to die at a tragically young or ripe old age. Unlike those jinxes, this one here has irrefutable proof. Still don't believe that this movie terminated more promising careers than single-engine plane crashes? May I introduce to you the acts you've known for all these years and the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Curse! See which performers fell and never rose again, which came back after a lengthy dry spell, and find out the lone recording act that suffered no long-term side effects as a result of appearing in this film.
1. THE BEE GEES
HOT STREAK BEFORE PEPPER MOVIE CURSE (1977-78): The Bee Gees' Saturday Night Fever soundtrack sells 25 million copies, spawns three No. 1 singles that top the charts for a total of 15 weeks!
COOL STREAK AFTER PEPPER MOVIE CURSE: Their first post-Pepper album Spirits Having Flown also spawns three No. 1 singles that only top the charts for a total of five weeks! Their next single, "He's a Liar," barely makes it to No. 30 in 1981, and the album it came from, Living Eyes, doesn't even dent the Top 40! After the U.S. tires of Barry's falsetto and blames the Bee Gees for disco, the Brothers Gibb can only score hits by getting Babs Streisand and Dionne Warwick to record their tunes. This Bee Gees freeze-out in America is only now thawing. Ha, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive, stayin' alive.
2. PETER FRAMPTON
BEFORE (1976-77): Frampton Comes Alive! sells 16 million copies, and the title track to its follow-up I'm in You results in his highest-charting single ever (No. 2).
AFTER: Peter couldn't get near the top of the charts ever again, not even with Frampton Comes Alive II in 1995.
Immediately after filming, he is seriously injured in a car crash, which spares him the humiliation of attending the Sgt. Pepper movie premiere. When Frampton's character was on a ledge contemplating suicide, the rowdy Times Square audience laughed aloud and yelled, "Jump! Jump!" Just like New Yorkers!
3. GEORGE BURNS
BEFORE (1975-77): George Burns hadn't seen action like this since Gracie was alive. In 1975, he wins an Oscar for The Sunshine Boys. In 1977, he stars in another box-office smash, Oh, God!, with John Denver.
AFTER: Burns' movie career screeches to a halt with his next three films, Oh God! Book II, Oh God! You Devil and 18 Again. Say goodnight, Georgie!
BEFORE (1976-77): Aerosmith enjoys its biggest year in 1976 with two Top 10 hits, "Dream On" and "Walk This Way," plus other notables like "Back in the Saddle" and "Last Child."
AFTER: Not even being the Anti-Bee Gees in the Pepper film can break the curse! Drugs and the defection of Joe Perry ensure they will not score another hit single until they make a pact with the Devil (Desmond Child) in 1987.
5. ALICE COOPER
BEFORE (1976-78): Although Cooper's solo albums of this period are not charting Top 40, his big hit singles like "I Never Cry" and "You and Me" bring him some popularity with housewives.
AFTER: The combination of alcoholism and appearing in this film has a devastating effect on the Coop's career. He scores one hit right after the curse with "How You Gonna See Me Now" and spends one week in the Top 40 in 1980. After that, Father Sun doesn't sire another hit single until talking "Trash" with the Devil (Desmond Child) in 1989.
6. EARTH, WIND AND FIRE
BEFORE (1976-78): Earth, Wind and Fire albums keep going platinum, and they actually score one of their biggest hits with this movie's rendition of "Got to Get You Into My Life." What gives?
AFTER: EW&F's platinum streak continues unabated well past 1979. Whatever Egyptian god Maurice White and the guys pray to seems to have done the trick. Perhaps it's because they're the only act in the movie to use their real name and perform as if you could be watching them on the Midnight Special. Lesson learned? Don't be a Pepper--be yourself!
7. STEVE MARTIN
BEFORE (1976-78): Steve Martin's first two comedy albums are huge hits, and while this movie is stinking up theaters, the Wild and Crazy Guy has a summer hit single with "King Tut."
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AFTER: After two Top 10 albums, Martin's first post-Pepper effort, Comedy Is Not Pretty, only makes it to No. 25. His movie career fares little better. With the exception of The Jerk in 1979, he becomes synonymous with flops like The Man With Two Brains, The Lonely Guy and Pennies From Heaven.
8. BILLY PRESTON
BEFORE (1976-77): Billy Preston's Top 40 triumph (two No. 1s and another two Top 5s) had already peaked by 1975. But he still played with the Stones (1976's Black and Blue) and even got a writing credit on a Stones LP, something Brian Jones and Mick Taylor never managed.
AFTER: The traumatic sight of seeing Billy Preston without an Afro wig in this bomb ruins whatever career he had left, save for one hit duet with Stevie Wonder ex Syreeta ("With You I'm Born Again" in 1980). Not only is Preston never asked to appear on any Stones albums or tours again, he reaches this new low: musical director on David Brenner's flop talk show!