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In a key action sequence in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a discombobulated movie musical composed entirely of bizarre Beatles covers, the Future Villain Band, portrayed by Aerosmith, sparred with good guy Billy Shears, played by golden-god rock star Peter Frampton. In many ways, the scene was symbolic of the opposite effects that the bonkers box-office bomb would have on the artists’ careers — with Aerosmith being the battle's real-life winner.
Aerosmith emerged from the 1978 cinematic disaster not only unscathed but with an actual Billboard Hot 100 hit: a hard-charging rendition of the Abbey Road classic “Come Together,” which charted for 12 weeks and is still considered one of the best Beatles covers of all time. Peaking at No. 23, it would be Aerosmith’s last top 40 hit for nearly a decade. However, Frampton — whose Frampton Comes Alive! had just set a record at the time as the best-selling album in chart history — was seriously professionally derailed, and it would take decades for his career to recover from the backlash.
“I was ripe for that,” Frampton told Yahoo Entertainment in 2020 while promoting his book, Do You Feel Like I Do?: A Memoir, after mostly refusing to discuss the Sgt. Pepper debacle in interviews for years. “I had just become the biggest-selling recording artist in the world, selling the most records ever in the United States, toppling Carole King’s record. It's the build-you-up-to-knock-you-down syndrome, isn't it? Whatever sells papers. So, if you're up at the top and you make a mistake, they’re going to go after you, which is fair game. But the reason I took most of the blame is that my name was on the top of everybody. My name was above the Bee Gees. I think a lot of great actors, they always say, make sure you have somebody else’s name with you on that first screen when they say who’s starring in the movie. Because if it’s just you, you’re going to take the full brunt of it. And I did.”
Let’s backtrack a bit. Forty-five years ago, RSO kingpin Robert Stigwood — the man behind such smash movie musicals as Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Bugsy Malone — somehow convinced not only Frampton and Aerosmith but also ’70s luminaries like the above-mentioned Bee Gees (who played Billy Shears’s satin-jacketed bandmates the Henderson Brothers), Alice Cooper, Steve Martin, Earth, Wind & Fire, George Burns, Tina Turner, Sha Na Na, Carol Channing and actual Beatles cohort Billy Preston to appear in this seemingly too-big-to-fail project. Other over-the-top Sgt. Pepper musical numbers included Speak-&-Spell-voiced robots bleating and bleeping their way through “She’s Leaving Home,” Cooper as cult leader Father Sun doing a creepy spoken-word rendition of “Because,” a manic Martin as the silver-hammer-wielding Dr. Maxwell and Preston parading through “Get Back” in a metallic marching-band uniform and matching gold go-go boots — all of which now stand as amusing artifacts of the wackiest decade ever.
“I think that that movie really was a window into the times, and looking back at it, it’s really fascinating,” Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry chucklingly told Yahoo Entertainment in 2018.
But upon its release, the rock opera, which later ranked at No. 76 on VH1’s “100 Most Shocking Moments in Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was a commercial failure, barely breaking even and nearly wiping out RSO’s profits from Saturday Night Fever and Grease. It was even more of a critical disaster. For several of its stars, the movie was an act of mass career suicide. (It should be noted that when the Bee Gees — who'd been riding high on Saturday Night Fever's success before Sgt. Pepper came along — regained control of their catalog, the Sgt. Pepper soundtrack was the only album they did not include. Their 2020 documentary, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, skipped over Sgt. Pepper entirely, as if it had never happened.)
Aerosmith — along with EW&F (whose “Got to Get You Into My Life” from the soundtrack went top 10) and Cooper (whose “Because” received a stamp of approval from his pal John Lennon) — were among the few lucky survivors. “We did it for an adventure, just to do it. They said, ‘Come on out, all expenses paid!’ — throwing money around like crazy,” recalled Perry. “I think the critics kind of left us alone on that. We didn’t get slammed, so we got out of it clean. It kind of exposed us to another part of the entertainment industry, and some of the fans — Peter Frampton fans — got to see us be Future Villains. So, as far as our career, I think we narrowly escaped it hurting us. Which… is about the best I can say.”
