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Review: It Was 50 Years Ago Today ****

And indeed it was, 50 years ago today, that the Beatles unveiled their musical masterpiece after hundreds of hours in the studio at Abbey Road (and a handful elsewhere).

Liverpool is celebrating Sgt Pepper in some style, but this collaboration between the RLPO, Bootleg Beatles, and not forgetting poet Roger McGough, is breaking out of city boundaries to take the Fab Four’s music on a UK tour.

This evening they’re at the Royal Albert Hall – 4,000 holes optional – but last night the premiere was, rightly, at the Philharmonic Hall in front of a sold-out ‘home’ crowd.

The Bootlegs have played Sgt Pepper many times, and occasionally with an orchestra, although not a full symphony orchestra and one that knows how to groove and rock to boot.

Composer Nigel Osborne went back to the album, rather than George Martin’s manuscripts, to score this new version of the tracks, along with a jolly, upbeat musical canter through the Beatles’ history pre-1967, from growing up in Liverpool to Revolver, intertwined with a wry and witty poetic narrative from McGough – a man who had his own hit of 1967 as one third of The Mersey Sound.

Osborne has created his own sound, a giant wall of sound, with the 70-plus piece orchestra creating a rich, layered sonic landscape of strings, brass, woodwind and all-important percussion beneath the familiar amp-driven melodies and spot-on vocals.

It all adds up to a powerful musical punch to the senses of an audience keen to join in, right from the discordant ‘tuning up’ and the brilliant opening guitar riff of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band itself.

There are the sharp violin stabs that herald Getting Better, plucked strings in Fixing a Hole, the lovely harp that underpins She’s Leaving Home (the song taken perhaps a little too fast, while With a Little Help From My Friends could be speeded up slightly), a crazy orchestral whirligig section at the heart of Mr Kite, and some bonkers brass support in the frenetic Good Morning Good Morning.

McCartney wanted a full symphony orchestra for the album’s magnum opus, A Day in the Life. And now after 50 years, he’s got his wish, and oh boy, it’s thrilling to the ears.

The second half concludes with an octet of Beatle numbers from around the same time as Pepper, including Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane, and – a no brainer this – a sing-a-long All You Need is Love.

Watch out for the brass breaking in with glee in the middle of I Am the Walrus (somewhere around ‘yellow matter custard’), and enjoy the swelling strings that tell the sorry story of Eleanor Rigby.

Despite its superior numbers, there are times when you want to hear more of the orchestration over the electric guitars and ‘Ringo’s’ drums however – sometimes you can see the orchestra playing, but can’t really hear it.

There’s a flute struggling to be heard in The Fool on the Hill and an entire orchestra out there somewhere in Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.

But those quibbles should be able to be sorted by the tech team. In essence, It Was 50 Years Ago Today is a triumphant, joyful celebration of musicality and musical innovation.

All images by Mark McNulty

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