Liverpool fetes ‘Sgt. Pepper’ with help from its friends

LIVERPOOL, England — It was 50 years ago, almost to the day, that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.

The band is long gone, but the music of The Beatles still reverberates — and nowhere more loudly than in Liverpool, where the 50th birthday of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is the spark for a citywide festival.

The album, released in the U.S. on June 2, 1967 — just after its British debut — was a psychedelic landmark whose influences ranged from rock to raga to English music hall. For many critics and fans, it’s the Fab Four’s finest achievement.

Half a century on, Liverpool has asked 13 artists to respond to the album’s 13 tracks, for a “Sgt. Pepper at 50 “ festival that runs through next Friday. The artists come from Britain, the U.S., France, India and Australia, and their works range over theater, dance, public art, puppetry, film, fireworks and music.

The festival is endorsed by surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who have both sent messages of support.

Claire McColgan, director of public body Culture Liverpool, said the festival aims “to take something that is so iconic, that is so known throughout the world, and give a whole contemporary, fresh interpretation of it.”

“These four boys from this city never left here,” she said. “Their songs tell a story of this place.”

“Sgt. Pepper” was partly the product of The Beatles’ frustration with fame. Exhausted by touring, they played their last live concert in August 1966 and devoted their energies and creativity to the studio. Working with producer George Martin at London’s Abbey Road Studios, they made a multilayered, technologically innovative album that was never intended to be played live.

Half a century on, “Sgt. Pepper”-inspired artworks are springing up across Liverpool. There are concerts of Indian classical music — a major influence on George Harrison — and a film set on a city bus route inspired by “A Day in the Life.” Meter maid “Lovely Rita” is the starting point for an “outlandish procession” through the streets by cabaret artist Meow Meow, clad in a fabulous dress made from parking tickets. There are Magical Mystery bus tours , a Beatles museum and even a Beatles-themed hotel .

Keith Saha, a director of youth theater company 20 Stories High, said, “The good thing about Liverpool is we haven’t Disneyfied The Beatles, and that’s what’s really important about this festival.”