It Was Fifty Years Ago Today
There’s no doubt that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an album truly of its time. Born of The Beatles’ – and in particular John Lennon, Paul McCartney and producer George Martin’s – shared love of all things British (music hall, vaudeville, Lewis Carroll and Victorian-era England), it represented the zenith of the Summer of Love, 1967, now fifty years passed.
To mark the occasion, The Beatles have uncharacteristically opened the vaults of Abbey Road, tasking Giles Martin (George Martin’s son and The Beatles’ go-to producer since his remarkable work on 2006’s LOVE project) with remixing the original album — and collecting any worthwhile outtakes to tell the story of the making of Sgt. Pepper.
“We’re talking about a record that people love and that’s touched their hearts, and you don’t want to change that feeling in any way,” Martin says of the daunting task he faces with each new Beatles project, and even more so with the profoundly iconic Sgt. Pepper. “So what was important to me throughout this project was how did the songs — our mixes — make you feel? Did they still touch you in the same way?”
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By the end of 1966, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had agreed amongst themselves to give up touring. They’d been on a seemingly never-ending treadmill since 1963 and, after a fraught world tour during the summer of ’66, the Fab Four were adamant that life on the road had become intolerable.
More than anything, it was the band’s U.S. tour that year that was the final nail in the coffin for the band’s touring career — a firestorm erupted in the American Bible Belt following John Lennon’s remark to journalist Maureen Cleave that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. There were Beatles Burnings, death threats and performances in baseball stadiums unsuitable for staging large-scale rock concerts.
The Beatles had had enough. Enough of the mania of their fans. Enough of the constant press conferences full of inane banter and reporters trying to take them down a notch. And enough of the poor conditions that they were forced to perform in — conditions that had begun to take a toll on both their musicianship and their shared love of simply being The Beatles.
Packed in the back of an empty, aluminum-lined van after one particularly poor performance in the final days of that American tour, the lone holdout, Paul McCartney, gave in to the drumbeat of his brothers in arms: The Beatles would never tour again.
Freed from the confines of constant obligation, the four Beatles set off on much-needed holidays. George Harrison headed for India to study sitar with Ravi Shankar, John Lennon agreed to appear in director Richard Lester’s film How I Won the War, joined on location in Spain by Ringo Starr, and Paul McCartney worked on the soundtrack to the film The Family Way and went on safari in Africa.
But as Starr says in the 1992 documentary of the making of Sgt. Pepper — included in the new deluxe physical edition — there was no chance of The Beatles splitting up. And, as always, he recalls with a chuckle, it was Paul McCartney who made the call to get the band back into the studio.
Indeed it was McCartney who’d hatched The Beatles’ latest adventure; on a flight back from America he’d come up with a way forward for the band he loved so dearly. With the pressure of being The Beatles immense, he landed on a simple, yet unique and artistically adventurous solution: why not simply pretend that they’re somebody else? That way they could write, sing and play from any point of view, thus freeing themselves from the confines that being in the biggest band in the world had created.
“‘Sgt. Pepper’ is Paul, after a trip to America,” John Lennon recalled not long after the album’s release, according to The Beatles Anthology. “The whole West Coast long-named group thing was coming in, when people were no longer ‘The Beatles’ or ‘The Crickets’ — they were suddenly ‘Fred and His Incredible Shrinking Grateful Airplanes.’ I think he got influenced by that. He was trying to put some distance between The Beatles and the public, and so there was this identity of ‘Sgt. Pepper.’”
“It was an idea I had, when I was flying from L.A. to somewhere,” Paul McCartney recalled to Playboy in a 1984 interview. “I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group. We would make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place.”
“We were fed up with being Beatles,” McCartney added to biographer Barry Miles in Many Years From Now, summing it all up. “We were not boys, we were men… Artists rather than performers.”
With John, George and Ringo game, sessions began in late November of 1966. While The Beatles were quietly hard at work, but with no new release scheduled, the press speculated that they were washed up. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
“Just you wait,” Paul McCartney remembers thinking of the naysayers, according to The Beatles Anthology. Soon, in the wake of The Beatles’ next single, speculation would turn to anticipation.
Still, for anyone to imagine what was about to come would have seemed lunacy. Sure, The Beatles had reinvented themselves several times over in the four short years that they had been part of the cultural firmament, but even the most artistically adventurous groups were taking risks within the relative confines of the three-minute pop single. The Beatles would shatter that mold before the public had any inkling of Sgt. Pepper or his Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ opened the door to Pepper, so it made sense it include them,” Giles Martin says of the singles that preceded the album in February 1967, and which are included as bonus tracks on the new, expanded version of Sgt. Pepper. “We’d remixed them for the video box set last year, but we actually remixed them again because we thought we should be brave, as we’d actually gained some confidence as a result of that project. And we also found an earlier four-track that we didn’t know existed, which allowed us to separate out the pianos (on ‘Penny Lane’).”
The results are stunning. But it’s the album proper that is the centerpiece of the reissue, and rightly so. Remixed from the original tapes stored in the vaults at Abbey Road by Martin’s team, utilizing both vintage gear and modern technology, the new mixes are warm and clean, giving you the feeling that you’re sitting in Abbey Road’s famed Studio Two, listening to The Beatles perform. It’s a remarkable feat for an album that most people will have heard countless times.
“It sounds arrogant, but I’m surprised how far and how deep we went into this and how much difference we got out of it,” Martin says. It’s hardly arrogant. In fact, given the results of the remix, it’s an understatement, to say the least.
By utilizing the original four-track session tapes, and using the superior mono mix of the album as a reference (the one Martin’s father and The Beatles labored over, rather than the hastily made stereo mix cobbled together by engineers at the last minute for the American market), Martin and his team have created a mix that is more detailed and nuanced than ever before, far surpassing the original 1980s CD version or even the 2009 remaster you’ve probably heard on TIDAL.
“We were able to go back to the original tapes, which we’d never mixed from before,” Martin says. “That means that there are less layers in between you and The Beatles. It creates a feeling that’s as close to being in the room with them as you can get, I think.”
As a result, instruments are more separated and detailed, and the mix feels richer and more vibrant. John, Paul, George and Ringo’s voices are warmer and punchier, and stand out more than ever from the many layers of instruments and effects present on Sgt. Pepper. Even if you’ve heard the album a thousand times, you’ll undoubtedly notice details that feel new and, no doubt, exciting.
“Our goal was to stay true to the original version — and not screw it up,” Martin jokes of the four-month long project he and his team undertook in remixing the iconic album. “In some ways that was harder than you’d think, but what we discovered was that the performances were so good, and they were so well recorded, that as long as we used the original mixes as the benchmark, and didn’t do anything too crazy, we almost couldn’t go wrong.”
Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, as well as, of course, Ringo and Paul, were Martin’s ultimate audience — and took an active role in the project. In the end, they were, by all accounts, thrilled with the results.
Still, Martin admits that his job isn’t without its own unique difficulties.
“I went over to Paul’s office and played it for him, and it was really nerve-wracking,” he admits. “This is not only hugely important music, it’s his music. When I’m working on it I just get down to the job and I set that aside and I do the best I can. But there are certainly moments like that when the magnitude of what you’re doing hits you.”
Martin was also careful to make sure that the quality fans would receive via streaming the album would be the best it could possibly be.
“I know and trust them and I deal with them directly,” Martin says of the teams at the various streaming services, including TIDAL. “They’re good; they do care. But we didn’t do any special mastering for streaming and there’s no equalization and very little limiting on this. I just work with them to make sure the transfer is done correctly and that it sounds as good as it can possibly sound.”
Listening today to the newly remixed Sgt. Pepper gets you as close as is probably possible to the experience and excitement of hearing it for the first time, and it makes it all the more obvious that what the band achieved was astonishing, and a team effort all around.
“The fact that they had announced that they were not going to tour anymore, which meant that they didn’t have to worry about making songs that they could play live, clearly freed them creatively,” says Beatles historian Brian Southall, the author of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Album, the Beatles, and the World in 1967. “Suddenly there was no reason for them not go in and pull out all the stops. The idea of doing ‘Sgt. Pepper’ or ‘A Day in the Life’ on stage wasn’t something they had to think about, so they just went off and went for broke. And the great thing is that even though George Martin was far removed from The Beatles in appearance — in dress and in attitude — he was enormously close to them in understanding what they wanted and what they were anxious to achieve.”
For diehards, as well as those who are just discovering the album and want more, Martin has created an alternate mix of the record from the many outtakes in the vaults at Abbey Road. It shows plainly the remarkable evolution of the songs, and the fearlessness of The Beatles when hunkered down in their creative cocoon. But Martin says that something even more profound struck him during the process of putting together the bonus tracks for the expanded version of Sgt. Pepper.
“When we were working on this, I remembered something that Eric Clapton had said to me, which touched me,” Martin explains. “He told me about opening for The Beatles when he was in the Yardbirds, and he thought, ‘Oh yeah, here’s this band and all these screaming girls.’ He thought they were just a pop band. But he told me, ‘The weird thing was they could really play. They could all really play.’ And I realized in mixing the bonus tracks that they had a placement to them. You don’t have to hide anyone when you’re mixing them, because everyone is playing quite deliberately. And Ringo’s drumming is especially fascinating. He’s playing a song, he’s not just keeping time, and that’s really cool. Especially when they put the drums on later, it was like orchestral percussion, almost. So the outtakes are really dynamic, because it’s a band in a room and there’s lots of bandwidth and that allows us to really hear them in a way I don’t think we have before.”
“In pop culture terms, Sgt. Pepper remains absolutely relevant and quite important,” Brian Southall says of the album, now fifty years old but with a fresh coat of paint, so to speak. “What it represented when it came out, in terms of not just the production, and the artwork and the songs, but also The Beatles moving on from being the band we all fell in love with, was hugely significant, and remains so. Sgt. Pepper ushered in a whole new idea in the way an album could be produced and the time it took to make and the cost and what you could strive to achieve creatively. The impact it had on every other band and artist that came in its wake is indisputable. It’s easy to forget how significant it was and what it represented when it came out, but just look at the 2012 London Olympics, where they had people marching through the stadium dressed in Sgt. Pepper outfits. That says it all. It’s an important part of our heritage.”
As for his role in helping to reintroduce Sgt. Pepper to a new generation of fans, Giles Martin is perhaps more circumspect.
“There’s no point in changing it for the sake of it,” he says. “So even though it’s a remix, it shouldn’t feel either old or new. It should just feel like Sgt. Pepper. That was our goal and I think we did all right.”
Frequent TIDAL contributor Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He contributed the essay “Sgt. Pepper In America” to the recent 50th anniversary reissue of The Beatles’ 1967 album, has written intimate portraits of The Beatles as a group and as solo artists, and about many other rock legends, for publications like Esquire, Rolling Stone and the fanzine Beatlefan, and is a go-to expert for many Beatles-related radio shows. Jeff has appeared at Beatles events and conventions in New York and Liverpool and is a well-known collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and The Beatles.
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