‘Sgt. Pepper’ Revisited: Giles Martin Offers a Deep Dive Into His Remix of the Beatles’ Classic

The Beatles 1967
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“Listen, I think suspicion is completely warranted, to be honest,” says Giles Martin, talking about the contingent of Beatles fans who are skeptically waiting, arms folded, to hear his new remix of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” “You’re talking about an album that everyone feels as though they own spiritually, if not physically.”

The reaction among those who’ve actually heard his sonically evolved take on the 1967 classic — in advance of the remixed album’s release Friday in stand-alone and boxed-set forms — has been almost universally rapturous, actually. The irony is that, as original producer George Martin’s son, the younger Martin spends a lot of his time in conversation de-emphasizing the idea that “Sgt. Pepper” is a producer’s album and playing up the fab-ness of the core four as lads doing a slightly more advanced version of what they’d always done.

“There’s no trickery,” Giles emphasizes. “You get that from the extras. It’s amazingly organic, the process. You know, for an album that’s claimed to be the epiphany of music production, if you compare it to a modern-day record, there’s really not a huge amount of production on there, apart from great arrangements of instruments.” Emphasizing their humanness by “taking off layers so you’re in the room with the band” helps achieve the goal, Giles says, of destroying “the mysticism of this having been created on a cloud.”

The goal was also to reconcile the differences between the original ’67 stereo and mono mixes, both of which have always had their warring adherents — not just for those fans of a certain “now we’re 64” age but “even more that when you tell your kids or grandkids about this album, they put it on and go, ‘Oh yeah, this is cool,’ and not ‘Why does it come out of one speaker?’ — where, with the stereo, you suddenly had the band all on one side and the bass and vocals on other — or, if it was the mono,  ‘Why does it sound old?’ Because it’s not as if it’s an old-sounding record.”

All that having been said, this is not such a radical remix that most of the people who’ve played it casually over the years would even notice many of the differences. In other words, it’s not “Love,” the more radical rethink of selections from the Beatles’ catalog he did with his father nine years ago. “’Love’ was different because the drive was to try to create this new world,” Martin says. “This is an embellishment of the world of ‘Sgt. Pepper.’” On the eve of the 50th anniversary release, Variety took a deep dive into that world with Martin.

You have to love the passion of the hardcore fans on the message boards as they speculate about the choices you’ve made before they hear the finished product. I just read several pages of people talking about the clucking sound effect at the end of “Good Morning Good Morning”…

Oh God, don’t tell me, don’t tell me!

…because apparently the chicken sound is different on the stereo from the mono, and people wonder, which one he is going to use? And then there are a different number of beats on the two version going from that into the “Sgt. Pepper’s Reprise.” It’s stuff most of us have never thought about.

Oh, you see, I do actually have to think about this stuff. And I don’t take it lightly, because it’s important to some people. There’s an edit between “Sgt. Pepper’s Reprise” and “Good Morning” on the album, the segue where the guitar cluck merges with the sound of the chicken. And there’s a general belief among fans that the mono version of “Sgt. Pepper’s” is far superior to the stereo version — apart from that edit, which is better on the stereo version than it is on the mono version. And I had to learn about these things. It’s one of those things that’s easy for me to pay attention to and respect. And I think talking about these things on these forums is great, because it’s the same thing as people talking about fishing or anything like that. But the most important thing is, how does the music make you feel? I know what those people are talking about, and the answer is: I think they’ll be happy. But I don’t read the message boards. I possibly would go mad if I did.

Which version of the album did you grow up listening to?

