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When Prince Heard the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ for the First Time: Exclusive Interview

Frank Micelotta / Parlophone, Getty Images
Frank Micelotta, Getty Images / Parlophone

In a late-2016 interview with Billboard, members of the Revolution were asked whether Prince‘s post-Purple Rain psychedelic phase came because of the influence of his backing band. Drummer Bobby Z. had an intriguing (and somewhat mind-blowing) answer. “He’d never really heard the Beatles until Matt and I played him Sgt. Pepper, so the answer is yeah. And Wendy and Lisa took him to a jazz place.”

The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are so ingrained in pop culture, it’s fascinating to encounter someone experiencing that music for the first time. It’s even more intriguing to imagine Prince—an omnivorous musical genius who could do anything well—hearing such influential music with fresh ears.

A few weeks ago, when Diffuser chatted with drummer Bobby Z. and keyboardist Matt “Dr.” Fink in advance of the Revolution’s current U.S. tour, we asked them how it came about that they introduced Prince to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Beatles. Their answers gave insights not only into Prince’s catalog, but how the Revolution itself evolved.

Bobby, one thing that I saw in a Billboard interview you guys did that really stood out to me: Prince had never really heard the Beatles until you guys played him Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. What was his reaction to that? I can’t even imagine hearing that record for the first time again.
Bobby Z: Well, it’s a great story, because Matt and Dez [Dickerson] and I were sitting in the back of the tour bus, and we were listening to Sgt. Pepper and of all of the songs, it was “Good Morning Good Morning,” which is right before “A Day in the Life,” with animal noises. [Z sings part of the chorus and the noises.] You know, it’s got all of these animal noises and snorts and stuff. He walked in on that.

Matt “Dr.” Fink: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Bobby Z.: He said, “What’s that?” We said, “That’s Sgt. Pepper.” He went, “The Beatles. Ehhh? Really?” You know, it was just like that. He walked in [and we were like] “No, no, no, no, not this song. Start it over.” And, of course, he didn’t have the patience, but I know he went back and listened to that song and realized that it was much better. Not better, but “Good Morning Good Morning,” that’s just a novelty track on an amazing album.

But that moment, I think he realized that the Beatles were more than he thought. He just kind of swallowed them up. You can tell that Around the World in a Day—I’m just assuming a lot, and he’d probably get mad—but I’m assuming that by swallowing up Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper that Around the World in a Day is definitely influenced by it.

Fink: Mmmm hmmm.

That’s a really interesting era of the Beatles to jump in on as well.
Bobby Z.: Yeah, I don’t think he bothered to go back to Revolver and Rubber Soul. I think he jumped in right in the psychedelic stuff. You know, that’s not a bad place to jump in, especially with someone of his talent, because he can go crazy in the studio. He was George Martin all on his own. He was experimenting all on his own.

Fink: Yeah, definitely. I think Around the World in a Day had some of that psychedelic influence coming from that era, Jimi Hendrix, all kind of wrapped into one, you know. Definitely. As he moved into that album.

Bobby Z.: Yeah, he was right on the edge. You know, I’m two years older, and he just missed that whole….Two years is a lot when you’re young. Especially in 1967 and 1968—those were pretty pivotal years. [Laughs.]

Fink: Yeah, I was nine years old when I bought that record and listened to it myself.

Bobby Z.: So I was almost 12. Prince and Matt are the same age. Obviously, everybody had their eye on Michael Jackson. And we know that Prince and Michael kept their eyes on each other for their entire life. But everybody started out as a Michael Jackson fan. I mean, that was incredible, what Michael Jackson was doing.

Fink: Oh God, I loved Michael Jackson.

Bobby Z.: The Beatles made all of us white guys want to play, and the Jackson 5 made all of the brothers and sisters want to get into it. And we met as the Revolution. It’s just an amazing story. And then Wendy and Lisa’s affiliation for Joni Mitchell and Prince’s love for Joni. The musical kind of soup was made. We had a band—we were kind of more like the Rolling Stones, with Dez and Andre [Cymone] up front.

Prince and I saw Fleetwood Mac one night, and it was just like….You know, he loves Stevie Nicks, and he kind of wanted that. And he got that kind of with Wendy and Lisa. So he was a real student of rock ‘n’ roll and really knew exactly how he wanted these bands to be presented to the public for each album. A lot of energy and time put into the whole campaign of what the band and the album and the tour would be. It would all come from his mind. It wasn’t just the music; he was able to do this with everything, down to the wardrobe. Everything.

It’s a universe. That’s what comes to my mind.
Bobby Z.: It’s a universe. Yeah, it’s a universe. And he kept so many people busy. It’s just one after another, and it started with just him and me and Matt in Pepe [Willis’] basement. And then it turned into like—there were 12 buses on the Purple Rain tour. Twelve semis, 12 buses.

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