It Was Fifty Years Ago Today
When the Beatles remastered all of their albums in 2009, I listened more closely than I ever had. I was blown away by the amount of new detail I was suddenly hearing in these same recordings that I had grown up with all my life. Over the years, I've found almost all the hidden gems the 2009 reissues had to offer. I always assumed that there would be new remixes and remasters in the future, but I couldn't imagine that they would make as big a leap forward as the 2009 releases.
Boy, was I wrong.
On May 26, the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Deluxe Edition dropped, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the landmark album that kicked off the Summer of Love and defined the '60s. Giles Martin, son of the Beatles' late producer George Martin, led the charge in remixing the album that so many consider the band's masterpiece.
Martin had also worked on the 2009 releases with his dad, but this time he took a totally different approach. In 2009, every album in the Beatles' catalog was remastered, but not remixed. The original stereo and mono mixes were left intact, so you could listen to each album as the band had originally intended. For the Sgt. PepperDeluxe Edition, Martin decided to completely remix the album. The placement of vocals and instruments in the stereo field (left ear vs. right ear) is completely different and brings out a whole new sound on every single track. The result is a familiar '60s rock classic with the sound and feel of a modern chart-topper.
While it's almost universally accepted that Pepper is the best Beatles album, I've never fully agreed with that sentiment. Don't get me wrong, I completely understand the cultural significance of this album and the technical and artistic achievement it represents. But I always felt that Revolver was an almost perfect album. It shows off the band's transition from lovable guys who made teenage girls scream, into serious artists who had come into their own. Still, I've always loved Pepper and this reissue has absolutely given me new appreciation for it.
Side One: We Hope You Will Enjoy The Show
Track 1: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Big Picture: The title track comes in with a punch, hitting you with the new stereo mix and making it clear to long-time Beatles aficionados that they're about to travel a familiar road in a whole new way. Still, it's probably one of the least-affected songs on the album, since it's been remixed and remastered as part of prior projects. We've heard this song flex its muscles before.
The MVP: The most noticeable improvement on this track has to be the lead guitar which now absolutely kills it in the right ear. It's the quintessential hard rock lead and it's the driving force of the song more than ever before.
Track 2: With A Little Help From My Friends
The Big Picture: When this song was pre-released as a single a few weeks before the reissue, I sat in literal wide-eyed amazement. It's never sounded so fresh. As of this writing, I've heard it more than any other track on this re-release and it's still a favorite. The overall sound is now much cleaner in a way that made me realize, "Oh wow, there's a piano on this track!" I especially appreciate the clear stereo separation between the backing vocals and Ringo's lead vocal. Giles Martin and team clearly put some hard work into cleaning up the vocals and making them sound fresh.
The MVP: Paul's bass and Ringo's drumming! In 1967, record players couldn't handle super intense bass lines and drumming like this. The needles would literally jump out of the record grooves. So the bass and drums were toned down to accommodate the technology of the day. Now, they're front and center, and they add to the overall flavor of the track in a way that I think the band would have intended.
Track 3: Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
The Big Picture: Even setting aside the debunked rumors about the title, it's one of the trippiest songs ever committed to vinyl. And this mix definitely doesn't hurt. If you listen carefully in the left side, you'll notice the acoustic rhythm guitar strumming along during the chorus. I've never noticed that so clearly before.And speaking of the chorus, where the hell does Paul come up with that harmony? It's not new, but somehow more otherworldly than before.
The MVP: Right off the bat, the synth at the top of this track starts jumping from left to right and it feels like someone is tickling parts of my brain that I didn't know were there. How is it that I've heard this song on so many releases (the 1987 CDs, the Yellow Submarine Songtrack, the 2009 release, and now this) and yet no one until now has thought to pan the synth like that? It really made an impression on me. A relatively small tweak, but one of my favorites on this reissue.
Track 4: Getting Better
The Big Picture: This track may be the most improved overall. At the time the album was made, EMI Studios only had four-track recording technology. So in order to record everything they wanted to fit into a given song, they needed to "bounce down" all instruments and vocals to a single track, freeing up the other three. This sounds simple and efficient, but when you're dealing with analog tape and not digital recording, the result is that those bounced-down tracks lose some quality. I always felt that loss in quality was audible on this song, until now. Everything sounds crisp and bright, instead of slightly muddy. The bass line, played in parallel on both a stand-up bass and a typical bass guitar, had sounded slightly out of tune and a little out of sync before, but now it's tight and holds the song together. And as a bonus, you've got the lead guitar on its own in the left channel adding little arpeggiated flourishes throughout.
The MVP: Oh my God, those vocals! It's like they surround you in both ears with a three-part harmony hug. This really seals it for me and makes it one of the biggest improvements of the whole album. Somehow, it sounds more like a Beatles track than it did before. I can almost imagine it fitting in on Revolver.
