The Beatles – Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band – 2 CD edition – 1967 – Apple/ Parlorphone B0026524-02 (CD1 39:49, CD2 60:29) ****1/2:
A welcome 50 year reunion of Sgt. Peppers with surprises…
(John Lennon – guitars, piano; Paul McCartney – bass, guitars, piano; George Harrison – guitars; Ringo Starr – drums)
The 50th anniversary release of a stereo remastered Sgt. Peppers is a cause for celebration. Imagine that you are seeing a long lost friend (who is bringing surprises) after many years apart. It is rare when reality exceeds your expectations. The sequel seldom matches the original. However, in the case of a stereo remastered Sgt. Peppers, the advances in remastering capabilities over the last five decades can help a masterpiece be improved.
When The Beatles released Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band fifty years ago, it struck a strong chord with the public. The Beatles had sworn off touring and were ready to concentrate on working on more advanced pop music in the studio aided by producer, George Martin. McCartney states in the anniversary liner notes that the Sgt. Peppers Band concept would be an alter ego of The Beatles. It was time to expand their horizons. The Beach Boys Pet Sounds album was released in May, 1966. Brian Wilson’s musical genius helped inspire The Beatles to expand the pop repertoire almost exactly a year later.
Looking back today the only disappointment may have been that it was the stereo issue at that time that is most remembered today, rather than the mono version that had the full involvement of the band themselves, handcrafted in the studio. The label rushed a stereo version out for a 1967 summer release, and it was felt that it did not have the acoustics that the band and George Martin would have preferred.
For the 50th anniversary edition, Martin’s son, Giles, has remixed the original four track mono masters to stereo as well as the sessions’ alternate takes and instrumentals.
For me it is the sessions material that provides the treasure trove, the real treat for Beatles fans. Complete with false starts, studio chatter, instrumental takes (!), the Fab Four had too much talent that the under 40 minute original album (on par with pop releases of the day) is just the icing on the cake to the fully fleshed out, one hour plus of aural delights that the session material provides.
Don’t get me wrong, hearing the remixed original album with its crisp guitars, well mixed bass, and the swinging keyboards of all variety make the purchase of the single disc release an easy decision. However, with the 2 CD anniversary edition, we get to hear a masterpiece in full flower. The session material provides a “what if” experience of debating the merits of using other takes. The issuance of alternate takes wasn’t done often fifty years ago, and it is still not the norm today with the exception of massive box set career retrospectives. (Jazz albums often provide alternate takes, perhaps because most are instrumentals only.)
For me it is the instrumental session tracks, laid out by the band to be mixed with the vocal tracks, that are the most illuminating. They swing effortlessly and are full of catchy riffs and phrases (similar to what Brian Wilson provided for the Beach Boys). In the three plus years since their first album The Beatles had developed from a pop group with sweet harmonies for young screaming teenage girls into a creative force that holds up well a half century later.
They began using sound delay/phasing vocals and expanded the use of more exotic instruments. With Sgt. Peppers they are using the Direct Injection box (DI), which enhanced Paul’s bass, and the band experimented with both slowing and speeding up tapes during recording and mixing. This greatly aided with vocal effects, as well as altering pitch and tempo. Liner notes point out that nearly 400 hours were taken to make the 1967 album.
The 2nd CD of session material provides a glimpse into The Beatles developing genius:
“With a Little Help From My Friends” provides an instrumental take that brings to mind The Beach Boys with its bright “twangy” guitar, and George Martin on Hammond organ. Riffs are repeated, nothing complicated, but so sweet nevertheless.
“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” has John’s vocals slowed with the DI Transformer box. Paul is on the Lowrey organ and George Martin on piano. The organ brings on a dreamy vibe, very effective with the psychedelic lyrics.
“Getting Better” took 10 tracks to assemble the master. It features George Harrison on guitar, and Paul on electric piano. “Fixing a Hole” is taken at a stroll with Paul on harpsichord, perfect for his effort to “fix the hole.”
“She’s Leaving Home” is sublime with George Martin conducting an ensemble of four violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass, and harp. It’s as romantic as a string chamber orchestra could offer. As far as “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” I have two words: Steam Organ! The mechanical instrument with a roll of paper whose holes open and close its valves (aided by bass harmonicas and harmonium) add to the adult circus vibe.
George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” shows his fascination with traditional Indian music. The session instrumental features the Asian Music Circle from London on tablas, tamboura, and swaramandala with its harp like tone. Later violins and cellos were added. On the master take, George’s vocals were added on top of the instrumental backing that was mixed at a higher tape speed. The Beatles were no longer the band of your twelve year old daughter’s delight.
Listening to “When I’m 64” fifty years later was a surreal experience as I turned 64 two months ago. “Will you still need me, will you still feed me…”
“Good Morning, Good Morning” is two steps down from a punk vibe, minus any aggression, what with the lyrics, “You’re on your own, you’re in the street. I’ve got nothing to say, but it’s OK.”
“A Day in the Life” was life changing at the time and its effect remains striking. The true meaning of “I’d love to turn you on” will continue to be debated. This song was a major crowning achievement for The Beatles concluding with the symphonic explosion with the pianos going from the lowest E to the highest.
The two CD Anniversary edition completes complete with extensive liner notes that include a discussion of the iconic album cover as well as lyrics, archival photos, and the thought process of the band related to how the tracks were “constructed.”
For those Beatles fanatics still with us, there is also the $150 super deluxe edition with 4 CD/1 DVD/1 Blu Ray. Now, that would take a few more pages to discuss…
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
With a Little Help From My Friends
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
Fixing a Hole
She’s Leaving Home
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
Within You Without You
When I’m Sixty Four
Good Morning Good Morning
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
A Day in the Life
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (take 9)
With a Little Help From My Friends (False start and Instrumental)
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (take 1)
Getting Better (take 1 instrumental)
Fixing a Hole (take 3)
She’s Leaving Home (take 1 instrumental)
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! (take 4)
Within You Without You (take 1 Indian instrumental)
When I’m 64 (take 2)
Lovely Rita (take 9)
Good Morning Good Morning (take 8)
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise-take 8)
A Day in the Life (take 1 and hummed last chorus)
Strawberry Fields Forever (takes 7, 26, and stereo mix from 2015)
Penny Lane (take 6 instrumental and stereo mix from 2017)