There are many ways to celebrate a new album from a band you admire. You can have a listening party alone. You can have a listening party with friends. You can learn the title track in a couple of days and play it onstage while the band you admire sits in the audience. That last one might be overkill. Unless you’re Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was so excited after the UK release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 that he opened a set at London’s Saville Theatre with his own, Hendrix-ified rendition of the album’s McCartney-penned title song. In the audience: McCartney and George Harrison.
It’s a loose, good-natured tribute that, as you might imagine, made quite an impression on the Beatles in attendance. “It's still obviously a shining memory for me,” McCartney recalled many years later, “because I admired him so much anyway, he was so accomplished.”
To think that that album had meant so much to him as to actually do it by the Sunday night, three days after the release. He must have been so into it, because normally it might take a day for rehearsal and then you might wonder whether you'd put it in, but he just opened with it. It's a pretty major compliment in anyone's book. I put that down as one of the great honours of my career.
McCartney frequently reminisces about that night. See him do so in the clip above from an August, 2010 concert. Macca gushes over Hendrix’s solo, then tells the audience how Jimi---having thrown his guitar out of tune during the solo with his whammy bar dive-bombing---asked Eric Clapton to come onstage and retune for him. Clapton, who McCartney says was actually in the audience, demurred.
One lingering question is whether or not Hendrix knew there were Beatles present that night. NME and the BBC both say he did not. In a recreation of the moment, above, from the 2013 fictionalised biopic Jimi: All is by My Side, Hendrix (played by André Benjamin) knows. Not only that, but he decides to open with “Sgt. Pepper’s” right before the gig, with no rehearsal, over the strenuous objections of Noel Redding, who thinks the Beatles might be insulted. It’s highly doubtful things went down that way at all. (The scene takes other licenses—note the Flying V instead of the white Stratocaster Hendrix actually played). But it makes for some interesting backstage drama in the film.
In any case, I’d guess that Hendrix---“the coolest guy in the world,” as Benjamin called him---would have pulled off the cover with panache, whether he knew McCartney was watching or not. There may be little left to say about Hendrix's brilliant guitar theatrics, completely innovative playing style, onstage swagger, and powerful songwriting. But his “Sgt. Pepper’s” cover is an example of one of his less-discussed, but highly admirable qualities: his genuinely awesome rock and roll collegiality.