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“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band grabbed the world of music by the scruff of the neck and shook hard,” late Beatles producer George Martin once said in a 1994 speech at the Palace in Los Angeles. “It drove a splitting wedge right through to core of popular music. Many people see it as a watershed… Yet the Beatles themselves never pretended they were creating great art… They just wanted to do something different.”
Fifty years after the original album’s release, Martin’s son Giles, along with mix engineer Sam Okell, have done something different. They’ve remixed the landmark album to give a whole new generation a fresh opportunity to experience the magic with this week’s release of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band Anniversary Edition. The remixed stereo version of the album is available in four different configurations, ranging from a single CD of the new stereo mix and a two-LP vinyl version to a Super Deluxe five-disc set that features the new stereo mix, along with two CDs of outtakes, plus a Blu-ray and DVD featuring new 5.1 surround sound mixes of the album, as well as promotional films for several songs and The Making of Sgt. Pepper documentary.
At a special playback of the remixed album for the press in early May at the iconic Capitol Records Studio in Hollywood, the younger Martin acknowledged he didn’t take the job lightly. “It’s a massive challenge undertaking remixing Sgt. Pepper,” he said. “The first question we asked ourselves is why? It’s hardly a bad-sounding record. And it’s also hardly one that was unsuccessful.”
The original version of Sgt. Pepper’s topped the U.S. chart for 15 weeks, beginning on July 1, 1967, and went on to win four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, and has sold 11 million copies in the U.S. and 32 million worldwide.
Most Americans grew up with the original stereo version of the album, but Giles Martin suggested that version doesn’t accurately capture the Beatles’ original vision. The younger Martin went on to explain that stereo was only a novelty at the time of the album’s original release on May 26, 1967 in the U.K. “Sgt. Pepper’s was really made for mono,” he said. “My father and [engineer] Geoff Emerick and the Beatles would spend a fair amount of time doing the mono mixes… it was all about the mono mixes. John [Lennon] said if you haven’t heard the mono of Sgt. Pepper, you haven’t heard Sgt. Pepper’s. It’s strangely immersive, it’s weird, and it’s more psychedelic.”
So Martin, who has been working on Beatles-related projects since 1995’s Anthology, set out to make a new stereo version of the album, using the original masters from the mono recordings.
During the playback session, Martin played a few tracks from the album, comparing the original stereo mix to the mono mix, and finally his new remix. In “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” Martin said that Lennon manipulated his vocals in the mono mix. “My father always said that John hated the sound of his own voice and wanted to change everything about it.” However, that vocal manipulation wasn’t sufficiently replicated in the original stereo mix. For the remix, Martin said Okell spent hours with adjusting the speed of Lennon’s vocals to match the sound and feel of the original mono mix.
Sgt. Pepper’s was recorded on four-track, but to give the album its symphonic, layered sound, George Martin and the Beatles would consolidate the first four tracks recorded to a single track and start anew with a second, and sometimes third, four-track using a technique known as bouncing. “‘Getting Better’ and ‘Lovely Rita’ have three bounces,” Giles Martin explained. “So it would be guitars, drums, piano on one four-track and that’s bounced and consolidated to one track on another four-track and they record bass, maybe a piano overdub and backing vocals and that’s bounced again. And they’d mix off that final four.”
In working on the remix, Martin and Okell went back to all the original tapes. “We were mixing off tapes that have never been used,” he explained. “We’re getting rid of all the dynamic degradation that happens off three generations of tape.”
Perhaps the most dramatic change between the original version and the remix is on “She’s Leaving Home,” which Martin pointed out “is a whole semitone higher” on the mono version, something that was lost in the original transfer to stereo.
Those present for the playback included longtime Breakfast With the Beatles host/former Dramarama bassist Chris Carter, and perhaps an unlikely Beatles fan, Henry Rollins, the former frontman of hardcore punk band Black Flag and current radio personality and author. Both were impressed with the new version.
“It was brilliant. Giles had it right when it was a great combination of the mono mix and stereo mix,” Carter said, “so it was like the best of both worlds.” Carter, who grew up listening to the original stereo mix, added that the remix gave him new appreciation for Paul McCartney’s instrumental prowess. “Overall, it’s just punchier and the thing that came to mind was how great it is to have Paul McCartney in your band as a bass player,” he said. “Really on this album, the bass is almost the lead instrument on a lot of stuff. The guitars are kind of here and there, but the bass is a constant, and this mix really brought it to a head.”
Rollins, who first heard the original stereo mix of Pepper when he was 6 or 7 after his mother bought a copy for his family, said the album is “in my DNA.” But, he added that he had some trepidation about the Beatles’ classic being messed with. “I’m always a little afraid when anyone comes back to a sacred text like this and re-anythings it,” he said. However, he noted if it had to be done, it was in the right hands. “Giles is so sharp,” he added. “He’s such a smart guy, like his dad. They’re both just amazing.” He’s hopeful that the Anniversary Edition will turn on a new generation of fans onto the Beatles. “It sounds like a contemporary rock album in a lot of ways — drums are real powerful and the vocals are just iconic. Hopefully this turns some young people on, because when something is new, even if it’s old, a younger person might be more interested. Otherwise, it might be your dad’s record at this point, or your grandfather’s record. Every young person in my mind should hear the Beatles, because if you want to understand rock ‘n’ roll in our lifetime, you really have to hear some Beatles records — like all of them — really at least once. This is a really cool reinterpretation of a solid work.”
And that, said Giles Martin, was really the motivation behind remixing Pepper. “The motivation for this is not to find a better take of ‘Lovely Rita’ or a better take of ‘Getting Better.’ It’s really for me to show how good the band were, despite the mysticism of the music is plucked from a cloud and created on a record, it was really a question of four guys [Lennon, McCartney, guitarist/vocalist George Harrison, and drummer/vocalist Ringo Starr] who were just a really, really good band that played together, who had a great engineer and had a great producer and they could consolidated this brilliant sound to a disc. That’s what music is. Music is a physical experience; it’s not gadgets and gizmos. They help us, but it’s about a recording and experiencing music.”
Giles Martin shared the fact that had to go through the ultimate test of playing the remix for approval from “one of his bosses,” Sir Paul McCartney. The mere concept of that blows the mind of Rollins. “I wouldn’t envy anyone with the daunting task of having George Martin as their dad, being tasked with remixing Sgt. Pepper and eventually having to play it for Paul fricking McCartney and hope that’s going to be OK. Wow, like no pressure.”
Thankfully, Giles Martin and Okell were up for that task and came through swimmingly, though he’s not likely to take full credit. After playing an outtake featuring a scrapped vocalized “ohm” that was kicked about as a possible ending to “A Day in the Life,” Giles Martin added, “This kind of shows that a great album like Sgt. Pepper’s is actually a combination of a bunch of ideas and it’s a question of choosing the right ones,” he explained. “That’s the secret in the studio — just trying stuff. It’s just humans. There’s no mysticism. It’s just really, really good people, making really, really good sounds.”