Legions of Beatles fans flocked to stores 50 years ago — on May 26 in the U.K., June 1 in the U.S. — to pick up the group’s anxiously awaited Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But not Peter Frampton. He got an early copy — “And not because I knew anybody,” he says.
Frampton tells Billboard that his advance listen to the Fab Four’s landmark opus came courtesy of bootleggers in England. “My girlfriend and I went up to Petticoat Lane on a Sunday, which was a flea market, basically,” Frampton, who was playing in The Herd at the time, recalls to Billboard. “They had records, new and old, and I noticed that there was this new Beatles album right there, and I said, ‘Look at this! It doesn’t come out ’til next week or the week after.’ And the guy sort of gave me a wink and said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got these.’ So I bought one — obviously not an official one. A lot of this stuff fell off the back of the truck, y’know?”
Frampton quickly took the album back to his girlfriend’s house and put Sgt. Pepper’s on repeat play “until my girlfriend’s mother came in and said, ‘I think it’s time for you to go…'” Needless to say it got a few — hundred, and maybe thousand — more spins after that.
“It’s still my favorite album, because it had such an enormous effect on me as far as recording and technique — and then the songs were great,” Frampton says. “It was all a first, you know? I got it instantly. This was something else. This was just…’What IS this?! Let’s put it on again!’ They were godly to me at that point as far as the music they were making. It was just out of this world.”
Frampton, of course, has his own notorious connection to the Sgt. Pepper’s legend after playing Billy Shears in the polarizing 1978 film adaptation of the album. Acknowledging that he “transcended the unwritten rule…you don’t mess with the Beatles,” Frampton to this day maintains he entered the project with honorable intentions.
“There were only two reasons I wanted to do it,” Frampton explains. “One was because George Martin was [producing the music], and one because Paul [McCartney] was going to be in it. I was promised by [film producer Robert] Stigwood that Paul was going to be in the movie; ‘If a Beatle’s doing it, I’ll do it,’ ’cause otherwise to me doing anything about the Beatles is sac religious — and still is, unless you do it like Joe Cocker and a handful of other people. I actually saw Paul and Wings at Wembley arena and went back to see Paul and Linda after the show. And I remember Linda saying, ‘Paul, Peter’s in this movie,’ and I said, ‘Oh, I thought you were going to be in it.’ And ‘Paul said, ‘No, no, I’m not in it.’ And I just thought, ‘Uh-oh…'”
Frampton’s “transgression” was forgiven — by the Beatles, if not fans and critics. He’s logged time in Ringo Starr‘s All-Starr Band and was part of the house band for “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute To The Beatles” during February 2014 on CBS. And the Sgt. Pepper’s film has become a subject for droll humor between them. “During one of the [All-Starr] tours I got interviewed and Ringo was in the dressing room,” Frampton remembers, “and the journalist said, ‘So how do you feel about your version of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ in the movie? I didn’t say a word and Ringo just said, [in Liverpudlian accent] ‘Oh, we don’t talk about that.’ [Laughs] And I thought, ‘Thank you…Oh, we don’t talk about that.’ Everybody makes mistakes, you know?”