Perry admitted that initially Aerosmith didn’t want to participate, and they only agreed after one major plot change. “When we first were presented with this movie, we were totally against it. We just thought that the whole thing was going to be hokey, and we were just not cut from that cloth. We were very skeptical about it, and kind of even contemptuous about it. And they had Peter Frampton killing [Aerosmith frontman] Steven [Tyler] in the first script. We said, ‘Well, if you want us to do it, you’ve got to change the script. It’s got to be the other way around.’ We didn’t really consider Peter Frampton worthy enough to take us down, just because we thought his music was a little light. So, they said, ‘We’ll change it!'”
(Incidentally, Cooper told Yahoo Entertainment in 2020 that when he was in talks for the movie, he was told, “You get to beat up the Bee Gees. There's a fight scene where you actually fight with them.” But in the actual film, the big battle came down to Bee Gees and Frampton vs. Aerosmith. The Future Villain Band, Hendersons, and Billy Shears all survived onscreen, while Billy’s love interest, a girl-next-door type from the town of Heartland named Strawberry Fields, was not so fortunate. However, Strawberry underwent some sort of miraculous reincarnation during the film’s final musical act, thanks to an act of divine intervention by Preston. Ah, the ’70s…)
Like Perry, Frampton had a bad feeling about Sgt. Pepper from the start, and later, when he missed the premiere because he was in the hospital recovering from multiple injuries from a car crash, he was secretly relieved. (Frampton’s mother attended the July 21, 1978 premiere in his place, and reported back to him that during the scene when the distraught Billy Shears, mourning Strawberry's Future Villain Band-orchestrated death, considered leaping out of a window, the theater audience chanted, “Jump, jump!” Frampton knew that was not a good sign.)
“It was a disaster from the beginning,” Frampton recalled. “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.”
As it turns out, Frampton — who was chummy with the Beatles and had played on George Harrison’s landmark All Things Must Pass album — had only agreed to do the movie because was he was under the impression that another actual Beatle would be one of his co-stars. “For me [the real disaster] was finding out that Paul McCartney was not in the movie — which was the only reason I was doing the movie,” said Frampton. “I said ‘absolutely not’ at first, until Stigwood got on the phone with me and talked me into doing it. He said, ‘Oh, Paul is doing it.’ I said, ‘Paul McCartney?’ He said, ‘Yes, Paul is in the movie.’ So, I said, ‘Wow, that kind of sanctions the movie for me.’ So… there was trickery involved. It might’ve been in Stigwood’s mind [that McCartney would participate], but before I started the movie, I was in England playing a tour day, and the night before we were playing Wembley, Paul and Wings were playing. So I went and saw Paul and Linda, and I’m backstage and I said, ‘I’ll see you on the set,’ that kind of thing. And Paul was like, ‘What? What’s that?’ That was the clarification that I needed that it was all trickery.”
Frampton chuckled a bit when he recalled that the subject of the movie only came up in conversation between him and an actual Beatle once, many years later. “I was on the All-Stars tour with Ringo Starr. I’ve known him for years now; we’ve been friends for a long, long time. So, Ringo was in the room when someone was interviewing me for a paper — he was just like making himself a cup of tea or something in the background — and he’s listening in to what I’m saying and then the question comes: ‘So, how do you feel about the Sgt. Pepper movie?’” Lapsing into an exaggerated Liverpudlian accent, Frampton continued: “And I didn’t have time to say anything, because Ringo just went, ‘Ohhhhhhh, we don’t talk about that…’”
Cooper recalled that when he was asked to participate, he just assumed that the actual Beatles would be involved. “They said, ‘We're doing Sgt. Pepper.’ And I said, ‘Oh, with the Beatles? That's going to be great!’ And they said, ‘No… with the Bee Gees.’ And I immediately went, ‘This is going to be a disaster!’ You're talking about the Beatles' [most] sacred record of all time. … Now, I love the Bee Gees, I get along with those guys, I had a great time with them. But the general public are not going to stand for that.”
