The Beatles – Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band – Parlaphone Records (1967)/ EMI (2012) – re-mastered 180-gram stereo vinyl, 39:42 *****:
(John Lennon – vocals, guitar, piano; Hammond organ, harmonica, percussion; Paul McCartney – vocals, guitar, bass, piano, Lowry/Hammond organs; percussion; George Harrison –vocals, guitar, sitar, tamboura, harmonica, percussion; Ringo Starr – vocals, drums, percussion; George Martin – harpsichord, harmonium, Lowry organ, piano; and many others)
As their U.S. tour wound down in 1966, The Beatles had grown weary of superstardom. Screaming fans reduced their live performances to novelty. Consequently, they withdrew to the creative sanctity of the recording studio. Their last album, Revolver was a step forward for the group in musicianship and technology. Under the direction of producer, guru and “Fifth Beatle” George Martin, the quartet experimented with different recording techniques (especially overdubbing and multi-tracking) to produce an enhanced and fuller sound. Additionally, there was a palpable tension that had crept into the band dynamics. This would remain until their ultimate demise in 1970.
In the late fall of 1966, The Beatles hit Abbey Road Studios and cut four tracks that captured some themes of childhood, including “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” (both of which were included on the Magical Mystery Tour LP). After scrapping this concept, they adopted another one. Unhappy with their brand identification, they created a band alter ego that became Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. These sessions broke the mold for pop records, combining elements of music hall, classical, psychedelic rock, Indian music and social commentary. Utilizing automatic double-tracking and varispeeding technologies, compositions became complex aural landscapes. In addition to extensive guitar and keyboards, there was a generous amount of strings, brass and reed instrumentation.
EMI has re-mastered Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band to 180-gram vinyl. As it was in 1967, it is a masterful analog triumph. The album opens with background voices and an orchestra tuning up. Suddenly a jagged electric guitar leads into Paul McCartney’s indelible rock vocal. The song has a downbeat rock groove chorus followed by crisp horn quartet runs before John Lennon adds his pure tenor to the bridge. At the end there is a crescendo segue into the next cut (identified as “the singer”…Billy Shears). But it’s Ringo Starr and his loopy baritone that delivers “With A Little Help From My Friends”. Lennon and McCartney had a knack for finding the proper vehicle for Ringo. It represents solid pop craftsmanship and the backup vocals are pristine. Despite the lack of linear narrative, each track flows seamlessly into the next one. Although McCartney dominates the overall songwriting, there are some gems from Lennon. The controversial “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” features a spacey minor key verse with major key shifts. Wildly experimental, Lennon’s lead guitar is played through a Leslie speaker as McCartney fills in with Lowry organ. Another exotic touch is George Harrison’s tamboura. More of this edgy music can be heard on “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite”. Based on a 19th century circus poster, swirling organ and calliope riffs are spliced to create a aural carnival aesthetic.
McCartney’s influences are much different. “She’s Leaving Home” employs a plaintive melody that is interpreted by an elegant string section (including a harp). The vocal chemistry of Lennon/McCartney is dazzling, especially in counterpoint. With unabashed sentimentality, “When I’m Sixty-Four” is vintage music hall that is augmented by a clarinet trio. But Sir Paul returns to his rock eminence with “Sgt.Pepper’s Reprise” that speeds up the number. Then a grand piano introduces “A Day In The Life”. Possibly Lennon’s masterpiece, a full orchestra (under the direction of Martin and McCartney) helps to detail the ruminative lyrics. The longest track (nearly five-and-a-half minutes) on the album symbolizes the lyrical elegance and visionary musicality of The Beatles. The final E chord, recorded on three separate simultaneous pianos underscores the innovative vibe of this recording.
If the music wasn’t enough, the front cover (designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth) is stunning. With neon-clad Beatles surrounding a drum with the new band moniker, there is a funeral-type flower arrangement for The Beatles that is being looked upon by the Fab Four (in 60s suits). Surrounding this is a collage of sixty pictures including Edgar Allen Poe, Marlon Brando, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Fred Astaire and William Burroughs. There is a luxurious hi-gloss finish, and reproductions of the original cardboard cut-outs. The “Greatest Rock Album Ever” has the “Greatest Rock Album Cover” as well.
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band won four Grammys, and changed the face of popular music. This audiophile vinyl is terrific. The layers of multi-tracked sonics are full and rich. Keyboards and guitars (and of course the sitar on “Within You Without You”) have clarity, even with intended distortion. Brass instruments sound mellow, without any shrillness. McCartney and Lennon’s lead vocals have a complex purity that has stood the test of time. A lot of 60s psychedelic music feels dated…this is inspirational! [I found the general acoustic to be more laid-back with less presence on the vocals than the recent remastered CD reissue, which is a more aggressive mix. This vinyl also has more bass than my 70s Japanese vinyl pressing; and these new Beatles vinyls are priced very reasonably compared to most of the audiophile vinyl reissue labels…Ed.]
Side One: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; A Little Help From My Friends; Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds; Getting Better; Fixing A Hole; She’s Leaving Home; Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!
Side Two: Within You Without You; When I’m Sixty-Four; Lovely Rita; Good Morning, Good Morning; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise); A Day In The Life
This is a delightful holiday collection.