“Rock music is a belief system, in a way, and Brian Epstein dedicated everything to the Beatles and to their success. His main concern was their well-being,” said Deller. “In terms of its characters and stories, the way we feel about rock’n’roll music since the Beatles is like religion, or at least an alternative belief system.”
When the city’s mayor, Joe Anderson, announced a carnival of arts that will begin on 25 May, the Merseyside statue of the band members – John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr – provided a handy visual reminder of the Beatles’ musical legacy. Yet, for Deller, the spectral presence of Epstein, who died in 1967 at the age of 32 after Sgt Pepper had been released, is always present alongside the Fab Four.
“I am taking a straightforward visual approach to marking the album,” said Deller, who last summer collaborated with the National Theatre’s artistic director Rufus Norris to arrange for hundreds of volunteers to appear across the country dressed as first world war soldiers. “Epstein is someone I have been thinking about for a long time. Without his contribution and sacrifice, the Beatles would not exist as we know them and a lot that we take for granted in our culture would not exist either.”
Deller, 50, from south London, is one of 13 artists and performers who have each been given a song from the album as inspiration. Others include the musician John Cage, the choreographer Mark Morris and artist Judy Chicago. Deller’s new work, put together with the art group Metal, is based on the track With a Little Help from My Friends, sung by Ringo in the guise of Billy Shears, and his response will come in two parts; first, the Epstein visual campaign and then a surprise, participatory public tribute to the idea of friendship to take place on 1 June.
“Epstein was the band’s friend and helped them more than a little bit,” said Deller. “He was one of a handful of people they could trust.”
The “Sgt Pepper at 50: Heading for Home” festival will highlight the Beatles’ decision to turn away from increasingly unsatisfactory touring and record a studio album focused on their memories of Liverpool. As it turned out, two of the first Liverpool songs they produced, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, were instead released ahead as a double A-side single, but the curators of Heading for Home, Sean Doran and Liam Browne, believe the city remains at the heart of Sgt Pepper.
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