The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ Revisited: Giles Martin Takes on ‘Humbling’ Task

The Beatles 1967
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“A splendid time was guaranteed for all,” as Apple/Capitol unveiled a new 50th-anniversary remix of the Beatles’ landmark recording “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to a small invited audience of journalists during a morning playback at Capitol’s Studio A and to fans at a sold-out evening Grammy Museum event on Tuesday.

Originally issued on June 1, 1967, the zeitgeist-defining, Grammy-winning bestseller will be celebrated May 26 in six-disc, two-CD, one-CD and double-LP packages; the six-disc version will include video components and a 5.1 surround mix. All configurations will feature the album as remixed by Giles Martin, son of the Beatles’ late producer Sir George Martin, and Sam Okell.

At the Capitol presentation, Martin – who worked with his father on Beatles projects beginning with “Anthology” (1995) and continuing with “The Beatles ‘Love’” (2006) – called the task of creating a new version of one of the most acclaimed and cherished recordings of all-time “humbling.”

Attempting to formulate a 21st-century mix of the record that served as the starting gun for the Summer of Love half a century ago, Martin and Okell employed as a road map the monophonic version of “Sgt. Pepper,” issued at the same time as the original stereo LP, which contains sometimes significantly different sonic treatments of the record’s songs. (The Beatles’ long-deleted mono albums were reissued in 2009.)

Band members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr took hands-on roles in making mono mixes of the their albums and left the stereo mixes to Martin and his engineers, since stereo was still at the time, in Martin’s words, “a novelty.”

Martin added, “I think John said, ‘If you haven’t heard the mono ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ you haven’t heard it’…The mono is more psychedelic.”

Some of the most dramatic differences on the mono version are preserved in the new stereo mix, most particularly on McCartney’s ballad “She’s Leaving Home.” Martin noted that in mono form, “It’s a whole semi-tone higher.” The higher pitch adds an additional tug to McCartney’s already poignant vocal.

For “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the mixing team further enhanced the manipulated sound of Lennon’s voice by deploying additional automatic double-tracking (ADT) to bolster the acid-drenched sound of the song. “His voice is far more screwed around with – I think the term is f—ed with,” Martin said.

Much of the astonishing definition of the new “Sgt. Pepper” is the result of the producers’ work with the earliest iterations of the master tapes, before they were “bounced down” heavily to overcome the limitations of the four-track board at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. “We’re mixing off of generations of tape that we’ve never mixed off,” Martin noted.

The anniversary “Sgt. Pepper” packages will also include an “alternate” version of the album, as well as some extras that show the band grappling, sometimes unsuccessfully, with the ideal way to manifest their goals in the studio.

The most striking outtake played by Martin was a stab at a vocal “choir” rendition of the thunderous E chord, ultimately played on overdubbed pianos, that concludes “A Day in the Life.” Martin noted dryly, “It turned out to be not the best idea.”

The Capitol audience sat in rapt silence as a playback of the new stereo mix rolled. The Martin-Okell version sports the harder-rocking, assertive sound of the 1967 mono, with McCartney’s bass and Starr’s drums frequently emphasized and some guitar details pushed up.

Aficionados of the mono “Sgt. Pepper” will appreciate elements buried on the ’67 stereo LP that rise to the surface on the fresh mix – Lennon’s command of “leave it!” to close “Lovely Rita,” a denser collage of stampeding animals at the climax of “Good Morning,” a more dizzying pileup of circus calliopes to end “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”

The remix’s finest hour may come in Harrison’s lone contribution, “Within You Without You,” on which the track’s plethora of exotic Indian instruments – sitar, tambura, tabla, swarmandal, dilruba – are heard in a rich, hypnotic clarity absent in the original.

The Beatlemaniac faithful filled the Grammy Museum, home of an ongoing series of Beatles vinyl LP listening sessions, and gave Martin a sustained standing ovation at the conclusion of the remix playback.

