Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review: 50th Anniversary Edition of 'Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band'


They can call those blues-peddling Stones a bunch of middle-class poseurs. They can call The Beach Boys too square. They can accuse The Monkees of being phony or The Who of being pretentious, but even the most hostile critics can’t say “boo” about the unassailable Beatles. This has been the prevailing consensus for some fifty years now— and let’s be honest— as far as pop legacies go, The Beatles’ is as airtight as it gets.

That does not mean that it’s perfect or that there is no room for improvement. Even The Beatles’ most influential and definitive album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, could use some gussying up, largely because of the obvious flaws of its original stereo mix which committed the same crimes as so many of The Beatles’ stereo mixes. As the now well-known story goes, The Beatles were mono purists who usually baled on George Martin’s hastily performed stereo mixing sessions. Those stereo mixes tended to be poorly balanced and lacked some of the carefully considered signature touches of the mono mixes. On Sgt. Pepper’s, songs that were treated with effects in the mono mix might lack them in stereo. Tracks that had their speed altered in mono might not receive the same colorations in stereo. Consequently, and perhaps ironically since stereo is made for hearing the full spectrum of trippy music through headphones, the mono mix of The Beatles’ psychedelic opus ended up more psychedelic than the stereo mix.

Correcting this issue is clearly the main concern of the new six-disc 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which focuses a lot of its attention on Giles “Son-of-George” Martin’s new stereo mix of the venerable platter. Martin uses the mono mix as a reference, and indeed, many of those neat touches only present in the original mono mix are now part of the stereo one too. So feel free to pop on those headphones and trip out to the extra phasing on John’s voice in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, the speedier tempo of “She’s Leaving Home”, and the varied speech effects in “Within You, Without You” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”. More importantly, the frailty of that original stereo mix is now bolstered with better balance. Lead vocals once shunted off to the left or right channel are now centered throughout the disc. Drums and bass tend to move to the middle too (though, oddly, Paul’s bass, which was centered in the original stereo mix of “A Day in the Life”, is now nudged to the right).

Though the original mono mix is the stated template of the new stereo mix, Giles Martin doesn’t shy away from taking advantage of stereo’s unique features. So the celestial organ line of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and the swaramandala upstroke that kicks off “Within You, Without You” now travel across the stereo spectrum. And to my tremendous relief, Giles’ retains the original stereo mix’s one major improvement over its mono equivalent: the weird spliced tape of organ samples that runs through the end of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is not buried in the mix as it was in the mono original.

The new stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper’s is the main feature of this Super Deluxe set’s first CD and discs five and six, which present it in Blu-ray and DVD audio. I must say that I actually preferred listening to it on the standard CD. The Blu-ray audio version is certainly big and present, but it’s a bit too big and present. Excessively loud and thundering in the low end, the Blu-ray audio version made me feel like my skull was strangling my brain by the time I got to the two boomingest tracks on the album: “Good Morning, Good Morning” and the title track’s reprise. That being said, the new mix really is the best of both mono and stereo worlds, and as much of a purist as I am, it makes me wish that Giles will do the same for the rest of The Beatles’ catalogue (a wish I’d wager he’s already contractually obliged to fulfill).

Discs Two and Three are devoted to sessions, so we hear works in progress, studio chatter (John can always be counted on for a surreal comment here and there), and stripped down mixes of tracks on the original album, as well as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane, which were both recorded for it but paired as a single instead (sadly, “Only a Northern Song”, which was also considered for Pepper’s but ended up on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack instead, is not afforded similar treatment). The tracks are arranged according to when they were recorded, but Disc Two is the preferable one not because it necessarily features the album’s best songs but because almost all of its tracks include vocals, which is not the case for Disc Three.

On Disc Two, we hear such tantalizing tidbits as the first version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” with harmony vocals not included in the version on Anthology 2, as well as the entirety of the guitar/bass/drum and orchestral versions of the song that were spliced together to make The Beatles—hell, pop music’s—most enthralling single. A pre-overdub recording of the album’ title track really highlights the funkiness of its guitars while a version of “Good Morning, Good Morning” does the same for that track’s bass and drums. We also hear a hilariously sparse stage of the recording of “When I’m 64”, which consists mostly of thudding bass, drums, and Paul’s voice, and the massive choral hum that might have capped “A Day in the Life” instead of its familiar piano chord. Be sure to play the track that isolates its terrifying orchestral crescendo for a loved one when he or she least expects it. Just be sure to have plenty of paper towels on hand to clean up the pee.

Disc Three is another important document, and a track of George leading the Indian musicians through the arrangement of “Within You, Without You” is both historically fascinating and mesmerizing listening. Yet the fact that most of the disc’s tracks lack vocals may inspire fewer repeat listens. It would also have been nice if this set made a place for the unreleased “Carnival of Light”, a lengthy experiment The Beatles pieced together for the “Million Volt Light and Sound Rave” event when the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions were getting underway.

Disc Four provides the option of hearing the original mono mixes of the featured LP and the “Penny Lane”/ “Strawberry Fields Forever” single already available in a couple of other Deluxe Beatles boxes. There are also a few otherwise unavailable bonus tracks, such as a mono mix of the early take of “A Day in the Life” that provided the bridge for the composite version on Anthology 2, a vintage mono mix of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” with extra-intense phasing, and the first mono mix of “She’s Leaving Home”, which features some slightly awkward solo cello fills edited out of the final version. The promo version of “Penny Lane” with alternate trumpet parts also gets its first commercial release since it was included on the U.S. edition of Rarities in 1980, though it sounds like it was pulled from a scratchy old acetate—which it probably was.

In addition to audio of the new stereo mix, the Blu-ray and DVD discs contain several video features: the 50-minute documentary The Making of Sgt. Pepper’s from 1992, which feels like a dry run for the Anthology TV series, and the same promo videos for “A Day in the Life”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and “Penny Lane” released on the 1+ set two years ago. The doc is nothing super creative, but it is informative and touches on some things not discussed in the Anthology, such as the influence of Pet Sounds on Pepper’s (Brian Wilson even makes a quick appearance to give his two cents on the topic). It’s also interesting to see Paul squirm through an honest explanation of the difficulties of discussing how drugs influenced the album and the original Corn Flakes advert that inspired “Good Morning, Good Morning”.

Also very worthy of mention is the packaging. The LP-sized box is housed in a cool slipcase with a lenticular image of Michael Cooper and Peter Blake’s iconic album cover. The discs are enclosed in mini LP sleeves, each featuring a different shot from Cooper’s photo session, and those are encased in a replica of the LP’s original gate-fold cover. Inside the box you’ll also find neat, full-size replicas of a promo poster, the sheet of cut-outs included with the original release, and the circus poster that inspired John to write “Mr. Kite”.

The most valuable goody of all is a 145-page hardbound book. These books are usually little more than fancily packaged liner notes intended to boost the price of a set such as this. However, this is a book I’d actually purchase if it were sold on its own. Beautifully designed and lushly illustrated with photos, handwritten lyrics, and poster art, the book is genuinely good reading with essays composed in appropriately personal, informative, or analytical voices to cover The Beatles’ career leading up to the album’s creation, the London Underground scene, the heady political and cultural times surrounding its creation and release, its inventiveness, the conception of its cover, and recording and song details that update the stuff in Mark Lewisohn’s landmark The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. This, my Peppery friends, is how to make a genuinely super-deluxe package. I just wish we could roll back time a year so that The Beatles’ best album could get similar treatment on Revolver’s own 50th Anniversary.
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