It’s high time Brian gets what he deserves in spite of his blunders in handling The Beatles business in the early years.
The artist, who created the centenary commemoration of the lost soldiers of the Battle of the Somme last year and a controversial re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, has designed a series of posters that will go up around the city later this month. They will bear powerful slogans about Epstein’s devotion to the Beatles, some associating his sacrifices with those of a religious martyr.
“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.
For Deller, the commission provides the chance to return to what he describes as “a lifetime creative obsession” with Epstein. “When I was five or six I can remember running, excited, into the kitchen after seeing the film Help! on television and telling my mother there were these people called the Beatles who were really great. She said, ‘I know’. They are like big children in that film. Then later I read about Epstein.”
As a young artist in London in 1994 he erected a plaque near Epstein’s Belgravia home and put a notice in the Telegraph’s In Memoriam pages that read: “Epstein, Brian Samuel, 27 Aug 1967. Remembered this day and every day. J”. Deller was intrigued by the blasphemous quality of the phrase “Brian Epstein died for you”, which he used on calling cards and T-shirts. He was also serious, he said, about feeling Epstein had “not been properly credited for his role within popular culture”. “He effectively became a martyr for pop music, dying for its cause so that it could live,” he said then.
In 2006 Deller collaborated with the artist Paul Ryan to create a walking tour of Liverpool based on Epstein landmarks, including the family’s Nems Music Store. A book he co-created called The Liverpool of Brian Epstein was displayed at the Tate Liverpool in 2007. Copies were piled to form a tall gold column in the gallery, and the public were invited to take copies away.
The introduction to the book began: “Brian Epstein’s contribution to popular culture is so immense that it is almost too large to comprehend. This might explain why he has been largley written out of the narrative of British popular culture.”
Deller concedes that Epstein is now remembered in the name of a Liverpool theatre, but argues that the Beatles’ manager has not been recognised for the sort of “ultimate sacrifice” that was, at least metaphorically, equivalent to martyrdom.
“It is not clear if he committed suicide, since we know he had a problem with drugs,” Deller told the Observer, “so it is just as likely it was an accidental death. But he gave his life to them before that.”
Epstein came across the band at the Cavern Club in November 1961 and shepherded their early careers. A gay man, he was forced by the laws of the time to keep his private life secret. He was found dead in his bedroom on 27 August 1967, having overdosed on sleeping pills. Homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales a month after his death.
“He was still around to oversee the making of Sgt Pepper,” said Deller. “There are pictures of him in the studio and the ‘relief party’ was held in his home. He died while the Beatles were away on their spiritual quest into Indian meditation in Wales. They had stopped touring so, in a way, they were parting faith with him.”
The Sgt Pepper anniversary is also to be commemorated in two films. In early June, BBC2 will broadcast a new documentary, Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution, presented by the composer Howard Goodall and including extracts from material not seen outside Abbey Road studios.
Director Alan G Parker’s film, It Was Fifty Years Ago Today!, is released in cinemas on 26 May. It explores the recording of the album in interviews with those there at the time and with archival footage.
The surviving Beatles, McCartney and Starr, are also to release an anniversary edition package on 26 May, including a new mix of the album by Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, and Sam Okell that will feature 34 previously unreleased recordings.