On June 1, 1967, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in England. The U.S. release appeared the following day. Since so much has been written about the history of the groundbreaking album, I won’t repeat it and instead focus on the 50th anniversary special edition, which appeared yesterday (May 26). The impressive reissue comes in four different configurations, including a double LP-set I’m proud to own – my first new vinyl in 30 years!
No matter whether or not you agree with Rolling Stone’s bold assessment that Sgt. Pepper “is the most important rock & roll album ever made,” there can be no doubt it’s one of the most famous records of all time. And an album that took recording innovations The Beatles had introduced on their previous studio album Revolver to the next level and completed their transformation into an all-studio band. So why did Giles Martin, the son of George Martin, make the gutsy decision to tinker with it? In a nutshell, he wanted to improve the listening experience of the album’s most common version, the stereo mix.
“In 1967, all care to attention and detail were applied to making the mono LP, with The Beatles present for all mixes,” explains Martin in the liner notes of the reissue [note: I can only quote the liner notes for the deluxe vinyl set, since I don’t own any of the other three configurations]. “Almost as an afterthought, the stereo album was mixed very quickly without them. Yet it is the stereo version that most people listen to today. After forensically working out what the team had been up to when mixing the mono album, engineer Sam Okell and I set out about creating a new stereo version by returning to the original four-track tapes. We soon realised why we were doing this. The music recorded five decades ago sounds both contemporary and timeless; trapped in a time-lock waiting to pop like a cork from a champagne bottle.”
Martin’s comments are a nice way of saying that the previous stereo remix, while representing an improvement over the original rather poor stereo version, still by far did not come close to the mono version. Essentially, his goal was to create a new stereo mix that preserves the best elements of the mono version, which is widely considered to be the best mix. So how did he do?
My point of reference is what must be the initial “bad” stereo mix, which I’ve owned on vinyl since my teenage years, not the mono version. I also should mention my home stereo and loudspeakers are not high-end equipment. Even with all these caveats, and I’m afraid partial hearing loss from my long ago band days as a bassist, there are definitely some obvious improvements I’ve noticed. Getting a good set of headphones would probably reveal more.
One of the things The Beatles’ record engineers did to quickly create stereo mixes back in the ’60s was to put all or most of the vocals on one channel and most of the instruments on the other channel. Unfortunately, this oftentimes made the singing less forceful and muffled some of the music. One of tunes where this is very obvious is the album’s title song. For the remix, Paul McCartney’s lead vocals were moved to the center, making it more like a mono version, which substantially adds to its dynamic.
Another notable difference between the two vinyl stereo mixes I own is that the instruments have a clearer and more vibrant sound on the new version. Good examples are the horns in the title song, Ringo Starr’s drums in With a Little Help From My Friends and McCartney’s bass in Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds. “My father had to record everything on a four track,” explained Martin in an interview with NPR, conducted ahead of the remix’s release. “And that was bounced to another four-track. [Each time sounds are bounced to another tape the sound degrades]. What we do is we go back to the previous generation, so we’re mixing off generations of tape that they never mixed off…What was recorded in ’67 sounds pure and crystal clear — there’s not any hiss or anything.”
In addition to the stereo remix, all configurations of the special anniversary release include earlier versions of the songs. In the case of the vinyl set, it’s one earlier take of each song, with the tracks being arranged in the same order than on the final album. I think it’s safe to say these earlier takes are primarily meaningful to true Beatles fans, less to casual listeners.
Comparing the takes with the final versions certainly is fascinating to me. But I think I’m okay with one alternate take per song and don’t need to have multiple earlier versions. Perhaps the most notable example on the vinyl set is take 1 of A Day In the Life, in which the final E note is hummed by “The Beatles and friends gathered around a microphone,” as the liner notes describe it. But even after overdubbing, the humming was a mismatch to the preceding climax of the orchestra. Therefore, it “was replaced by a cavernous E major chord struck on a variety of keyboards.”
What I find even more intriguing than the unfinished tracks is listening to the conversations right before and after the takes between (George) Martin and The Beatles and among members of the band. One cool example occurs right after Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds, when McCartney demonstrates to John Lennon an alternative rhythm to sing the line Cellophane flowers of yellow and green. It’s a nice illustration how the two truly collaborated in harmony, something that would start to unravel only a few months later after Beatles manager Brian Epstein had passed away.
The remix of Sgt. Pepper was not Martin’s first foray into Beatles territory. In 2006, he collaborated with his father on Love, which is part soundtrack to the theatrical production by Cirque du Soleil and part remix album. In fact, as George noted in a 2007 interview with Sound on Sound, he had given up recording because of bad hearing, but when McCartney, Starr, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono approached him about the project, he couldn’t refuse. “But I couldn’t have done it without Giles. He’s my ears.” In 2009, Giles produced the music for the video game The Beatles: Rock Band. He also was executive producer for McCartney’s 2013 studio album New.
The above poses the question whether Martin has any plans to remix other Beatles albums that will hit their 5oth anniversary over the next couple of years. “I don’t know,” he told The Independent. “I speak to Paul or Olivia Harrison or Ringo and Yoko [Ono] about this…We all talk about what’s the right thing to do morally. It’s not a question of keeping the brand going or shifting units…There’s so much love for it that if people want it… I mean, The White Album turns 50 next year which actually, to be honest, I’d love to have a go at mixing. There’s a weird moral context behind this: the mono of Sgt. Pepper’s is the definitive version and the studio was done very quickly, but you can’t say that about The White Album as it was mixed very quickly in different rooms by different people. I think if there’s a desire for it, then yes is the answer…But it’s not my decision. If people want me to work, I’ll work.”
Sources: Wikipedia; liner notes, Sgt. Pepper deluxe 2-LP vinyl package; The Beatles web site; NPR “All Songs Considered”; Sound on Sound; The Independent