I. It Was Fifty Years Ago Today...
I read the news today, oh, boy! It's a new day in Pepperland thanks to today's release of the most eagerly-anticipated reissue project of the year: the 50th anniversary deluxe box set of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This would be a landmark collection for any number of reasons: that Pepper is routinely considered one of the greatest albums, if not the greatest album, of all time; that this is the first-ever "Expanded Edition" of a Beatles album; that the entire LP has been startlingly remixed both for stereo and 5.1 surround sound. Yet, put simply, this 4-CD/1-DVD/1-BD super deluxe box (also available in smaller CD, 2-CD and 2-LP formats) raises the bar for archival releases. Curating this set was clearly not a task taken lightly by Apple Corps, Capitol Records/UMe, and reissue producers Jonathan Clyde, Guy Hayden, mix producer Giles Martin, and mix engineer Sam Okell. This collection reveals that it's possible to hear a classic, arguably over-familiar record with new ears, and that the reverberations of Sgt. Pepper - as a crystallization of the moment rock-and-roll became art - are still being felt today.
At its centerpiece, on Disc One of the box set, is Giles Martin and Sam Okell's new stereo mix of the original 1967 album produced by Giles' father George Martin and engineered by Geoff Emerick. The Beatles' eighth studio album, it was also their first to be issued with identical track listings in both the United States and United Kingdom. The younger Martin explains his remix mission in an introductory note: "Why even attempt it? The original Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was primarily mixed as a mono album. All care and attention to detail were applied to the mono LP, with The Beatles present for all the mixes...Almost as an afterthought, the stereo album was mixed very quickly without The Beatles at the sessions. Yet it is the stereo album that most people listen to today." So, Martin set out to recreate the feel and ambiance of the mono version, paying homage to its balances and imaging, while adapting them for a stereo soundscape. He's succeeded mightily in adding new dimension to Sgt. Pepper without changing anything fundamental about John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Sir George's sprawling, experimental, eclectic, conceptual collection of songs that run the gamut from pop, rock, and psychedelia, to art songs, vintage music hall, and back again.
II. It's Getting Better All the Time
Released in a year that also offered The Doors, Surrealistic Pillow, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Are You Experienced, Forever Changes, and Axis: Bold as Love, The Beatles' masterwork has been considered in some quarters to be "soft" - a "pop" record, first and foremost. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) One listen to the new remix should prove that Sgt. Pepper's not only isn't "soft," but is a benchmark of melodic rock. This Pepper is "heavy," as if a veil of gloss has been removed from both the drums and bass. The mighty McCartney/Starr rhythm section's instruments have gained newfound clarity and presence throughout the remix, resulting in a bolder rock sound that's nonetheless completely faithful to The Beatles' playing and the punchy attack of George Martin's mono mix. (No new elements whatsoever have been added to the original recordings.) The muscular remix doesn't let one forget that, for all the studio wizardry, this album was played by four bandmates. Current technology has made this thrilling sound possible; whereas track after track was originally "bounced down" to four-track tape, Giles Martin and his team have been able to return to first-generation elements to take advantage of modern multi-track capability. Purists should take note that this new mix isn't replacing the original stereo mix, which is still readily available on CD and vinyl, but instead stands tall alongside it.
"More" is the most apt word for Giles Martin's work here. The hauntingly psychedelic "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is more driving in the chorus, more ethereal in the verses. "Getting Better" is more buoyant and brighter. "Fixing a Hole" is more urgent. A more three-dimensional quality to the strings in the ballad "She's Leaving Home" bring out its tension and underlying nervous energy. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" offers more pronounced spatiality; the malevolent carnival swirl of sound approaches a surround-style immersion in two-channel stereo. This track, in particular, underlines the contribution of George Martin, whose task was to translate The Beatles' most outré musical notions into reality - with only four tracks of tape.
Revisiting Pepper, too, makes clear just how ingeniously sequenced the original record was (and is). By the time of "Within You Without You" (the first track on the original Side Two), it's clear that the album itself is a journey of sounds, with each song different from the last - the "psychedelic variety show" of McCartney's original concept for the LP. The vaudevillian bounce of "When I'm Sixty-Four" (with Starr's voh-de-oh-doh drum pattern) is like a reassuring breath of fresh air, or a respite before the listener is back in dreamlike territory with "Lovely Rita." The crisp attack of "Good Morning, Good Morning" is a wake-up call leading into the reprise of the title song, although nothing could fully prepare one for the sonic power of the album's finale, "A Day in the Life." In his remix, Martin has crafted something resembling one forceful field of sound - the strongest quality of mono - while using the effects only stereo can provide. There's still nothing like it.