I had the stereo. I’d never heard the mono, actually. It wasn’t available. I’ll probably get burned at the stake for saying this, but there are certain tracks that I think are sonically better on the stereo. I can already sense the letters! But, you know, I mixed “I Am the Walrus” when we did the “Love” album and show, and I thought that we were brilliant, and then I heard the (mono) original. The original kind of sounds really screwed up, but it makes you feel a certain way. And then you realize that it’s not about sonic perfection or technique. And it’s the same with, say, the mono version of “A Day in the Life” — it’s so good, and it was a really tough challenge to get to that level, even with everything we have now. As I’ve said, it’s not as though anyone’s ever said that “Sgt. Pepper’s” a bad-sounding record. But yeah, I grew up listening to the stereo. I was surprised. I didn’t know that there were different pitches in “She’s Leaving Home” in the mono and stereo, and how stark the differences are, before I started working on this project.

That’s the only song where the entire tape is sped up between the original mono and stereo versions, right?

There are other subtle differences that you don’t realize that are there. For example, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a slightly different pitch as well (between the 1967 mono and stereo). So is “Lovely Rita.” They don’t sync up (if you play them side by side). Which gives them each a kind of different feel. See, I could write a message board forum!

As you say, the conventional wisdom among Beatles aficionados has been that the mono was superior. Yet I was one of those people who always heard that and preferred to keep listening to the stereo anyway. For an album as grand and lush and complex as “Sgt. Pepper,” I just did not want to hear it without panning effects. There is a reason people with two ears have come to prefer recordings with some separation in them.

I know completely what you mean. This is actually one of the reasons to validate—if I need to validate—what we’re doing. Because if the mono is indeed the definitive version of this album, (most) people aren’t going to accept that as a listening experience. It isn’t satisfactory to people. And all of that kind of claustrophobic grunge-ness that you get on the mono is great if you’re an experienced listener—I sound like a real pretentious bugger—but not great if you’re discovering the music. And I don’t think this music should sound old. I don’t think it does sound old.

There is, again, a conventional wisdom among Beatles fans that the stereo mixes were kind of tossed off as an afterthought after the Beatles had left the studio. Does that do a disservice to what your father did do with the stereo mix and the things that are good about those?

That’s definitely true. You know, “Sgt. Pepper” was the longest recording process they’d ever been through, and they did the (mono) mix, and then they had to do the stereo, and it was kind of like, “Haven’t we already done this?” There was probably that reaction — I mean, this is obviously both of us second-guessing, because we weren’t there.

So how do you make a choice for the 2017 mix, if you’re choosing between two variants from 1967?

If you listen to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” for instance, John’s voice is heavily affected on the mono and sounds kind of spacey and weird, and the whole track has a lot of phasing. It’s more psychedelic, certainly, than the stereo — which is weird; you’d think it would be the other way around. But it sounds pretty cool, and then you just think to yourself, okay, we should probably do that. John probably had a Varispeed knob, and was probably insisting, as my dad always used to say, that he wanted to change the sound of his voice. I’m sure that he was part of that, because he was at the (mono) mix session, and this record was so important to them. So it’s all guesswork, but then you think, okay, we should do this to this version. Above all else, it sounds cool. I mean, that has to be the guiding line. There’s only so far you can go in being historical. You have to make decisions that you think sound good.

Did you ever have a moment where, when you were making a decision like the one you were just describing with “Lucy,” you were choosing between something John might have had a bigger influence on in the mono and what your father did a little later with the stereo, and you think, “Oh, I’m being disloyal to my father if I pick what John did over the decision my dad made”?

No is the answer. [Laughs.] Actually, no one’s asked me that question before, and it’s a very good question. It’s one of those things you’re not really conscious of, but I think that I would have sided with John, probably. And I think that my dad would have been happy with that. I haven’t gotten any validation for that, because I can’t, but that’s what my gut says. I have the honor and the beauty of retrospection, where I can line up all the mixes, including our new one, and see if I’m missing anything spiritually as well as physically.

I’m going to give you a good example, which I don’t think we got right, but we really tried. Like you, I’m used to the stereo, but listen to the mono of “A Day in the Life.” It sounds beautiful; I think it’s the best-sounding (in) mono. When Ringo’s drums come in, because it’s mono and it’s so claustrophobic and limited, the drums kind of take over the entire mix for a bit; it’s like they explode. You can’t do that in stereo, because you’ve got two speakers—unless you put the drums in the center, which you can’t do for various reasons. And there’s a feel to it, and you think, “God, I can see why they did that, and how can I achieve that?”

