Sgt. Pepper: It was 50 years ago today …

by Rick Krueger

It’s official: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club is now my 5th-favorite Beatles album, determined scientifically as follows:

  1. Rubber Soul (US or UK version).  Their most consistent collection of songs, including my all time favorite, “In My Life.”  Plus, the US version inspired Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan to create, respectively, Pet Sounds, (my favorite album ever) and Blonde on Blonde (once you’ve heard it, you know what song “Fourth Time Around” is based on).
  2. Abbey Road.  The Fabs’ last inspired grasp at a collective effort, bringing Pepper’s collage aesthetic to a high point.  Great playing throughout, too.
  3. Revolver (US or UK version).  The black & white movie to Pepper’s technicolor.  More high-quality songs coupled with daring experimentation in sound.
  4. A Hard Day’s Night (UK version). Speaking of black and white movies … the first all-Lennon & McCartney album.  Every bit as inventive as all of the above, though in fewer styles and with more limited means.
  5. Whichever one I listened to last.  Which, in this case, is the super-deluxe box containing the 50th anniversary Pepper remix.  So, is this sonic makeover (the first official remix of a complete original Beatles album) worth the hoopla?

Definitely.   While the 2009 stereo remasters were wonderful, up through Pepper they featured that “instruments on the left, vocals on the right” stereo separation that EMI’s boffins thought was cutting edge — but which just sounded goofy in the long run.  The mono remaster gave Beatlemaniacs the first taste of what the albums were supposed to sound like in 20+ years — but they were only available in expensive CD & vinyl boxes (which, of course, I added to my credit card bill the day they came out — don’t worry, they’re paid for now).

Here Giles Martin goes back to the original, pre-master 4-track tapes, plants the vocals, bass and drums in the middle of the sound field where they belong, and surrounds them with the guitars, keyboards and sundry effects (possibly including Abbey Road’s kitchen sink).  The new stereo mix is informed by the mono master, but it’s much more detailed and clean — you hear spoken asides, unique guitar voicings, Indian instrument drones, multiple keyboard colors that have been buried since 1967, nestled into songs and sounds you thought you knew cold.  It really is revelatory, whether you’re listening on CD, DVD or BluRay.

I’m a sucker for album box sets that include session tapes (including the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Smile boxes).  To that end, the super-deluxe Pepper serves up two CDs of sessions in chronological order.  It’s great to hear tracks “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life” evolve across multiple takes — and to remember how hot the Beatles still were as a guitar band on early takes of “Good Morning, Good Morning” and the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise.

The other main attraction of the big box is the enclosed 144-page book.  Along with plenty of photos (including the Fool’s original design for the album’s inner gatefold), it features recording notes, lyrics, and eight excellent essays about various aspects of the album and the times.  These essays provide plenty of fresh facts, context and perspective.  Some examples: the Beatles’ unprecedented silence (ten months!) between albums, which fueled massive speculation over what might be going on; the way suburbia and psychedelia cozy up to each other in Sgt. Pepper‘s lyrics, and the central place of empathy as the driving emotion of the album; how the Beatles’ new music, ably assisted by George Martin, Geoff Emerick and company, incorporated a wider swath of influences than ever before, from Little Richard to Karlheinz Stockhausen; and the different impacts of the album on the music scenes in Britain (basically six months of psychedelia, quickly followed by a “back to the roots” movement) and the USA (where it interacted with the burgeoning counterculture to become an overwhelming influence up to Woodstock).

Admittedly, only hardcore Beatles fanatics will need all of this — the 2-CD or double vinyl deluxe edition, with a second disc of selected “alternate album” takes, will suit the needs of more casual listeners.  Either way, both longtime fans and Sgt. Pepper skeptics should check this remix out.  It may or may not be the Beatles’ best album — but given the music it inspired from the Fabs, their peers, and their followers (including many founders of prog), it’s certainly the most influential.

Thoughts?

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