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.