As most of you know, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Often hailed as one of the best pop albums ever made (if not the best), the album left both an artistic and technical watermark in the history of music. It also popularised the term “concept album”, coined by such gems like Dust Bowl Ballads and Pet Sounds.
Now, a handful of talented musicians in Sheffield paid tribute to Revolver last year, as it was also its 50th. We missed the chance to talk to them back then, but this year, they’re back, with no bassist replaced by lookalikes and hopefully no backmasked messages.
We got in touch with this fine collection of musicians and got some answers from Ben Eckersley (Captives on the Carrousel), Adam Follett (Pilosa, Cats:For:Peru), Nick Cox (Screaming Maldini) and Dominic Ridler (Darke Horse, Renegade Brass Band).
So tell us abit about what is the Sheffield Sgt. Pepper Project?
DOM: The Sheffield Sgt. Pepper Project is a collection of musicians from Sheffield who have been brought together to play the Beatles’ iconic album in full, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. We were first brought together last year to perform Revolver for its 50th anniversary at Tramlines and we are really excited to have been invited back to continue working through The Beatles’ discography.
AD: I was a bit of a late comer to the group last year; helping out with samples for Revolver. I was also on backing vocals; it was a little daunting at first, working with such talented musicians, but I really enjoyed doing something a little different.
BEN: I would describe it as a group of musicians and friends paying tribute to one of the best albums ever written in the best way we can: playing it as authentically as possible and trying our best to do justice to some incredible music.
What was the reception you had for the Revolver tribute last year?
DOM: The reception was great! We had no idea how it would go down but we attracted a large audience at the O2 Academy, and we’re hoping to expand on that this year at the Folk Forest.
AD: It was such a fun gig for us all. Sunday after, boiling hot weather, plenty of lovely outdoor stages throughout Tramlines, yet we filled out the main room in the Academy. Certainly the biggest crowd I have ever played to.
BEN: It was such a great gig. Seeing the audience singing along to every single song with everything they had really brought home just how universal The Beatles’ music is, how many people have listened to and loved these songs through their lives. So to share it with such a big and friendly audience was a really special thing – felt like a huge love-in!
I assume you do this during Tramlines because it’s a special occasion, but would you consider doing more dates if it’s successful?
DOM: Definitely, and in fact some more dates are in the works for later this year… watch this space!
NICK: Yeah, would definitely consider playing more. The rehearsals for Sgt. Pepper have been so much fun, and it’s a fantastic group of players we’ve got. I’m certainly itching to make more music with these guys!
BEN: 100%. That we only got to do it once was probably the only disappointing thing about the Revolver project last year – so more shows will definitely be coming. Keep your eye out!
Which song are you dreading the most to play? And which one feels like the easier one to pay tribute to?
DOM: I think A Day In The Life is probably the most challenging to get together. It has an unusual structure and there needs to be a strong level of coordination between the orchestra and the band, especially at the end. I don’t think it is ever easy to pay tribute to a band as legendary as The Beatles but I suppose the most straight forward songs would have to be the straight ahead ‘rock’ numbers such as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As a drummer it has not so much been paying tribute to the songs as paying tribute to Ringo’s playing – replicating and expanding on his sometimes very intricate rhythms and grooves.
AD: Sgt Pepper seems a much more daunting and ambitious ask than Revolver was, but I think we all enjoy the challenge. I really like how we don’t cheat or look for short-cuts; we try and stay as faithful to the record as possible.
NICK: Good Morning Good Morning is a bit of a beast because there are so many subtle changes in metre. The rhythm section needs to be so on it for that one! Before we started learning the album, the whole thing felt really daunting to me. But the most starling thing I’ve learned in the process is how playable it all is – everything falls under the fingers so well on both guitar and keys, and is arranged so beautifully and, somewhat counter-intuitively for such a ‘complex’ album, simply. For me, the learning process has been a really tangible testament to The Beatles genius.
BEN: I remember sitting down with Nick early on this year to have a proper, critical listen to the album. As we started making notes on just how many people we’d need to bring it together we realised what a huge undertaking it would be – it’s clever and complex music. However, as Nick has said, once you start playing it, it becomes much easier than you think it might, possibly just because everyone involved knows these songs so well. But for me (as a string player) the biggest joy is to play “She’s Leaving Home” – despite being one of the saddest songs ever written, George Martin’s strings are so warm, rich and enjoyable to play.