Track 5: Fixing A Hole
The Big Picture: Another song that's always been a favorite for me, but had a slightly muddy sound to it. To be honest, it still has some of that muddiness, which I now realize is an intentional result of the reverb on Paul's vocals and less of an artifact of bouncing down. Still, the song benefits from better stereo separation and a much more open feel. The old stereo mix was much more concentrated in the center, but now Paul's vocals get center stage and the instruments get to hang out in the left and right channels providing more atmosphere than they used to. And can we talk about those backing vocals? When you really listen to those harmonies, you could almost consider this a doo-wop track that has rock and classical influences. Such a complex and weird combination of sounds that you'd never expect to work together. And then at the very end as the song fades out, I hear Paul sing, "baby it will go," which I had never noticed before. Another hidden gem.
The MVP: How can you not love that harpsichord? Just the idea of bringing such an antiquated instrument into the studio for a rock album is bizarre and brilliant. And it really shines on this reissue. In the past, it had that "shiny" sound that comes from repeated bouncing down, but now it sounds as clear as if it were in the room with the listener.
Track 6: She's Leaving Home
The Big Picture: You could call this song the spiritual successor to "Eleanor Rigby." Think about it. A George Martin orchestral arrangement paired with spare vocals from Paul and John. and it's worth noting that like "Eleanor Rigby," not a single instrument is played by a Beatle on this track. The old version of "She's Leaving Home" had a sound that made it obvious that it was recorded in the mid-to-late '60s. Again, it had a muddy sound and a narrow stereo field. The style of songwriting may not sound modern, but the actual audio quality is fresh and crisp, as if it were recorded yesterday. About 15 seconds in, you can actually hear Paul quietly inhale between lyrics.
MVP: OK, I'll admit this is a weird one -- the pitch. See, in 1967, stereo was becoming common, but it was treated like a gimmick. The Beatles were very hands-on for the mono mixing sessions, but were often not even present for the stereo mix. The mono version of "She's Leaving Home," which Paul actually had a hand in mixing, is a half-tone higher than the original stereo version. If you actually listen to the old mono and stereo mixes back to back, the difference in pitch is striking and it has a huge impact on the feel of the song. In retrospect, the slower stereo version always sounded sluggish and almost fake. They've fixed that here, bringing us the best of both worlds: the faster tempo with a brand new stereo mix. And the finished product is fantastic.
Track 7: Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!
The Big Picture: So. Much. Sound. John's musical adaptation of an antique circus poster is really brought to life here. Once again the stereo field here immerses the listener in a way that wasn't possible before. Bass and drumming are more prominent now and finally come through as originally intended.
The MVP: The winner here is the organ solo and accompanying circus sounds in the last 45 seconds or so. It strikes me that this ending was constructed similarly to Tomorrow Never Knows. Tape loops from carousels and other carnival rides were placed in a random order and played both forwards and backwards to create the disorienting atmosphere we hear, and then the organ solo was dubbed over. This version makes it more fantastic than prior releases.
Side Two: A Splendid Time is Guaranteed For All
Track 8: Within You Without You
The Big Picture: I'll admit it. When I was younger, this was a track I'd usually skip. I was too young to appreciate where George was in his life at this time. This novel blend of traditional Indian and orchestral instruments is still ahead of its time. The disparate yet somehow perfectly-matched sounds of East and West surround you and draw you in as the violins and sitar play a game of tag. They echo one another over a bed of pizzicato strings in a way that takes hold of you and demands that you listen with your full attention.
The MVP: The intensity of George's lead vocal really comes through on the last verse. Whether or not you agree with his viewpoint on life and spirituality, his earnestness here can't be denied.
Track 9: When I'm Sixty-Four
The Big Picture: In stark contrast to the previous track, Paul comes in with a Tin-Pan-Alley-style tune that he wrote as a teenager. It would seem a little out of place on any other Beatles album, but fits perfectly with the alter ego concept of Sgt. Pepper. The reeds seem fuller and more robust in the right channel, and both the lead and backing vocals have a warmer, more enveloping presence. Especially in the transitions from middle eight back to verses (Vera, Chuck, and Dave), you get a delightful little call-and-response interplay between reeds and chimes across the left and right channels. And during the very last chorus (Will you still need me / Will you still feed me), I just love the way you can now hear that Paul is clearly suppressing a laugh!
The MVP: In the left channel, Ringo's subtle shuffle stands apart in a new way that gives the song a jazzy feel while George's lead guitar fingerpicking brings a rockabilly sound reminiscent of his hero Carl Perkins. You can make out every little note in detail and it just brings a smile to my face.
Track 10: Lovely Rita
The Big Picture: An odd but fun little ditty. The piano solo really pops now, as does the mellotron that accompanies it. The rhythm guitar can really be heard as a driving force of the song. When you really listen carefully in the left channel, it feels almost as if you're hearing how the song came together: an acoustic demo probably came first, and then the other layers were added as the band experimented in the studio. Of course, Paul's ambling bass line sounds amazing, and actually harkens back to the bass line from "All My Loving" as it steps up and down the scales. And as the song ends, John can now be clearly heard saying something along the lines of, "I don't believe it."
