Sgt Pepper – 50 Years On
When I first heard the news that there was going to be a new improved release of Sgt Pepper, my first reaction was “so what”. How can anyone improve what is arguably the greatest album of all time, released by the greatest band of all time, who were at the top of the creative peak and is well known to be their crowning achievement. If you are a child of the 70’s, you grew up listening to ALBUMS, track by track, front to back, over and over, and you would rate the release as a whole achievement, not based on one great song or two. And, if you are like me, you reluctantly shifted from an album oriented way of listening to music to a song methodology thanks to streaming services and the shuffle play feature on our phones. Finally, if you are like me, a child who grew up listening to music in the 1970’s, you miss being able to sit down and listen to an album from start to finish, without being interrupted by songs from other artists, commercials, or a text or call interrupting you.
There are few albums in music that are as sacred as Sgt Pepper. Many of us, heck, all of us that love music and love or appreciate the Beatles, know this album probably as much as any album in our collections. Within its 40 minutes we know every note, and if the songs are ever played out of order, we know it immediately. I remember reading an article years ago that published the proposed song order of Sgt Pepper, and I then listened to the songs in that order. It didn’t work for me. It didn’t make sense. The songs seemed out of place from each other. Sgt Pepper, like many of our favorite classic albums, are perfect because of the way they are, and the way we have been listening to them for decades.
Curiosity got the better of me, so I ordered the newly remastered version of Sgt Pepper. I didn’t convert the tracks to a compressed MP3 format, and instead listened to the CD beginning to end in my car and my home stereo. Over and over again, just like the old days. This is a brand new stereo mix of the original mono recordings (more on that in a minute), and I have to tell you, this sounds like a totally different album. You have heard these songs hundreds, if not thousands, of times, and they have never sounded more present, more real, than ever before.
I am totally amazed how much better the sound and music of this version is compared to previous releases. The clarity difference is the first thing I noticed. Ringo’s drums are much more present (there are fills of his in A Day In The Life I had never noticed before). McCartney’s bass playing is more pronounced and more complex than I ever imagined, and the guitars are more alive and more raw, and everyone’s vocals are clearer than ever before. Everything if fuller and better balanced. The mix, as Giles Martin has said, is what the band sounded like in the studio.
This release reveals fresh wonders, nuances and improvements fans who are familiar with the work will immediately notice, especially the ‘bottom’ end of the sound. There is simply put, more punch to the songs. The songs jump out at you like you are hearing them for the first time.
Getting Better has an aggression that I had never heard before, and A Day In The Life just rings for repeat, repeat, repeat. And the title track is just crazy frantic, with McCartney’s lead guitar in the forefront mashing out chords.
After listening to this nonstop for a few weeks, I was curious how Giles Martin (he is George Martin’s son by the way) was able to create what is essentially almost a new album from 50 year old original recordings. I learned that the technology of 1967 limited the band to 4 track analog recordings, totally different from the virtual unlimited number of tracks artists can use today. When the four tracks were filled up with music the engineer would mix them down to a single track and transfer that to another four track recorder and work from there. That that process was repeated over and over for each tune, and with each transfer some sound quality was forfeited, but being 1967 they had no choice.
Luckily, all generations of the four-track session tapes were archived, so for the new “Sgt. Pepper’s” the engineers mixed direct from all of the first generation session masters, and as has been mentioned the difference is like night and day. Martin had access to every last spool of tape from the sessions, and he used them to create the masterpiece and the best sounding version of this album that I have ever heard.
So, the question is whether or not greatness can be improved, and in this case the answer is a resounding yes! Get your hands on this, don’t convert it to MP3, and listen to it properly with no distractions the way we used to do as teenagers (sitting on the floor or bed in our rooms, doing nothing but listening to the music), and enjoy every single second of this. Everything, from start to finish, song by song, note by note, just seems more together than ever before. We know Sgt Pepper as their crowning achievement, and they would still release some amazing music in the few years they had left (White Album, Abbey Road) but Sgt Pepper shows them as a band at the top of their game, playing sounds together in way they never would again, and today we get to listen to it again, in ways we never thought possible years ago.
Bravo Mr Martin. Bravo.