Album Review: ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ 50th Anniversary Editions

Beatles 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club
Courtesy of Universal Music Group

A fresh mix and colorful extras make this deluxe version a worthy trip to revisit a masterpiece.

Think about it: At 50, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is on equal plane with Dixieland jazz. After all, for those who purchased the Beatles’ 1967 opus, 1917 felt just as remote. All the more ironic, then, that the legend and enduring legacy of this era-defining album would be kept alive through such modern media as downloads, the internet and social media. Not to mention eternally celebratory media and the continuing devotion of its grayed boomer fans.

At the same time, the Beatles’ collection — ubiquitous in the days when it set the psychedelic scene, holding No. 1 for 11 weeks during a three-year chart reign — is now cut adrift from its time, and is often viewed dimly as a relic by latter-day revisionists, contrarians, naysayers and trolls.

So, to reanimate “Sgt. Pepper” is necessary — not just for its aficionados but to engage the interest of those too apple-cheeked to know its genesis or too cranky to appreciate its import. On cue, and in time for the album’s 50th anniversary (its original release was June 1), Apple Corps, Capitol Records and Universal Music Group are issuing a battery of packages — one-CD, two-CD, two-LP and four-CD/DVD/Blu-ray editions — all featuring a new stereo remix of the cherished album (and, on the super-deluxe box, a first-ever 5.1 surround mix in addition to a mono mix).

Risky? Most assuredly. Successful? Wildly.

Understanding that “Sgt. Pepper” had already been reissued in remastered CD and LP stereo and mono configurations since 2009, Giles Martin, son of the Beatles’ longtime producer-facilitator George Martin, and engineer Sam Okell, were tasked with concocting a fresh edition of the record that would overcome the studio limitations the Liverpool quartet faced while recording in the all-analog ’60s.

The younger Martin and Okell excavated the original masters of the record cut on Abbey Road’s four-track board, which were extensively “bounced down” to create a “reduction mix” accommodating the unprecedented amount of sonic information — strings, brass and a wealth of effects — that the Fab Four demanded for the piece.

Spread lushly across a modern multi-track soundscape, using the direct, powerful mono mix of the album (overseen by the Beatles) as a template, the new mix refreshes the musical elements of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and they appear with a new, uncompressed clarity and vitality, in high sonic and aesthetic fidelity.

The detail is astonishing. Accorded their own space, Paul McCartney’s bass playing and Ringo Starr’s drumming leap out anew; in particular, Starr’s work on “Good Morning Good Morning,” which at its climax attains almost a free-form quality, reveals his mastery. George Harrison’s ability to speak volumes in a one-chorus solo has never been more apparent (cf. “Fixing a Hole”).

Special kudos must be extended to Harrison’s spiritualized East-meets-West jam “Within You Without You”: The instrumental give-and-take between a small Indian orchestra and an 11-piece string section, which suffered from a dull squashing in the original stereo mix, bursts forth in thrilling relief in the 2017 rendition.

Though McCartney’s stylistic eclecticism still dominates the proceedings, the contributions of John Lennon, then gobbling tabs of LSD like M&Ms, soar here to experimental, mind-bending life. The swirl of calliopes, organs and cut-up keyboards on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and the two thunderous orchestral glissandos of the climactic “A Day in the Life” now threaten to lift one’s head off the shoulders; Lennon’s double-tracked vocals on both numbers emerge as his most sensitive and nuanced singing in the Beatles catalog.

Additional alternate tracks make for a more profound understanding of the album’s creation. Visual components include the delightful, long-unseen 1992 documentary about the making of the record, featuring George Martin cheerily isolating tracks at a four-channel mixing board. Both dual-disc packages contain essays by court biographer Kevin Howlett, all excerpted from the massive 144-page, 12-by-12 hardback book that comes with the multi-disc box. The ephemera-packed book is a healthy read, highlighted by a delightful piece from producer and ’60s underground scenester Joe Boyd about London’s far-out heyday.

All too predictably, some kvetching is to be anticipated from the finicky Beatles faithful.
Complain if you will. The 2017 “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” triumphs spectacularly in terms of its greatest mission: It reclaims one of the supreme achievements of 20th-century pop music by allowing us to hear it in a new and exhilarating way.

In the end, as George Martin put it in the title of his 1979 autobiography, all you need is ears.

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    1. Mark Crane says:

      Sgt Peppers was their best. I know, it loses fashionability to call it the best, so people make the case for others so their ideas can sound fresh, but the boring status quo is the reality: Peppers was the most advanced while being fully collaborative, the last unhindered by more mature distractions, the one where they were most advanced and still deeply guided by George Martin. If you look at the actual order of recordings, Pepper was located in a period wherein 2 other songs fall that, for various reasons were excluded from the album: Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields. It was their sweet spot. Everybody knows it.

    2. Fabian Quest says:

      As someone from Merseyside of the period the Beatles arrived, there’s something about their music that stirs me on a deeper than emotional level. I love Mozart, Slade and Grandmaster Flash to name just three, but the Beatles, I want played at my funeral.

    3. Larry B says:

      The importance of Sgt. Pepper has been mistakenly assumed by many, for decades now, that it was simply a matter of it being their “best” album. Whether you would agree with that or not, it is an erroneous assumption.

      Sgt. Pepper, during its time, transcended mere music. It became a unifying force for the youth. It also had a monumental effect on pop culture, fashion, art, and even business, more than just about any rock / pop album before it.

      You may think other Beatles albums are better albums and your opinion would be a valid one. But there can be no denying the impact that Sgt. Pepper, above all other Beatles albums and many other albums before and since, has had and continues to have. It is for this reason that Sgt. Pepper receives, rightfully so, all this attention.

    4. rocky-o says:

      i have never been a ‘beatle faithful’ although i did watch them on the ed sullivan show, and i did have a few of their albums (including the overrated ‘peppers’)…

      i have always been a ‘music faithful’ though, and still don’t get the ‘crowd mentality’ of sgt. peppers…

      it is clearly not the best album they ever made…and i won’t speculate as to which one was (although most aficionados point to revolver or rubber soul)…my personal favorite would be ‘magical mystery tour’ (which actually never came out as an l.p. in england…only as a double e.p.)…

      but no matter which one you choose, ‘peppers’ would probably only make the ‘top of the list’ by those who buy into the hype…it’s not a bad album…but just not worth all this attention…(if anything, ‘the white album’ with all its diversity would certainly be a more interesting album to explore…)…

      but then again…to each their own…

    5. tysonjorstad says:

      Paul played the guitar solo on Good Morning

      • Hartley Gordon says:

        The White Album contained heaps of variety, granted, but it was a double album. A continuation? Sgt Pepper was a single album and the variety of songs on it were absolutely amazing. I even remember it being reviewed in ”classical” publications in 1967!! Maybe not their best, but certainly their most important. Ground-breaking for world music. After Pepper, anything was possible and music couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Though I think that has, unfortunately, started to happen again.

        • Bob Perrone says:

          To each his own, but you need to understand the recording/studio “tricks” were unheard of at the time – requiring incredible imagination and effort to pull off. There are two reasons why it is so admired as a work, one for it’s musical prowess and the other for the engineering and breakthrough use of the studio to make what become, literally, a work of art.

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