Today being the 50th Anniversary of its release, here’s my take on THE BEATLES’ quintessential record.
“I get high with a little help from my friends,” sings Ringo Starr near the beginning of the most written about album in rock. I still feel “high” when I listen to it, having discovered it among my parents’ records as a kid. For its 50th anniversary, THE BEATLES have released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in a new mix and a bevy of formats designed to shed new light on their pop art masterpiece. Of course, five decades on the album has been both heralded and hacked. But the fact of the matter is: it’s still being written about. You can say all you want about it – badmouth it, throw sticks and stones at it – but it refuses to be influenced by naysayers or acclaimists. So let’s skip all of that (after all, fifty years of criticism is hard to summarize) and just get to the heart of this release.
Giles Martin, son of legendary producer and “fifth Beatle” George Martin (who produced the original), got the go-ahead to give the legendary Sgt. Pepper a makeover. Giles & Co. used the original 4-track tapes (including session tapes that, luckily, weren’t recorded over or discarded) and created a new stereo mix designed to deliver the punch and clarity of the original mono mix, which was done by George Martin and The Beatles over the course of a few weeks in the Spring of 1967. The original stereo mix – the one we’re all used to – was created over a few days without the Fab Four’s oversight. It became the de facto official version because stereo became the default configuration for future rock releases. Eventually the mono mix was put out to pasture, and that’s too bad because it was quite good (though it’s now again available on both vinyl and CD). Giles Martin’s new stereo mix relies less on gimmicky over-separation and goes for a more evenhanded approach, and it largely succeeds. (Stereo was new to the pop audience of the mid ’60s so exaggerated separation was the order of the day – sort of like over-enunciating in order to be understood.) Though some changes on the new stereo mix are too subtle for the typical listener to notice, it’s just as enjoyable. I like the more pronounced bass and drums, the clarity of some of the guitar and piano parts, and of course, the lovely sound of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s vocal harmonies. I could go into detail (I took notes during my first playback), but really, you can find that online in many places. Go ahead if you want to, or just go pick up a copy and hear for yourself.
As for the various formats available of this 50th Anniversary release, there are Sgt. Peppers to suit every budget and lifestyle. I decided to start with this 2CD version, which features the new stereo mix on disc one and a similarly-sequenced program on disc two that features early versions, false starts, instrumentals and more. It comes with a 50-page book (quite generous with photos and notes) and the original cutouts in a nice little slipcase. I got it on sale for $20 locally so it’s pretty affordable. You can also buy a single CD (just the new stereo mixes), a 2LP version (new stereo mixes on record one, some alternate versions and such on record two), and of course, the super deluxe 4CD/DVD/Bluray box set with even more alternate takes, a 140-page hardcover book and a brand new 5.1 surround mix in high resolution audio. Don’t get me wrong – I will get the big deal box – but the 2CD version is probably your best Beatles buy if you’re not bothered with all the extras. My purchase of it came with a nice poster of the inside of the original gatefold album cover (pictured above), which is pretty cool despite the extreme cropping of a very familiar image.
So there you have it, hopefully not too long-winded and with just the right info to pick the perfect Pepper.
4.5/5 (Apple/Capitol/UMe B0026524-02)