❉ Is Sgt. Pepper the best album The Beatles ever did? And is this new version of the album worth buying?
There is surely a point in the life of every wannabe reviewer where panic sets in because it’s hard to find a way to say that which has been said a thousand times over.
“Is there anything new to be said about Hamlet?” ponder scholars.
“Haven’t we sung the praises of City of Death enough?” cry the Doctor Who fanzines.
“Can you possibly start a review of this anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band without the words ‘It was fifty years ago today…’?” I asked myself, and then cheated by waffling on.
Yes, it’s fifty years since The Beatles unleashed the cultural, social and musical colossus that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and to celebrate this Apple, care of Giles Martin, have re-released the album with a brand-new stereo mix.
For the unaware readers, back when The Beatles first started out, stereo was very much an afterthought to most record producers and bands. More often than not, listening to a song from that era in a stereo mix results in every instrument going shoved into one ear, and vocals pushed into the other. A relic of its time and an arguably interesting way to really isolate the deft playing of instruments or close harmonies of singing, but a bit of a mess to listen to with headphones.
Mono was very much the in thing and this is especially true of The Beatles. John Lennon himself by all accounts used to be down in the mouth about Sgt. Pepper’s in particular, claiming that the mono mix of the album was the one they channelled all their time, love and craft into, with the stereo a poorly put-together afterthought with none of the above (I’m paraphrasing here).
It’s hard not to agree with him. For many, the release in 2009 of the box set The Beatles in Mono was eye-opening.
Songs like Here, There and Everywhere soundly sound warm and close-knit rather than spacious and absent; Help! benefits from a completely different lead vocal take in which the raw, pleading quality of the lyrics are given their all instead of a rather more radio-friendly, pop song rendition; and All You Need Is Love shows off the final trill of Greensleeves in a far more apparent fashion.
Sgt. Pepper’s meanwhile unearthed flange effects over the vocals in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds which only increase the present levels of psychedelia, a version of She’s Leaving Home with vocals which don’t sound like they’ve been dragged through treacle backwards, and McCartney giving it his all in some improvised thank you-ing at the end of the Sgt. Pepper’s reprise. It was, in short, a revelation, and you can see why this version of the album has been used as the basis for this new remaster years on.
The Beatles as a brand have dipped into new stereo remasters before of course, beginning back in the 1980s with Help! and Rubber Soul (albeit in the same 1960s style of all in one ear or t’other) and more recently with Yellow Submarine Songtrack and 1+, both of which were remixed and remastered to sound more akin to the stereo we are used to today. The difference in sound and mix is at times night and day, though at other times the approach is rather conservative, with songs such as I Feel Fine still trying to toe the line between a full on remix and showing some fidelity to the original sound. The same can be argued at times for Love, which starts with some creative and arresting mash-ups before largely settling down and becoming hesitant and reluctant to do much that is new.
Not so here. This is a full-on, modern as you like remixing of the songs and I would venture it’s all the better for it. The very opening of the title goes out of its way to envelop you with chatter, a more pronounced bass presence than we’re used to hearing in this song, and a clean and crisp lead guitar.
Indeed, the clarity of instrumentation throughout this new remix is most impressive, especially with regards to drum and bass. This was the album where The Beatles increased the isolationist approach to making music: more a collective than a band at times, though the evidence on display here shows that whilst they may not always have been in the same room at the same time, it did not harm the results.
If you’ve never heard the album in mono before, you’re in for a new experience. Lucy retains its aforementioned additional hallucinogenic edge, She’s Leaving Home the different key (there’s argument aplenty about which speed is correct for the song, so I’ll avoid that minefield. Anyone who says the stereo speed is wrong though, obviously), and the encouragement to “Twist it!” in the penultimate song and reprise has never been clearer.
Of course, you cannot polish a turd and without the songs’ collective strength this album would be nothing, decent remastering or no. The lyrical introspection arrests the attention years on, as does the humour.
“It’s getting better at the time!” sings Paul, only for John to quip, “It can’t get no worse!”
George, meanwhile, sings about enlightenment with po-faced sincerity and undercuts it with studio laughter. It gives the album a real twinkle that other bands would have avoided. In the same way, throwing the circus tribute Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! and music hall love song When I’m Sixty-Four together with A Day in the Life would have others run away, but not The Beatles. The sheer diversity on display here is what makes it all stand out, and the relative brevity of the album is what gives it all a sense of unity in the way The Beatles (the often-dubbed ‘white album’) lacks at times (though that’s a topic for another day, and I should add here that I have a hell of a lot of time and love for that album).
There is a sense of movement in the album in so many ways. Movement in production hinted at before but solidified here in crystal. Movement in drug intake as shown in lyrics. Movement in family, with John Lennon’s tribute to his son’s painting forever immortalized in music.
I’d argue, too, that She’s Leaving Home is also the song which moves them firmly, finally and definitively out of disposable pop forever, the Greek chorus echoing the ignorance of the song’s protagonist’s parents being at once heartbreaking and bitterly funny. It’s an insight that blows you away on the hundredth listen, let alone the first.
That’s not to diminish what came before in the band’s discography though, and not to ignore songs like Eleanor Rigby or In My Life which show a maturity and knowledge other songwriters would slay and sacrifice to attain (show me a better reflection of the guilty hypocrisy of knowing a new love is much the same as an old love, but wishing it weren’t, than Lennon sings of in In My Life. Thirty-one years alive on this planet and I’ve yet to stumble upon one). There’s a reason The Beatles stand strong whilst others have faded into relative obscurity.
Indeed, that reason is why so many of us have rushed out to buy this new take on a familiar classic. It’s why hard-earned money will be given to buy the bells-and-whistles commemorative edition of this new remaster with two CDs of additional material and outtakes, plus the mono original and a huge book. It’s why the album cover is recreated with a sense of diminishing returns over and over again. The Beatles exist as a snapshot of creative revolution reflecting social change in a way no-one else did, and never more so is that obvious than in this album.
Is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the best album The Beatles ever did? No. Is it their most important album? Undoubtedly.
And finally, is this new version of the album worth buying? Most definitely, especially if you’ve never heard it in mono before. It paves the way for more releases in this ilk, which is exciting, but more importantly it reminds you why the album is so loved. A spring clean and fresh coat of paint works wonders, and this release will let you fall in love with Bill Shears and his pals all over again. Love is all you need they sang, and on the evidence here they weren’t wrong.
❉ ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ – 50th anniversary double CD edition was released on 26 May 2017 by Parlophone/UMG.