III. I'm Painting My Room in the Colourful Way
At a listening session held last month, Giles Martin stressed that The Beatles were, simply, "people with great ideas - who changed the world." Though more has been written about the foursome than likely any other artist in popular music, there have been few opportunities to humanize them as rich as the experience of listening to the two Sgt. Pepper Sessions discs. (These two discs have been boiled down to create one full "alternate album" in sequence on the 2-CD and 2-LP iterations.) The work-in-progress tracks are illuminating as they've been selected to showcase the imagination and experimentation that went into creating each now-familiar track.
While "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" (both recorded within the period of Sgt. Pepper) are not appended to the original album on Disc One, they can both be found in new stereo mixes, with session alternates, on the second disc. Four wholly distinctive takes of "Strawberry" - 1, 4, 7, and 26 - open the Sgt. Pepper Sessions, highlighting the collaboration of the four Beatles and in particular Lennon and McCartney as they shift and alter the very structure of the song not to mention its instrumentation. Fifth Beatle George Martin's role comes into sharp focus, too, as he discovers how to honor John's seemingly-impractical request of merging two takes in vastly different keys and tempos to create the final recording. Such requests were far from rare on Pepper.
This window onto The Beatles' process is enlightening, and best of all, the deluxe box's impossibly detailed liner notes correspond to the tracks, to allow listeners to understand exactly what they're hearing. "Penny Lane" is first heard in early instrumental form, with just Paul on multiple keyboards and some harmonium, and Ringo on tambourine - in which McCartney's debt to Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds is even more vividly evident. A work session in which McCartney guides George Martin to devise the brass parts is a true fly-on-the-wall experience. Finally, the new mix allows the song's four keyboard parts, initially blended into one sound, to be heard individually.
The alternates trace the development of each song. Most striking is the elegiac "A Day in the Life," which like "Strawberry Fields," is presented on Disc Two in five distinctive parts beginning with the first two takes in various stages of completion. (Again, the liner notes share great technical detail about how the four tracks were used to create the complex final recording.) Most fascinating may be The Beatles' attempt at humming the famous last chord eventually played on multiple pianos and keyboards. Most frightening is certainly George Martin's grandiose rumble of an orchestral overdub. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," too, had a complex genesis, traced here via two early takes (Take 1 and Take 5), both lacking lyrics in the chorus. (A composite "making-of" mix was previously issued on Anthology 2 drawing on Takes 6-8.)
The alternates have been selected with a view on what they can add to one's understanding of the finished album, so few of them are close to the finished takes. Take 3 of "Fixing a Hole" from Regent Sound (the first time The Beatles had recorded in a British studio not owned by EMI) was ultimately discarded, but plays like a loose, rough-and-tumble rehearsal sketch of the finished song. Take 9 of the jangly, upbeat "Lovely Rita" is jarring, with McCartney's vocal at its original speed and a higher key.
Some of these embryonic versions are stripped-down: "When I'm Sixty-Four" is presented without its woodwind adornment, and in the original key of C before the tape was sped up and the key rose by a semitone. The instrumental first take of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is a raw, rocking rave-up with Paul on lead guitar supported by John and George, and Ringo on drums, of course, before four French horns added the final track's baroque atmosphere. Paul is even more freewheeling on his brisk, unvarnished solo vocal on the reprise's Take 8. Two distinct takes of "Good Morning, Good Morning" show both instrumental and vocal progression, pre-brass and pre-John's double-tracked lead. The jovial charm of "With a Little Help from My Friends" was already intact by the time of its first complete instrumental take, included here.
There's enjoyable studio chatter and some goofing on the two raw takes of the impressionistic "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" with just bass, drums, harmonium, and leering vocals from John. These original "band" takes are utterly revealing as they attest to the strength of the compositions and to The Beatles' tight-knit camaraderie. It's a thrill hearing John egg on Paul to sing "properly" before Macca's electric piano instrumental track of "Getting Better." In the case of "Within You, Without You," George was the only Beatle on the song (his only composition on Pepper), but we get to hear him instruct and coach the guest musicians in mastering his newfound passion for Indian music. Two takes have been included of George Martin conducting Mike Leander's shimmering, dramatic string arrangement for "She's Leaving Home." (Martin couldn't write the chart himself, as he was occupied with recording Cilla Black.)
