A closer listen to Sgt Pepper

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be an active music listener on June 1, 1967 when Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. It must have been similar to Dorothy walking out of her sepia-toned house and into the technicolor Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz.

The album was a kaleidoscope of melodies and sounds that swirled together and was leaps and bounds above any other artists’ efforts. It’s not hyperbole to call it the most important album ever made, even if it’s not the Beatles best album. It changed everything: music, recording, songwriting, fashion, art, and the entire music industry.

I have bought this album five times in my life: the first on cassette at the age of 10, then to replace my mother’s well-worn vinyl record at 13, again on cassette at 18, on CD at 19, and now on vinyl again at… well, at my current age. The Giles Martin-remixed Sgt Pepper was released on May 26 in the States. I received my two-disc LP in the mail last Friday. I rushed home, opened it, smelled the new vinyl (love the smell), popped it on the turntable, fixed my damn speaker wires for two hours, then finally settled in for a listen. The first album was the entire album remixed, the second album are alternative takes or instrumental takes — a behind the scenes look at how each song was layered (fine for Beatles fans, but not necessary for lay listeners).

My immediate impressions? First, the drums! The original stereo versions really tone them down. The new versions brings them all up. The drum break in “With a Little Help from My Friends” or the fills in “A day in the Life” are right up front. I’ve always throughout Ringo was a fantastic, tasteful drummer. The guitars are also much louder; you almost forget that this was a rock band. These aren’t just sonic embellishments for the sake of playing around, these touch-ups enhance the songs.

  • Ringo’s voice on “With a Little Help From My Friends’ is much clearer and over the music, makes you remember that it has a really catchy melody
  • John Lennon’s voice “Lucy on the Sky with Diamonds” isn’t as flat as on the original. Hi double tracked vocals leap out from under the keyboards.
  • “She’s Leaving Home” is a brighter, clearer, and slightly sped-up version of its former self. Listen to the old, then the new.
  • Even deep tracks like “Lovely Rita” and “Good Morning, Good Morning” rise up with new mixes. they sound fresher, more modern.
  • The piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life” is even-more amazing!

The new remix CD set also comes with a remixed “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” although they were fortunately let off the original album here. They were recorded before Pepper and hastily released, so they were left off the album. While they make up the A/B sides of the best rock single ever, they didn’t match the tone of Sgt Pepper. Granted, Pepper isn’t a thematically a concept album, but it’s overall sound and structure make it a complete work of art.

Does the remix give us the definitive version of Sgt Pepper. I hope so, at least for now. Maybe in another 50 years, there will be a new technology that can do event more with it. Does it make the songcraft on the album any better? Well, yes, but only in the sense that you can hear things better — the songs sound more cohesive as an album. It’s crisper, less like a relic and more contemporary. If anything, the new remix shows why the Beatles creativity and musicianship cast a shadow over music and culture that will likely endure for many generations to come.