Somehow 50 years have come and gone since Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. And unless you’ve been living in a cave (or have been too preoccupied with the intense political goings-on around the world in 2017), you probably know that The Beatles organization has done something special to commemorate that anniversary. The album has been re-mixed from the original source tapes by Giles Martin, the son and later assistant of Sir George Martin, The Beatles’ original producer. And it’s been released in a variety of packages containing various numbers of discs with new stereo and original mono mixes and a bunch of early takes and outtakes, a book and a DVD. (As I write this, Sgt. Pepper is No. 3 on the Billboard album chart, the first time it’s been in the top 3 since December 1967.)
Depending on your proclivities, either you’ve already bought at least one version of this set (probably the most deluxe), or you couldn’t care less, or you’re wondering if you really need one more version of a Beatles album that you’ve already bought at least twice, on vinyl and CD. This review is for you in that third group. And the answer is, yes, you need this.
The sound. OMG, the sound.
I grew up with The Beatles. It would be hard to overstate how important they were to me as a child, an adolescent, and a teenager. But though I loved some of the songs on Sgt. Pepper it was really as an adult that I first experienced it as an album, and it’s never been among my very favorites. I did go through an intensive period of listening to it after I first got it on CD in the ’90s, and now I find that its songs have etched themselves surprisingly deeply on my psyche. Well, not so surprisingly. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were at a peak of their creative powers in the months that they labored on this album, and the songs reflect that. Just about everybody can sing you a verse or two of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “When I’m Sixty-Four,” but even with the deeper cuts like “Lovely Rita” and “Good Morning, Good Morning,” once you’ve heard them a time or two, you can’t forget them.
One of the reasons Sgt. Pepper was so revolutionary in 1967 was because of the way it was recorded. The problem was, they wanted to put far more stuff on each song than you could do with the equipment of the day. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but for various reasons what happened was that the bass and drums especially ended up being muted and dull. Also a lot more time was spent mixing the mono version than the stereo, and that afterthought of a stereo mix is what eventually was used for the original CD releases. But now instead of just tweaking those original mono and stereo mixes, Martin went back to the source tapes and used modern digital consoles to create entirely new mixes that he thinks more closely reflect the intent of the original musicians and producer.
I’m no audiophile but I am a longtime Beatles fan, and I’ve listened to these songs obsessively at times. And I’m blown away by this music all over again. Particularly the psychedelic soundscapes like those on “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” and “A Day In The Life,” the latter of which still stands as one of the most towering achievements in recorded popular music of the 20th century. But even in much smaller ways. Like the drums. Ringo was my first favorite Beatle, and his drumming is absolutely unique and integral to the band’s sound. These recordings for the first time give it the prominence it deserves, with a clarity that is delightful. Those three big tom-tom bombs that introduce each chorus on “Lucy”? They really shake you. But it’s not just the big fills; you can now hear Starr’s subtle cymbal work and the steady heart-beat of his kickdrum during the verses. Likewise McCartney’s bass. It was always pushed to the back by studio tradition and policy and washed out in the overdubbing process, but now it stands out for all to hear what a joyfully creative bassman Paul was. And for the first time I’m also hearing John’s acoustic guitar strumming and other subtle details in this song, too.
The “super deluxe” edition that I’m reviewing comes with two discs of early takes, outtakes, orchestral tracks and such. I love having these bits, but then I’ve also read the books that contain details of every Beatles recording session. For a liner-note reader like me, these discs are like lifting up the hood of a Tesla and seeing how the magic happens. But even if you don’t enjoy listening to such things, it’s worth it to get a version of the set that contains the new 2017 mixes of the double-sided hit single associated with Sgt. Pepper, “Strawberry Fields Forever” b/w “Penny Lane.” Somehow over the years “Strawberry Fields” has become one of my absolute favorite Beatles songs, and this recording knocks me out. That said, one of the early takes of Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning” totally changed my opinion about that song, entirely for the better.
Don’t ask me about the disc that has the new mono mix. I haven’t even gotten to it yet.
I seem to have become a raving madman about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band because of this box set. And to think that the 50th anniversaries of two albums I like a lot more, the so-called White Album and especially Abbey Road are still to come. I doubt that they can give such detailed attention to the sprawling four-sided White Album, but Abbey Road is ripe for the deluxe treatment. I can barely contain my anticipation.
Here’s one of those outtakes, an early take of the title tune.
(Apple Corps Ltd./Capitol/UMe, 2017)