Controversy time: The Beatles – still relevant or not? (please don’t kill me.)
DOM: Absolutely! The buzz around Sgt. Pepper’s 50th anniversary has been huge with lots of attention on TV and social media. The Beatles are still attracting listeners young and old and one of my biggest observations last year at the Revolver performance was the diversity of ages in the audience. Their music continues to inspire musicians around the world and it would be very difficult to write them off as irrelevant any time soon.
NICK: Much of their music retains a timeless feel. Not many bands have come close to their consistent quality and inventiveness – possibly Radiohead are the only modern act to get anywhere near? And the fact that there’s been so much hype for this album 50 years after its release – for crying out loud that’s half a century, five bloody decades – says more than I could ever hope to about their continued relevance.
BEN: While hundreds of bands continue to rip off The Beatles’ ideas half a century later, their relevance is in no doubt!
Most of you have a band (or several, in some cases), so which album by The Beatles is the one that influenced your music the most?
DOM: Tough question… I’m sure it will vary from band member to band member. For me it would have to be the rock/psychedelic era that we’re currently exploring in this 50th anniversary ‘season’. What I think is particularly inspiring is how in their later albums (and especially Sgt. Pepper) the songs were written with no intention of public performance, which I think led to incredibly diverse and sonically varied music. A case in point is the final chord in A Day In The Life. What an ending! We’re going pretty far by having an orchestra, brass section and tabla on stage but having three grand pianos and a harmonium on stage would be difficult to say the least! This freedom that The Beatles had has inspired my song writing and reminds me to not be limited by what is easily achievable on stage.
AD: Probably Sgt Pepper in all honesty – that was their transition from live band to recording band, and that’s the kind of stuff I like doing. I love playing live, but my favourite part is putting tracks together in the studio.
Conversely, which The Beatles song (or album) made you a hardcore fan? (let’s face it, y’all superfans!)
DOM: Again this will depend on who you ask, but for me it was Revolver. The album has such energy and it has so many timeless classics to latch on to, such as Eleanor Rigby and Tomorrow Never Knows. Revolver is the epitome of a band’s pioneering album and it is this record that made me a Beetles fan.
AD: Not wanting to sound like Alan Partridge, but my first Beatles albums were the red and blue ‘Best of the Beatles’ albums. After that, Sgt Pepper was my first album and I loved it almost immediately. I think it’s still my favourite Beatles album, though Abbey Road gives it a good go..
NICK: It has to be the middle period psychedelia for me – Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields, I Am The Walrus. These are the shining lights in their repertoire, and awoke in me not only a desire to write and perform, but a lifelong obsession with music production and studio recording.
BEN: Tricky question! Revolver would probably be the album that I listened to most as a kid – my parents made me a tape with that on one side, and some of the singles on the other, and from the age of 7 or 8 onwards I played it to death. I still feel that it’s one of the most inventive, original and as Dom said, pioneering albums of all time. But as I’ve grown up, my firm favourite has become Abbey Road – I think as it’s the one that has the most George Harrison on it. He was always my favourite Beatle!
Last year, you did Revolver, which is the start of “the complex Beatles”. Now you’re going for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. Do you plan to continue the rest of The Beatles’ discography of their studio years?
DOM: We’d love to carry on these shows and Tramlines has been the perfect event at which to host them. We’ll have to carry on until 2020 for the 50th anniversary of Let It Be, and then pick up again at the beginning in 2023 with the 60th anniversary of Please Please Me!
If you plan to go for Let it Be, which version of The Long and Winding Road would you do?
DOM: I’m sure that is a bridge we can cross when we come to it but I would imagine it would be the album version with orchestration and choir. At the end of the day that is the version on the record and we have brought orchestras to the last two 50th anniversary gigs so it would be a shame not to play with them again!
AD: Can I pick neither? Not a big fan…
BEN: I once saw S Club 7 attempt a cover of this with Jon (S Club Jon, not Lennon) rising up through the stage, pretending to play a spinning white grand piano. I think we should aim for something like that…
Thank you very much.
The Sheffield Sgt. Pepper Project will perform during Tramlines at the Folk Forest, Sunday 1 PM.
Sheffield Sgt. Pepper Project Facebook.