Written by 4:47 am Audiophile Music

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper at 50 (Part 3) : Sessions & Other Delights

Mark Smotroff’s Pepperland dream continues…

This third part of my review series on the remixed and revelatory 50th Anniversary edition of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will hopefully serve as a fitting conclusion to my earlier explorations on the topic as well as a handy introduction for those of you just reading my column for the first time. If you missed my prior reviews, you can easily click through to them via links I have embedded here for the first part (discussing the 5.1 surround sound mix) and here for part two (which talks more about the fabulous new stereo mix).  Both versions of the new remix of Sgt. Pepper present exciting new ways to experience one of the most influential recordings and overall pop art statements of the 1960s.  

AR-BeatlesSgtPepper50Part3BonusStuffPromoPoster225.jpgRecapping the essence of our journey, we have been exploring the brand new mix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which — for the first time — delivers a true high fidelity stereo presentation of this music while honoring the intent of The Beatles’ original mono creation. In this new mix, producer Giles Martin has emulated the original mono mix on which the band (and his father, George Martin) worked so hard, while shedding new light on a beloved recording that many of us thought we knew inside out. Free from the limitations of mid-1960s technologies and early recording processes, the new 2017 stereo edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a remarkable re-invention, offering newfound clarity, detail and dynamics many of us long time fans have only dreamed about.  

For those of you here primarily for audio news, the big bonus attraction beyond the new stereo mix is the official release of high quality out-takes, alternate mixes, session tapes and other rarities documenting the making of Sgt. Pepper. There is some really cool stuff on these releases, exciting alternate recordings which offer fly-on-the-wall insights into how The Beatles created this masterpiece.

So far, tracks that have jumped out at me as particularly special are the working sessions for George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You,” where you can hear him singing musical ideas to the musicians, as he helps them learn their parts! The versions of “Good Morning, Good Morning” are really cool because you can hear the raw rockin’ rhythm bed of the song being laid down, especially Ringo’s incredible machine gun-like kick-drumming. All of the versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” are fascinating, because you not only hear how the song developed but also you get even more respect for Producer George Martin who, is now known for his legendary editing of different takes of the song — at significantly different tempos — blending them into one cohesive final version.  

Another favorite is at the end of the early take of “A Day In The Life” where, in lieu of the now-legendary massive keyboard chord — which had not yet been recorded — you hear all the Beatles humming (!) the final big note in harmony! Its almost funny, but ultimately a very cool artifact of their recording process. You’ll find this at on the LP bonus disc as well as the box set. You’ll get to hear John Lennon count off his timing of the intro to the song with the words “Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy.” Beatle fanatics will probably know that version as George Martin played some of it in the DVD set of The Beatles Anthology series from the 1990s. However, it is nice to have this complete and in fine sounding audio quality on the excellent new vinyl pressing.

On these bonus CDs you also get the new true stereo mixes of the single sides recorded during the Pepper sessions (but not included on the original album) “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” (which are also found on the Blu-ray Disc and the DVD).   

In the box set you get roughly two-and-a-half CDs of session outtake recordings — rare tracks flesh out the free space on the original Mono mix disc. On the new two-LP vinyl set version you get a full bonus album offering a sort of “best of” the outtakes — presented track by track in the same running order as the original album — to give the listener an alternate universe view of Sgt. Pepper in-the-making.  Both versions of the outtakes have their charms. For a condensed listen, the bonus LP version is very appealing. For a deeper dive, the box set CDs are essential. Of course, there may be those of you who want something in-between and that is where the two CD “deluxe edition” version is an ideal middle ground as it contains the new stereo mix, the alternate Pepper album as well as the singles “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” — for some of you, that might be a good place to start to decide whether this new Pepper incarnation is your cuppa tea.

So far, I only have one tiny nit to pick within this entire generally excellent sounding release series and that revolves around the rare US promo mix of “Penny Lane” with the trumpet solo at the end. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy they included that version in the set but oddly enough it sounds uncharacteristically pretty bad, like it was recorded off of a physical disc!  Was it from an acetate perhaps?  An original promo disc?  It doesn’t say on the disc packaging. Surely there must have been a better condition copy circulating around somewhere? Perhaps not!  That said, if that is the only part of the set that delivers any sort of disappointment, well, then so be it. Its not that big a deal. I’ll reserve any final judgement until I find out exactly what this is that we are hearing here. To that point, I’ll have to spend some time reading-in-depth the very detailed book which comes with the deluxe edition of the set to see what they say about that track.

AR-BeatlesSgtPepper50Part3BonusStuffMrKite225.jpgSpeaking of which, in the super deluxe edition boxed set you indeed do get a 144-page hardcover book . This is a full color, very detailed exploration of the album, its creation, the artwork, the circumstances under which it was made and all the behind the scenes activity contributing to its making.  Honestly, this is the sort of book you’d easily pay $60 or more for as a stand-alone item. It is that nicely done.   

The set also comes with a lovely reproduction of the original poster which inspired John Lennon to write “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” And you get a large size fold out reproduction of a British  promotional poster for Sgt. Pepper. These are things most of us Beatle fans have only seen in small pictures in collectors books.  One of the absolute neatest (yes, neat!) design elements of the deluxe edition set is the actual box itself which brilliantly recreates the look and feel of the actual tape storage boxes which housed the master mixes of Sgt. Pepper.  It really doesn’t get any cooler than that, kids: your own copy of the Sgt. Pepper master tape boxes! It really underscores how special this set is, and that you are — in essence — holding a bit of history in your hands.

]]>Each of the CD covers for the session outtakes appropriately feature the now famous alternate images from the cover art photo sessions (which have appeared in some Beatle books in the past). And the whole package is housed in a lovely lenticular, 3D-like slipcase, transforming the look of Sgt. Pepper into something reminiscent of The Rolling Stones’ answer to Sgt. PepperTheir Satantic Majesties Request, which originally came with a lenticular 3D cover that aped Pepper! 

On the Blu-ray and DVDs (in the super deluxe edition) you also get a documentary from 1992 all about The Making of Sgt. Pepper which includes extensive footage of original album producer George Martin showing viewers exactly how the album was constructed, literally at the mixing board with some of the tracks. Fascinating and wonderful stuff! 

AR-PepperAlternateCDCovers225.jpgReviewing this boxed set and the vinyl edition of this new stereo Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been a wonderful journey. The Beatles and their families, producer Giles Martin — and of course original producer George Martin — and the folks at Universal Music Group have to be applauded for putting forth a genuinely tremendous offering for the fans and for the sake of history. They really pulled out the stops and did things right, celebrating a joyous album with a sense of passion that is often missing these days, raising the bar further as to what a special edition release should be. 

Packages like this are helping to revive the joy of music collecting in the 21st Century — the labels and the artists are making it fun again! 

And…. as a life long Beatle fan — and music fanatic — I can only end this review series with two heartfelt words to everyone involved in the creation of these releases: Thank You.

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