IV. It's Wonderful to Be Here, It's Certainly a Thrill
The fourth compact disc in the box set is a look back to the original 1967 mono mix of Sgt. Pepper on which the new stereo version has been based. It's been remastered, and has even more clarity than the fine 2009 edition. This disc is bolstered by six bonus tracks, all in mono: the original single mixes of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," the "first mono mixes" of "A Day in the Life," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," and "She's Leaving Home," and Capitol Records' unique U.S. mono promo single mix of "Penny Lane."
The box is rounded out with a DVD and a Blu-ray, each containing identical content. On the audio side, these discs offer the first-ever surround mix of a Beatles album with Giles Martin's 5.1 Sgt. Pepper; the new stereo mix is also available in high-resolution. Martin has said that, while he maintained great fidelity to the original mono in creating his new stereo version, he gave himself a much freer hand in mixing to surround. The result is a mix that is still rather conservative on the surround spectrum (and not only when compared to Martin's own 5.1 mix for The Beatles' LOVE), but nonetheless adding a fun layer of immersion that longtime fans will almost certainly appreciate. The 5.1 Pepper is not a "demonstration disc" with discrete sounds bouncing from speaker to speaker, nor is it ever revelatory. Rear channels are used subtly. But at its best ("Getting Better," "Within You, Without You"), it's just one more alternate view on this classic album, and those with surround capabilities will enjoy sampling it. "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" have also been mixed into 5.1, with the latter surprisingly the stronger mix. Some video content is also featured. The 1992 documentary The Making of Sgt. Pepper, featuring Paul, George, Ringo, and Sir George, is a welcome bonus, along with the original 1967 promotional videos of "A Day in the Life," "Strawberry Fields," and "Penny Lane."
V. A Splendid Time is Guaranteed for All
A set of this magnitude deserves an impressive presentation, and this package certainly delivers. Beneath the lenticular slipcase replicating Peter Blake's famous Sgt. Pepper cover, the box set is housed in a spot-on replica of an EMI master tape box. As this is certainly the closest most of us will come to ever holding an original Beatles tape box, there's a palpable, visceral thrill just to opening the set. Happily, the contents are every bit as superlative.
A 150-page hardcover coffee table book goes above and beyond the norm, even for pricey archival collections such as this. This stunningly-designed book has ten separate sections, each loaded with text, photographs, and memorabilia. Paul McCartney and Giles Martin provide introductions to essays by Kevin Howlett, Joe Boyd, and Ed Vulliamy, each placing the album in period perspective. Howlett's chapter on Songs and Recording Details is the impossibly-detailed guide to each song. (Photographs of The Beatles' original handwritten lyrics to accompany these entries are one of the many delightful, unexpected touches here.) Musicologist and composer Howard Goodall offers up an appreciation of Sgt. Pepper's Musical Revolution, and Howlett explores the creation of Peter Blake's now truly iconic cover in one piece, as well as the aftermath of the album's release in another. Jeff Slate explores the album's impact on America via its Capitol release. Complete lyrics are also featured. Numerous books have already hit the shelves this year about the Pepper anniversary, but this comprehensive dossier will stand up to the best of them. It will likely take much longer to read all of the text in this hefty volume than to listen to the album - in each iteration!
The discs themselves are housed in their own LP-sized folder. Each mini-sleeve (which fits into a slot within the folder) has its own unique spin on the Pepper artwork. The package's additional swag can't help but be an afterthought: fold-out replicas of a giant poster for instore display ("NEW BEATLES LP HERE NOW," it trumpets) and the Victorian poster that inspired John to write "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," and a replica page of Sgt. Pepper cut-outs as included in the original LP.
Apple Corps, Capitol Records, and UMe have set a high bar with the 50th anniversary super deluxe edition of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This is the release for which Beatles fans (and who isn't?) have been waiting, with rare material and new sonic avenues to please both the diehard collector and the casual fan discovering the Fab Four for the first time. If that latter group picks up the 2-CD or 2-LP "highlights" editions, chances are they will be tempted to splurge for the larger collection and immerse themselves further into the music of the one and only Beatles. Fifty years later, it's still getting better all the time.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is available now: