Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the (UK) release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. What can be said about Sgt. Pepper that hasn’t already been said? Having stopped touring, and knowing they would not have to perform these songs live, they were free to experiment. And experiment they did, inventing new recording technologies, using unconventional sounds and musical instruments, toying with notions of genre. The studio itself became their instrument like never before. And the um … imaginative lyrics:
Picture yourself on a train in a station
With plasticine porters with looking-glass ties
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile
The girl with kaleidoscope eyes
With Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles completed the transformation they had begun with Rubber Soul and Revolver. They imagined the rock album as a form of art — even down to the cover. The Beatles turned a corner, and they redefined rock music in the process.
It was an immediate commercial and critical success. It spent months at the top of the US and UK album charts. It quickly went multi-platinum. The album won 4 Grammys in 1968, including “Album of the Year,” the first rock LP ever to earn this distinction. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it number 1 in its list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” The magazine declared:
‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time. From the title song’s regal blasts of brass and fuzz guitar to the orchestral seizure and long, dying piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life,” the 13 tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are the pinnacle of the Beatles’ eight years as recording artists. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were never more fearless and unified in their pursuit of magic and transcendence.”
Heady words indeed. Of course, any list such as this is sure to spark fierce debate. Certainly there are those who might disagree with the ranking — Sgt. Pepper isn’t even my favorite Beatles album — yet the significance of the album cannot be denied. In 2004, the Library of Congress added Sgt. Pepper to The National Recording Registry, a list of recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.” And how many copies have been sold?
As for me, Sgt. Pepper is a part of my psyche. It’s hard to imagine when these songs didn’t exist: “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and “She’s Leaving Home.” The last track is my favorite, “A Year In The Life.” George Martin literally fused disparate song fragments from John and Paul into something quintessentially Beatles. What a way to close a masterpiece. But only one of many from the Beatles.
So with today comes the release of The 50th Anniversary Edition. From the press release, the “Super Deluxe” 6-disc package includes the following:
- A new stereo mix of the album by Giles Martin, son of George Martin.
- Sgt. Pepper Sessions on 2 CDs with over 100 minutes of audio illustrating chronologically how the album was created. These are newly mixed from the original 4-track tapes, and most are previously unreleased.
- The original 1967 mono mix of the album with bonus tracks including 3 previously unreleased mixes.
- The fully restored 1992 documentary The Making of Sgt. Pepper, including interviews with Paul, George and Ringo and in-the-studio footage introduced by George Martin. Restored promotional films for “A Day In The Life,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.”
- A new Giles Martin 5.1 surround sound mix and high-resolution stereo audio in 96KHz/24bit of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band plus “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” (If you know the history, these songs were originally slated to be on the album, but were released as a double A-side single instead, to appease an insatiable fan base.)
- A 144-page hardback book featuring an introduction by Sir Paul McCartney, comprehensive song-by-song details and recording information, in-depth essays about the design of the cover, the album’s musical innovations and its historical context. Illustrations include photographs from the recording sessions, handwritten lyrics and Abbey Road documentation.
- A replica of the original card insert and two bonus posters.
“And what about that new stereo mix?” you ask. I’m sure the debate will rage for the next 50 years. But the story is that back in 1967, the lions share of the mixing effort was spent on the mono version, and the stereo mix was done more hastily and done without the involvement of the Beatles. Some aficionados have always criticized the stereo version for various, sometimes subtle reasons. The new Giles Martin stereo mix is an attempt to address these issues, and for what it’s worth, Paul and Ringo are reportedly pleased with the results. Happy Anniversary!
Now you know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.