Some veteran Fab Four observers in the house voiced their approval of the new Martin rendering.

“He kept the essence of the mono mix,” said Chris Carter, longtime host of “Breakfast with the Beatles,” an L.A. radio institution that will now air on the new Sirius XM Beatles channel. “You’ve got the highlights of the mono mix in stereo. It takes the album] to a whole other level.”

David Jenkins of the Wild Honey collective, which has mounted several live full-album stagings of Beatles works benefiting autism research, said, “What’s most impressive is it takes the power of the mono mix and widens it. It’s the best of both worlds.”

On stage, the droll and persistently self-deprecating Martin assessed his work by offering a quip from his producing partner Okell on first hearing the finished remix: “It’s less disappointing than I thought it might be.”

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    1. DnKC says:

      John Q Public, I agree with you about “Rubber Soul” & “Revolver” both being two of the Beatles best LPs.
      However, when one stops to consider that “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” two songs recorded at the start of the “Sgt Pepper sessions”, but instead released as a singles months before, and then fully take into account that both of those songs were never even included (where they belong) on the original track listing of the Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band Album release. My longtime held beliews may change.

      The addition of those 2 songs is more than enough reason for me to pause and reflect on my previous bias towards “Rubber Soul & Revolver” and realize that a proper “re-evaluation” will now be required since “ALL” of the songs recorded during the “Sgt Peppers” sessions will now be placed where they originally belonged. When “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” are actually included on Sgt Peppers, all the “cloying, pretentious filler” you mentioned and complained about, which btw I have also always disliked and completely agree with that assessment of the original release,. All of the annoying filler material (we both dislike) becomes mostly irrelevant when one is honestly conducting a proper assessment, re-evaluation, and final verdict of the newly released “Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.

      Add in the 5.1 surround sound disc that’s included in the deluxe version of this new release could also possibly change my overall perception of the original opinion of the album. Therefore, I’ve decided to be open minded and appropriately re-evaluate the new Sgt Peppers release only after #1 – I finally hear the album how it was originally recorded by the Artists with “all” the songs included as intended by the Beatles. #2 – after I hear the remixed stereo version done properly, and #3 – I get to hear the 5.1 surround sound mix of the entire album. I’ve seen The Beatles “Love” show in Las Vegas with all the “Love” surround sounds effects included in the show, and was pleasantly surprised how much I throughly enjoyed hearing many of the Beatles songs in surround sound. Lastly, and #4 – The fact that the new release will include a lot of outtakes may inadvertently change my overall opinion of the album as well. Who knows. I may not be impressed with any of it.

      Anyway, I personally feel a need to wait to see how I feel about the original release of Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band Album only after taking all of the items that I mentioned above into consideration and actually hearing the brand new release myself. It will definitely be an interesting listen for diehard Beatle’s collectors, but the general public may not be able to notice any discernable difference from the original release if at all and will be fine with having the two additional songs off the CD’s they all purchased previously long ago. Only time will tell!

    2. Ken says:

      There is nothing like it in the Beatles’ canon. Hasn’t aged well? Hardly . . .

    3. MHJ says:

      When did Mono relly get better than Stereo?

      • Bill H says:

        For much of their catalog, the Beatles focused on the mono mixes, making sure they were exactly how they wanted them. They then left the less important (at the time) stereo mixes for the engineers to work out on their own.

    4. John Q Public says:

      I’m a Beatles fan, but “Pepper” is a vastly overrated work that hasn’t aged well. Sure, “Day In The Life” is brilliant, but other tracks are cloying, pretentious filler. I’ll listen to “Rubber Soul” or “Revolver” instead — the Fab Four’s two best albums.

      • Mr_Toad says:

        @John Q Public and Chiliboots

        You both fail to appreciate the importance of “Pepper” and so you disrespect the genius of the Beatles. How did an album which you claim to be full of ‘cloying, pretentious filler’ come to be acclaimed as a milestone in music history? For shame!

      • I Agree. including those 2 Albums.

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