Back in ’78, RSO kingpin Robert Stigwood — the man behind such box-office smashes as Grease, Bugsy Malone, and Saturday Night Fever — somehow convinced ’70s luminaries like Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, George Burns, Sha Na Na, Carol Channing, and actual Beatles cohort Billy Preston to appear in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The discombobulated movie musical, composed entirely of bizarre Beatles covers — including Speak-&-Spell-voiced robots bleating and bleeping their way through “She’s Leaving Home,” Alice Cooper as a cult leader doing a spoken-word rendition of “Because,” Steve Martin as the silver-hammer-wielding Dr. Maxwell, and Preston parading through “Get Back” in a gold lamé uniform and matching go-go boots — now stands as an amusing artifact of a very wacky era.
But at the time, the rock opera, which later ranked at No. 76 on VH1′s “100 Most Shocking Moments in Rock and Roll,” was a commercial failure, barely breaking even at the box office and nearly wiping out RSO’s massive profits from Saturday Night Fever and Grease. It was even more of a critical disaster. For several of the movie’s stars, the film was an act of mass career suicide, caught on camera. (It should be noted that when the Bee Gees regained control of their catalog, the Sgt. Pepper soundtrack was the only album that they did not include.) Hardly any participant in the film emerged totally unscathed.
Except, of course, Aerosmith.
Aerosmith starred in Sgt. Pepper as the Future Villain Band, who in the movie’s most watchable and definitely most rockin’ scene battled good guys Billy Shears (Frampton) and the Henderson Brothers (the Bee Gees) while cranking out a hard-charging, ferocious rendition of the Abbey Road classic “Come Together.” Considered one of the best Beatles covers ever recorded, the single hit No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained on the chart for 12 weeks total.
“I think the critics kind of left us alone on that. We didn’t get slammed, so we got out of it clean,” Aerosmith guitarist/founder Joe Perry tells Yahoo Entertainment now with a chuckle, 40 years after the movie made its New York premiere on July 21, 1978 (it bombed the box office nationwide on July 24). “It kind of exposed us to another part of the entertainment industry, and some of the fans — Peter Frampton fans — got to see us be Future Villains. So far as our career, I think we narrowly escaped it hurting us. Which… is about the best I can say.”
Perry admits that initially, Aerosmith didn’t want to participate — and only agreed to be in the film after one major plot change. “When we first were presented with this movie, we were totally against it. We just thought that the whole thing was going to be hokey, and we were just not cut from that cloth. We were very skeptical about it, and kind of even contemptuous about it. And they had Peter Frampton killing [Aerosmith frontman] Steven [Tyler] in the first script. We said, ‘Well, if you want us to do it, you’ve got to change the script. It’s got to be the other way around.’ We didn’t really consider Peter Frampton worthy enough to take us down, just because we thought his music was a little light. So they said, ‘We’ll change it!’”
[Editor’s note: In the actual film, both the Future Villain Band and Billy Shears survived. Billy’s love interest, a girl named Strawberry Fields, was not so fortunate, although she underwent some sort of miraculous reincarnation during the final musical number, thanks to an act of divine intervention by Preston. Ah, the ’70s…]
Aerosmith knew even then that Sgt. Pepper would not be winning any Oscars, but it was still an offer they ultimately could not resist, for a couple of reasons. “We did it for an adventure, just to do it. They said, ‘Come on out, all expenses paid!’ — throwing money around like crazy,” recalls Perry. “A lot of people thought it was going to be what it was, and saw it for what it was, but it gave us a chance not only to cover one of our favorite Beatles songs, but to work with [legendary Beatles producer] George Martin. And that, of course, was the real hook for us.
“Probably one of the most flattering things about it was when we were in the studio with [record producer] Jack Douglas, and George Martin came down. We were running the song down, and we were waiting for him to tell us, ‘Well, you should change this, you should do that.’ We were waiting to hear some words of wisdom. And he said, ‘Just keep playing what you guys are playing, it sounds fine.’ We were a little stunned. I know that’s one of the things we’re proud of, that we were able to do it. And it carried its weight. To this day, people love it when we play it live.”
Four decades later, Perry says, “I think that that movie really was a window into the times, and looking back at it, it’s really fascinating.”
But in the years since, Aerosmith has crossed over into other unexpected and interesting pop-culture realms, always with the band’s credibility intact. For instance, there was the 1986 hip-hop remake of their own “Walk This Way” with Run-D.M.C., which not only revitalized Aerosmith’s career and established Run-D.M.C. as pop-crossover MTV stars, but opened the door for countless rap-rock collaborations to come.
“To me, that’s one of the proudest things I have in my scrapbook,” says Perry of that groundbreaking duet. “I think we got maybe one or two fan letters that said, ‘How could you guys do this, you’re a rock band, what are you doing playing with those guys?’ But that was it. We got so much more positive out of it. And it didn’t matter; to us, it was about the music.”
The group got a little more flak from rock purists when Tyler signed up to be an American Idol judge in 2010, but even that career move showed that Aerosmith can adapt to the times.
“As far as Steven going on American Idol, it kind of shows how much the whole music scene has changed,” Perry muses. “I don’t think that people look at us anymore as having sold out. Maybe they did for a bit, but it still didn’t stop our old fans from coming to see us. Once in a while we’d get a tweet or something on social media that people will say, ‘I’m not gonna come to Aerosmith concerts anymore because Steven did that [TV show],’ but those things are so few and far between, it doesn’t matter anymore.
“I think it’s more of an indication of how society in general has changed and how they think about music, as opposed to back in the ’70s, when we were this hardcore, thumb-your-nose-at-the-rest-of-the-world kind of band. I still consider us to be that, actually. We still play ‘Train Kept a Rollin” and ‘Toys in the Attic’ and all those kickass songs, as well as the singles and the ballads, so it just shows that we’ve managed to kind of hold onto our fans.”
This article originally ran on Yahoo Music.