The “Sgt. Pepper at 50: Heading for Home” festival pays tribute to the era-defining record in the English northwestern port city of Liverpool that still attracts hundreds of thousands of the group’s fans every year.
“It’s truly amazing to see our home town come together to celebrate this album in such style,” Paul McCartney said in a statement to mark the anniversary.
It was McCartney, along with bandmate John Lennon, who wrote most of The Beatles’ songs.
“It’s touching to see, after all this time, what ‘Sgt. Pepper’ means to so many people,” he said.
Lennon and McCartney, guitarist George Harrison and drummer Ringo Starr broke the mold with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.
Acclaimed as the first concept album, the experimental record released in May 1967 in Britain and the next month in the United States pushed back the boundaries of popular music.
The festival kicked off with a fireworks spectacular by Olympics pyrotechnics veteran Christophe Berthonneau. It was inspired by the Lennon-McCartney psychedelic classic “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, the third track on the album.
13 tracks, 13 tributes
Each of the album’s 13 tracks has inspired a series of 13 art works by diverse international artists, appearing across Liverpool during the two-week festival.
Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, US feminist artist Judy Chicago, Indian classical musicians and cabaret diva Meow Meow are among those who have reimagined the songs in a new medium.
Deller’s contribution is inspired by “With a Little Help from my Friends”, and revolves around The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, whose shock death on August 27, 1967 left the band rudderless.
Monochrome billboard posters dotted around the city read: “Brian Epstein died for you.”
“He was their biggest friend. He was one of the few they could trust and was looking out for them as friend might,” Deller told AFP.
“The song is about trying to be brave in the face of loneliness and has Liverpudlian sardonic wit.
“It’s sung off-key by Ringo. It has pathos and poignancy because of that.”
Chicago’s giant mural on the derelict Stanley Dock grain silo is her biggest-ever painting.
Inspired by “Fixing a Hole”, the four mop-haired Beatle heads stand out from its psychedelic, concentric rings of colour, underwritten with “Four Lads From Liverpool”.
“I was celebrating the period they represented: change, fomenting trouble!” she told AFP.
Multi-million pound industry
The Beatles were London-based global megastars by 1967, but the “Sgt. Pepper” period is laced with homesick nostalgia for Liverpool, including McCartney’s “Penny Lane” and Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”, released as a non-album double-A side single.
Liverpool’s grandiose civic buildings recall its past as a hub of the British empire thanks to its vast docks and 1960s Merseybeat pop kept it on the world stage.
But the demise of the docks left Liverpool a bleak place in the 1980s. Through urban regeneration, playing on its unique heritage, the city has a renewed swagger.
Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson said the festival was interpreting what “Sgt. Pepper” means to the city in 2017.
“Those life experiences they wrote about were all rooted here,” he told AFP.
“Liverpool has a unique selling point: our culture and our history. That’s why we’ll never forget the influence of The Beatles.”
The Beatles industry is worth an estimated £80 million ($100 million, 90 million euros) to the city each year.
The Beatles Story visitor attraction drew in a record 280,000 people last year. It is stuffed with memorabilia and its rooms recall the evolution of the band.
On Thursday, it unveiled the original iron gates of Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army children’s home next to where Lennon grew up, and the inspiration for “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
Worth a fortune yet prone to tourist graffiti, the Salvation Army put them into storage in 2011.
Replicas now fence off the derelict site.
From the world over, “people come on pilgrimage to Liverpool to see the gates”, the museum’s director Martin King told AFP.
Day trippers can get a ticket to ride on magical mystery tour buses that visit landmarks connected with the band, from their childhood homes to the legendary Cavern Club where they honed their act.
“The Beatles go from strength to strength,” said King. “People are as interested as ever.”