The MVP: The acoustic guitars at the beginning no longer have the same artificial chorus sound to them, but instead feel more dry and natural, allowing every crisp, clear note to be heard and enjoyed.
Track 11: Good Morning Good Morning
The Big Picture: Interestingly, the remix is so good here you can clearly hear the edit from the rooster crow into the beginning of the song. That was always noticeable , but now ever more so. One of those situations where new advancements expose the limitations of the older technology. Ringo's drumming is a centerpiece of this track. He's just playing his heart out. The way he punctuates with the bass drum and cymbals in the middle of each verse now just washes over me with every listen. And I never realized how much the guitar solo is stylistically similar to the solo from "Taxman." You can hear the Indian influence there.
The MVP: The brass section! They give this track its distinct character and now they surround you and make you feel like they're playing at you.
Track 12: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
The Big Picture: Just a solid rock song. Tambourines, world-class guitar riffs, and bass bring us home and tee up the conclusion.
The MVP: Studio chatter is peppered throughout the track (pun shamelessly intended) in places I'd never noticed before and it's kind of blowing my mind. At the beginning I can make out George Martin and John during the audience noise and the electric guitar lead-in. And at the very end, I now hear Paul doing a sort of Little Richard impression as he seems to be thanking the crowd, similar to what he'd do on "Soily" about 9 years later with Wings. Also, the crowd noise is more dynamic than I had ever noticed before. Applause and laughter seem to be reacting appropriately to the lyrics.
Track 13: A Day In The Life
The Big Picture: What really strikes me is how the stereo separation highlights the simplicity of John's opening segment. Maracas, acoustic guitar, and John's adaptation of a news story about the death of the Guinness brewing heir followed by his commentary on the way the '60s generation seemed to have forgotten the impact of WWII, despite being surrounded by it. Then Ringo's drumming steps it up a notch. And then the first big orchestral climax as we head into Paul's tale of domesticity. Here, it's worth noting that Paul's vocal had always sounded overly bassy before, but now it's more crisp and was clearly brought up in the mix. For years, Beatles fans have debated who sings the "ahhhs" as we transition from Paul's section back to John. I was always on the fence, but after hearing this remix, I feel pretty confident that it sounds like Paul to me.
The MVP: The final climax and the piano chord sound more amazing than I could have hoped. Mal Evans can be heard counting measures as the piano gets increasingly frenetic and then gets consumed by the orchestra, finally ending in that infamous chord that seems to last forever. And I absolutely love that special care was taken to accentuate the chair squeak as the chord fades out (it's around 4:47 if you're interested.) I had never noticed that squeak until the 2009 remaster, and now you can't miss it in the right channel.
The Big Picture: If you're listening on Spotify or Apple Music, or if you purchased the deluxe boxed set, you're treated to the entire album again, this time in the form of outtakes and alternate versions of each track. We've heard some of this before, on Anthology and on various bootlegs. But lots of it was new to me. I was particularly amazed when I realized how much of the title track was performed live in-studio by the band and not done in overdub. Pretty much the whole song was played live except for the orchestra and some harmony overdubs. Hearing the isolated backing tracks for "She's Leaving Home" and "Within You Without You" was a special treat. Listen to those instrumentals and then go back and compare them with the final tracks. You'll gain a whole new appreciation for them.
Strawberry Fields Forever
The Big Picture: This track was famously worked and reworked in the studio over and over again, until two versions that were recorded in two different keys and at two different speeds were edited together to create the single that would signal to the world that the album that was about to come would be a complete shift for the Beatles.
The MVP: The backwards cymbals and the brass quartet in the middle of the song, along with the harp that pans from right to left really popped for me on this track like never before, making me feel like I was hearing a completely new version.
The Big Picture: Here's another track where the bass would have made your record player stylus pop out of the grooves if it had been released like this in '67. The bass is almost overpowering here. And I don't hate it.
The MVP: Believe it or not, I'm not going with the piccolo trumpet solo. Instead, I recommend you take a special listen to the right channel. The harmony in the flute arrangement stands out from the start, and later you'll hear the brass quartet chime. While these were always part of the song, they're especially noticeable now and add substance.
We're Sorry But It's Time to Go
While Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band isn't necessarily my all-time favorite Beatles record, it's absolutely a piece of music history and was worthy of this treatment. Just as the 2009 reissue replaced the 1987 version in my music library, this 2017 remix will now replace the 2009 version as my go-to. I wish they had started with a 50th anniversary deluxe edition of Please Please Me and worked their way through the full catalog year by year, but I'm still hopeful that they might go back and do that. If the rumors are true that 2018 will bring us a reissue of the White Album, I'll be a happy man. In the meantime, excuse me while I put on my favorite headphones and give this gem of an album another listen. A splendid time is indeed guaranteed for all.