The thing is, there’s no such thing as a perfect mix or a perfect record. You listen to records like “Fresh” by Sly & the Family Stone, which are technically really badly mixed records — I mean, you can hear a telephone ring halfway through — and they sound great. It’s all about people pushing up faders and the guts of it, which is what makes a great record. We live in a perfect audio world now where everything’s tuned and pitched and put in time. And I think human frailty is part of the beauty of it. I mean, someone actually asked me, do I tune the Beatles’ vocals? Actually, if you listen to “Sgt. Pepper’s,” the very first track of this album, one of the band is singing a semi-tone out in the chorus. It’s only really if I tell you about it that you’ll hear it. “I hope you will enjoy the show,” I think, is out of tune. But no one’s ever really written about it. That wouldn’t happen on a modern-day record. It wouldn’t exist.

After the listening session for media you held at Capitol Records, people were talking about the bottom end sounding louder, or about noticing different things in “A Day in the Life” than they had before. For me, it was maybe a little more mundane; I just thought, “Man, those clarinets in ‘When I’m 64’ sound phenomenal!” I will be the only person evangelizing about the clarinet sound.

You know what, I think that’s really valid, because I was like, “Man, these woodwinds sound great,” too. And actually, they just sound good on (the original) tape. We don’t want to sound like we claim all the credit. But I’m with you on that. And here’s the funny thing. After that Capitol listening session, someone came up to us and said, “Ringo’s drums sound great.” And I’m like, “Oh, well, thank you very much,” trying to be polite, while I’m thinking, “Oh, shit, did we make the drums too loud?” And then somebody came up to me and goes, “You know, the guitar sound is really in your face.” “And then someone came up to me and goes, “Paul’s bass sounds really good…” And I go, okay, if I’m getting a balance of people who think different things sound (pronounced), probably the mix is okay. Listen, I think that anything that makes you listen — not just hear, but listen — to a record like this is great.

I don’t think people are going to listen to this mix of and go “That’s not ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ This (earlier version) is ‘Sgt. Pepper.’” That would be my biggest concern. It’s not as though we’re deleting anything. But I think that if I were going to play my daughter “Sgt. Pepper,” I’d probably play her this version.

You’re not deleting anything, but there will be cases where there has to be a single mix that represents the album. And it will be yours, in those instances. The Beatles’ organization said that for streaming purposes, at first they will have all the different mixes available, but eventually it will just be this one when people dial it up. So that puts some onus on you to get it right.

Yeah, it’s that strange thing of ticking all the boxes. There are the technicalities of things like the fade in “Good Morning” on the mono version being earlier, because you presume that John wants to hear the animals chasing each other clearer, and it’s not so fast on the stereo. And yet, then, the edit going into “Sgt. Pepper’s Reprise,” people feel—and I think they’re right—that the stereo is better than the version on the mono, so let’s do that. So who knows? It’s not for me to say what the definitive version really is or isn’t. But I think time will tell. I think to tick the boxes for the people that are on the forum sites, and the young generation, too, you know, the Beats generation — not the beat generation, but the Beats generation. I think you have to go for both. But more than anything else, you just have to try and help just celebrate that the record’s fantastic and you want to listen to it.

You played it for Paul, and you haven’t said he wanted anything redone. He’s probably not obsessed with the technicalities of the sonics from 50-year-old projects…

No, he is really picky, actually, funnily enough. He knows the level of care and attention we put into these things. And I’ll tell you what a pleasure it is. He loves that it takes him back to when he actually played it, and when he played it with his friends. Because that’s what this album is — it’s four friends making an album and saying “Screw you” to the world. And he loved the clarity that we got. Because it’s all physical. It’s not programmed. Every noise is someone hitting something, or scraping something.