However, while Frampton was enticed by false promises of hanging on the set with Sir Paul, Cooper and Perry signed on despite their own misgivings for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin on the soundtrack — which actually did manage to go platinum and peak at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
“A lot of people thought [the film] 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,” said Perry. “Probably one of the most flattering things about it was when we were in the studio with [record producer] Jack Douglas, and George Martin came down. We were running the song [“Come Together”] down, and we were waiting for [Martin] to tell us, ‘Well, you should change this, you should do that.’ We were waiting to hear some words of wisdom. And he said, ‘Just keep playing what you guys are playing, it sounds fine.’ We were a little stunned. I know that’s one of the things we’re proud of — that we were able to do it. And it carried its weight. To this day, people love it when we play it live.”
“I wanted to work with George Martin,” said Cooper. “And here we are, doing the Beatles' prettiest song. It’s the prettiest thing the Beatles ever did, ‘Because.’ And somehow at the end of it, George Martin says, ‘I can't believe that you could turn the Beatles' prettiest song into a threat!’ I said, ‘Well, the character is a villain. … He's not going to do it nice. He's going to be this horrific character doing it!’ And [Martin] sent it to John [Lennon], and John loved it. Lennon loved it because he thought it was just the opposite of what it was supposed to be. … That kind of greasy, horrific voice really popped out, and it really was playing against the prettiness of it, and John said, ‘Ah, yeah, I would expect that from Alice!’”
Frampton also speaks positively of working with Martin on the music, saying that was “one of the huge saving graces for me,” even if the soundtrack hardly ended up being a highlight of the late Martin’s illustrious discography. “I can’t ask George anymore, obviously, but I don’t think he thought [the film] was a great idea in the end. I don’t think it was the right project for him, because he had all these Beatles songs — and no Beatles! And I felt that the Beatles are not just their songs; they are the way they sound and the way they play and everything. We had the most fantastic musicians on the sessions, all A-plus-plus-plus players, and it was an honor to play with them on the soundtrack, but I just felt that if George had known, I wonder whether he thought it was a good idea. It must have been frustrating for him.”
Probably no one was more frustrated than Frampton himself, however, because Sgt. Pepper certainly didn’t serve as the Hollywood launching pad that he’d hoped it would be. “I had just received a potential deal — I’d met with Orion Pictures’ Mike Medavoy, and I had a three-picture deal after Sgt. Pepper,” he recalled. “And of course, that disappeared into the wastebasket after Sgt. Pepper came out.”
Frampton admitted that he still “hasn’t really softened” when it comes to his memories of Sgt. Pepper. But the experience of writing his autobiography; living with a rare degenerative muscular disease, inclusion body myositis (IBM), for several years; and the “phenomenal experience” of working as a technical adviser on the redeeming movie musical Almost Famous with old friend Cameron Crowe has helped put his doomed Sgt. Pepper era in perspective.
“Now I know what it’s like to be in the worst rock movie ever made, and I know what it's like to experience being a very small part of one of rock’s greatest movies. So, I feel like Almost Famous kind of canceled out Sgt. Pepper,” joked Frampton, who was just announced as 2023’s Patient Ambassador Award recipient for his work in raising awareness and funds for myositis diseases. “I think that the difficulties and battles we all have in life, the ups and downs, it all goes into making you a more experienced and, hopefully, wiser person. Is [Sgt. Pepper] a regret? Yes, it is a regret that I did it, and I’m sure Barry Gibb would say the same thing. But, I did it. It’s part of me, and it’s made me who I am.”
“It was one of those movies that ended up being so bad that it was great,” said Cooper more fondly of what is now considered a cult classic. “It was consistently horrible to the point where it was great.”