Sgt. Pepper’s Thunder & Lightning

Rick McNulty hosts Left of the Dial on Fridays and Uptown Saturday Night on Saturdays, 7-11 pm. Follow him on Twitter @Rick_Daddy

Peter-Blake-Sgt.-Pepper’s-Lonely-Hearts-Club-Band-19671For those who aren’t sure what all the fuss is about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, let me give you the crib notes: fifty years ago the biggest rock band of all-time decided they were finished with touring and exhausted of being fabulous for the rest of the world’s sake. They retreated to a famous recording studio and took their jolly time to make a seamless album (“jolly time” being roughly four and a half months). This album immediately became a cultural zeitgeist, signifying the glorious Sixties while sounding like nothing ever before or since. It’s a work of art and a masterpiece which changed the face of pop music forever. Get the picture? Oh, and the members of this band were all in their mid-twenties.

Timothy Leary freaks on the Beatles.
Timothy Leary freaks on the Beatles.

I know it sounds like hyperbole, but it’s all true. In the music world, time stopped in June of 1967 and began moving in an entirely different direction. Timothy Leary, the LSD-loving shaman of those heady days, put it this way: “I declare that The Beatles are mutants. Prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.” As ridiculous as it may sound fifty years later, Leary wasn’t that far off.

The problem with reconciling the grandeur attributed to Pepper is that for the last several decades, people only experienced the album in its original stereo version. Just about any Beatle fan will tell you that you haven’t heard Sgt. Pepper until you’ve listened to it in mono. This was a true statement until a week ago when Apple Records released the album with a new stereo mix to mark its 50th Anniversary.

General fanboy opinions are that the original stereo mix sounded anemic — the instruments and vocals were placed in wide stereo which often left a hole in the middle of your speakers. Part of the problem is that all four Beatles spent three weeks mixing the album to mono; when they finished they skedaddled and left it to producer George Martin and the engineers to make the stereo mix over a weekend. It wasn’t Martin’s fault that technology hadn’t caught up with the band — they had no choice but to bounce down piano, guitar and drums onto ONE track of a FOUR track recorder. In the Pepperland of 1967, they couldn’t separate each instrument onto its own track so the fidelity and placement suffered in the final mix — hence the disconnect between its legendary greatness and the actual paucity of the stereo record.

On the new stereo mix Giles Martin, son of George, was able to go back to the original four-track tapes and use the instruments before they were bounced down to one track. This means the fidelity will be sharper than anything we’ve ever heard before and that Giles can now place the separate tracks more “tastefully” in the stereo image.

"A young race of laughing freemen."
“A young race of laughing freemen.”

Before I get too Inside Baseball, let me tell you all you need to know about this 50th Anniversary remix: It’s explosive and it’s juicy. There’s a three-dimensional fleshiness to the sound that even the vaunted mono mix doesn’t quite capture. Whereas the original mono is a swift kick to the head and reveals the Beatles as a rock band, the new stereo version aims more at your chest with thunder, lightning, and all sorts of gravitas. The clarity of the instrumentation and vocals is astounding compared to what’s come before — which is discombobulating when you feel like you’re having an entirely new experience with an album you’ve already heard a thousand times.

Forget about the old version, unless yours is already in mono. The new release is essential to actually hear the majesty of what Sgt. Pepper was all about. And you gotta love the irony that it took fifty years for technology to finally catch up to those laughing freemen. 

A note for the hardcore collectors:

In addition to the new remix there’s plenty of outtakes and early versions in the 2-disc Deluxe Edition. More often than not they’re simply work tapes, which can be fascinating but not necessarily essential (with the exception of the first take of “Strawberry Fields Forever” which I demand to be played at my wake). In the Super Deluxe Edition there’s an excellent book, a thirty year old documentary, more outtakes, a bonus CD of the mono mix, and Surround Sound mixes of the entire album.

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