People have an idea of what the outtakes might sound like like from what was on the “Anthology” releases many years ago. But was there anything that most surprised you as you went through the sessions?

There’s a thing with Paul talking to George when they were recording the clap track for “Penny Lane,” and he’s singing all the parts he’s got in his head, but you can also see the collaboration. And I didn’t know they tried the hums for a choral thing at the end of “A Day in the Life,” as opposed to the piano chord. I’m not a historian; I’m terrible. I shouldn’t be on forums. To hear take 1 of “Getting Better” was kind of interesting, because it almost sounds like “Spirit in the Sky”—it’s grungy. And you realize their default option was to play loud and play together, always.

In the outtakes you hear the development of a song. Even their sketches are kind of beautiful. One is wary—I talked with Paul about this—of showing off mistakes or feel like we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. Obviously there are fans out there that would want everything. So I think we got a really good balance that gives a good background on what it was like. I had this privileged view of the Beatles where I can walk into Abbey Road and listen to the tapes. From doing that, you actually appreciate more of what they did. The magic was them. It was nothing else. The motivation behind doing extras and exposing that is to sort of tell the back-story, which humanizes it, in a way, because the record has become iconic. It’s become this thing way bigger than my dad producing four guys from Liverpool in the studio. It’s really it’s just an album, and when you realize that, it’s actually more beautiful.

Can you talk about some of the things that were rumored and didn’t happen? Initially there was a rumor “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” might be integrated into the running order of the album, which really would have been second-guessing choices after 50 years. More realistically, a lot of people were hoping the legendary “Carnival of Light” might finally show up here as an outtake or bonus track. Is that something you think will show up someday? People in the Beatles’ organization have intimated that this is not going to turn out to be the great lost track when or if they finally hear it.

Yeah, it’s like “Revolution 9.” “Carnival of Light” was designed for the Roundhouse in London for an experience. It’s quite progressive, in a way. It’s basically for a walk-through experience, so it’s not a song, it’s a sound-piece. And I think we should do something fun with it. That’s what I’d like to do. It’s on the same tape as “Penny Lane,” but it’s not “Penny Lane.” But it’s interesting and emotive, and it’s them, and I think we just need to find the right place for it. But that place was never going to be “Sgt. Pepper’s,” because it was never meant to be (for) “Sgt. Pepper’s.” You could argue that “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” were, but “Carnival of Light” wasn’t.

The Beatles’ people said at the media listening session not to expect a steady stream of 50th anniversary collections, noting that they’d already passed on the chance to do similar things for “Rubber Soul and “Revolver.” But of course people would like the same sort of anniversary treatment for the White Album and “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be” that this got. Are you at liberty to say if you’ve worked on anything or talked about working on anything?

No, honestly, I haven’t worked on anything or talked about anything. I think we have to see how this is received, you know. Ever since the “Love” album, people have been asking me to get involved in remixing stuff. And I think that at a certain point, you’ve got to be careful that you’re doing it for the right reasons, and watch your motivation, (that you’re not doing it) just for the sake of doing it. That’s always my question. But listen, obviously I’d be honored to be involved in anything. But there’ve been no discussions.

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    1. David Martin says:

      These people need to get a life. No one is forcing them to listen to any particular version.

    2. Steve Rogers says:

      Well done Giles! This is the clearest ever presentation of the same good old album.

    3. JohnLennon-Reincarnated says:

      I would love to hear what Giles could do with Abbey Road. The White album is another obvious choice. I grew up listening to the mono versions on vinyl, but my dad had the stereo versions as well. Even bootlegs. Some of the songs truly feel like listening for the first time again. Hairs stood up on my neck when I heard the sharp and fluid sound of the sitar on “Within You Without You”. Vocals sound amazing and crisp. The background vocals can be heard in places where it was too muddy to pick them out clearly before. Great work Giles. You are a master!

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