The Sgt. Pepper’s show beginning on the 14th and lasting until the 18th of this month at the Simpkins Lee Theatre should not be missed. The venue at Lady Margaret Hall will be host to a bold show which aims to capture the complexity of the seminal album, and of the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein who died two months after the album was released in May 1967.
Intensely familiar to anyone that has ever turned on a record player or iPod, Pepper presents an explosion of innovation and variety within a cohesive whole, retaining the experimentalism of the band’s 7th studio album Revolver while not straying into the individualism that you can trace in the White album (although admittedly my favourite of the two). Under the headship of McCartney the album manages to sustain an intoxicating psychedelic feel, best seen in the infamous if brilliant ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. All the while still blending in the driving rhythms of ‘Getting better’ and music hall influences in the most typically English of Pepper’s tracks ‘When I’m 64’ (lovingly described by Lennon as ‘Paul’s Granny sh*t’).
Yet Pepper’s was a pathbreaker in more than its influences. It was a milestone of the band’s power to shape their own music, working with music producer Geoff Emerick. The complexity of tracks like ‘For the benefit of Mr Kite’ and ‘Within you, without you’, hauntingly beautiful with its assembly of classical Indian instruments, shows just how far the Beatles had come as a creative force since the salad days of ‘Please please me’. But more fundamentally, it helped reverse the hierarchy of the studio. Gone were the days where men like George Martin, the Beatles’ producer for their debut album, could be king behind the decks and decide the sound for them. Leading on from the experimentation seen in some of Revolver’s tracks like ‘Tomorrow never knows’ which achieved its distinctive rotary sound by using a revolving table and a wardrobe, Pepper would prove to later innovators like Led Zeppelin what was possible in the studio.
This album was never intended to be played live. The whole point of Pepper was that it marked the change from the Beatles as a touring band to a studio based band. An intensely complex sound bursting with innovation, production experience and a multitude of influences would seem like an insurmountable challenge. But Sgt Pepper’s show hopes to accomplish the impossible through the incredibly talented and dedicated Oxford Beatles, and the ten piece orchestra that will be accompanying them. Chris Bayne, co-producer of the show and member of the Oxford Beatles has transcribed each musical strain in the album to prepare the players for an intense 18-month practice period.
When Cherwell talked to bass player Riaz Ahmand (let us hope he ages more gracefully than Paul) he told us that while we can expect a faithfulness from the vocal harmonies, original instruments and samples, the Oxford Beatles want to “add something a little different” in tracks like ‘Strawberry Fields’- so keep an eye out for them. Giddy, yet optimistic from a technical rehearsal, Riaz was struck by the eerie but triumphant feeling of bringing this cultural bulwark out from its place in the studio and into the limelight again. For both the players and the fans, this will be a challenge, but one worth listening to.
You don’t need to be a Beatles fan to come to this gig. You don’t even need to know who the Beatles are to come to this gig! You only need open your mind. Open your mind to the positivity in the album, open your mind to making a connection with this living piece of cultural heritage that you’ll grow to love. Played alongside a powerful theatrical piece that doesn’t shy away from the darker side of manager Brian Epstein’s life, this show hopes to be the musical event of Michaelmas and even the year.