There’s a brand-new, 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles’ classic album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that’s been remixed by Giles Martin, and just issued from Apple Records. You might ask “why is this necessary”? Because –
The original stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper sucked.
Yes, the most common version of what many people consider the greatest album of all-time actually isn’t very good.
I grew up listening to my mom’s copy of Sgt. Pepper on vinyl; the original, mono mix from 1967 was what was in heavy rotation throughout my childhood of the 1970’s. When CD’s became all the rage and Pepper finally made it’s digital debut in 1987, I was honestly underwhelmed. Many of the songs had the vocals panned hard to one side, and the speeds of several songs were different. Plus, the entire album just sounded wrong – like a puzzle with the pieces not quite fit together.
Turns out, there was a reason I felt that way.
In 1967, mono was the gold standard for audio and stereo was still in its infancy. For Pepper, the Beatles’ spent weeks getting the tracks to sound just right in mono, while the stereo mix was done in mere days without their involvement. In other words, if you wanted to hear how the Beatles intended their masterstroke, you needed to hear it in mono.
Problem is, without any stereo separation, that great mono mix sounded old here in 2017. So, the task at hand for Giles Martin and company was to use the original mono as a template and create a definitive stereo version.
They got it right – an absolute revelation
I’ve spent several hours doing a side-by-side comparison between the new remix and the standard edition, released in 2009. The results are nothing short of magnificent.
From the opening notes of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” it hits you – everything is crystal clear: George’s guitar, Paul’s bass, and especially Ringo’s drums. It’s like going from watching something on video, to having the band in your living room. And, there’s the crowd laughter after the first verse that was only available in the mono format.
Listen to Ringo’s drum fill following the first chorus of “With a Little Help From My Friends” – you feel it. The Farfisa organ floats across the stereo-scape on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and the track is slightly slower, to mimic the mono. And, this is a perfect example of the remixing making everything fit together better.
Paul’s loping bassline is enormous on “Getting Better.” In the original stereo version, “Fixing a Hole” had all the instruments in one channel – here, everything is spread out and full.
If you’re looking for the best example of the remix blowing away the original, look no further than “She’s Leaving Home.” By using session tapes, they were able to separate the strings, giving them warmth like never before, while Paul’s voice is absolutely angelic.
“Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” makes good use of the remixing; now the calliope effects swirl around you, while you also feel you’re right in the middle of the Indian instruments on “Within You, Without You.” The warmth and depth of the oboes on “When I’m Sixty-Four” is another highlight.
Oddly, the only time the original stereo mix was referenced is for the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise”; the amount of beats after the clucking chicken is the same as the original stereo (apparently Giles polled Beatles’ fans and this is the one instance where the stereo version is perceived as superior).
Arguably the album’s most famous track, “A Day in the Life,” jumps out of the speakers, with John’s voice, front and center, while the multiple pianos sound massive. Everything, from the ticking of the alarm clock, to Mal Evans counting the measures before the big finish, glimmer as if having a fresh coat of paint.
The two-disc edition features an entire CD of alternate takes and instrumental versions; as usual, the kind of thing you listen to once and tuck away. There’s also a booklet with rare photos and several essays – yet, what else needs to be said about this album, really? The real star of the show is this fantastic remix.
I am a purist when it comes to classic music. I love mono, and I love listening to music the way it was originally intended, on vinyl. I am wary of remixes as just another way to cash in on a particular artist.
Yet, there is no doubt that this remix of Sgt. Pepper is far superior than anything you’ve heard before.
Prepare to be blown away.