In 1984, Michael Jackson wore a Sgt. Pepper–style jacket when he collected an honor at the White House from President Reagan for his efforts against drunk driving. The following year, Jackson’s arch rival Prince tried to emulate the psychedelic vibe of Sgt. Pepper with Around the World in a Day and the “Raspberry Beret” video. XTC released Pepper-esque records under the pseudonym the Dukes of Stratosphear. In LA, the Paisley Underground bands revived the ’60s sound, with the Bangles eventually rising to mainstream success.The Beatles’ spirit obviously still pervaded the mid-1980s, so as Harrison emerged from a five-year hiatus, he decided to see if he could score another Beatles nostalgia hit in the vein of his 1981 #2 single “All Those Years Ago.”
Harrison told Creem that the “Yer Blues” drum intro came first: “Before I wrote the song, or when I sat down to write it, I thought, ‘This one’s gonna start with Ringo going, “One, two, DUHtabumb, DUHtabumb.”’ That was the intro in my head; that was the tempo it was always going to be.”
Since producer Jeff Lynne’s goal for his previous band ELO had been to take up where “I Am the Walrus” left off, he did so here with a vengeance, piling on the cellos, timpani, “oooooohs,” backward tape loops, and “All You Need Is Love” horns. Eight years later, for “Free as a Bird,” he would again try to cram in as many Beatles touchtones as possible.
Legend has it that the term “Fab Four” was originated by Brian Epstein’s press officer, Tony Barrow, in an early press release. Throughout the song the backing vocals chant, “Fab!” as well as, “Gear,” old Liverpool slang for “cool.”
Harrison sings about arriving in the U.S. like strangers in the night, evoking the Sinatra ode to one-night stands that topped the chart in 1966, as well as Robert A. Heinlein’s sci-fi novel Stranger in a Strange Land, about a psychic human raised on Mars who returns to Earth as a messiah figure preaching free love and spirituality. To the Bible Belt, the Beatles were like the mutants from the 1963 sci-fi flick Children of the Damned, pied pipers come to lead their kids to rebellion with long hair and mind-altering drugs.
Harrison then remembers the group’s nemeses: taxes, cops and ultimately, “the bus” (death) that took Lennon away. In the middle eight, Harrison pauses to wistfully remember his lost friendship. He laments how the excessive media attention amplified the conflicts between the old group, but as the “Walrus” march resumes, life goes on and he sings snatches of songs by two of the Beatles’ biggest influences, Dylan and Smokey Robinson (“it’s all over now, baby blue” and “you really got a hold on me”).
In the video, Harrison stands in front of a brick wall strumming his guitar and singing. A van marked “Fab Gear” pulls up and Starr gets out to give Harrison a cello. A third hand comes out of Harrison’s jacket to play it and for a moment he flashes into his Sgt. Pepper suit (which he had recently reacquired). Soon the Walrus from Magical Mystery Tour is playing bass while Starr plays drums. (McCartney was asked to appear but was unavailable.) Harrison bounces an apple (their record label’s symbol) off Starr’s timpani. Lynne has a cameo playing a violin. In the end, Harrison levitates and sprouts eight arms waving like a Hindu god.
At one point, a passerby carries the Imagine album to represent Lennon. Other walk-ons include Elton John, Paul Simon, Derek Taylor, Jeff Lynne, Gary Wright, Harrison’s percussionist Ray Cooper, and Apple manager Neil Aspinall.
The song was released as a single in January 1988 with a cover updating Harrison’s image from Voormann’s Revolver cover. It was Harrison’s last top forty hit in the United States.