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A Splendid Hear of Pepper 5/4/2017
Tom Frangione / Bruce Spizer
It was 50 years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. May 19, 1967, a dozen journalists and deejays were invited to a sneak preview of The Beatles newest endeavor: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, at Brian Epstein’s four-story Georgian home in London. For nearly a year, The Beatles had hidden themselves behind the walls of EMI’s Abbey Road Studio, away from public life. They’d stopped touring, and while they worked on their “masterpiece”, they snickered to reports from the press that “The Beatles were through”. Now, a half century later, Sgt. Pepper has taught the band to play once again, through the sparkling sounds of digital technology, directed by the son of Beatles original production master George Martin: Giles Martin.

This time, a hundred or so journalists and jocks attended a listening party for the “new” stereo remix of “Sgt. Pepper” at World of Macintosh in New York City. The event was held to launch the forthcoming 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles album, due back in stores May 26 in a variety of formats.

I attended the presentation to cover the event for Joe Johnson’s Beatle Brunch as well as Beatlefan Magazine, along with noted Beatles’ author and historian, Bruce Spizer . Also in attendance was Elvis Costello , who’s recently been front and center after being prominently featured in McCartney’s recent remastering of his 1989 album, “Flowers in the Dirt”, which he co-wrote with McCartney.

Following brief introductory remarks from Apple CEO Jeff Jones, Producer Giles Martin, explained the reasoning behind (and the process of creating) the new stereo remix for Pepper, demonstrating certain techniques comparing the mono mix, original stereo mix and the new stereo remix. Martin explained that while Beatles’ original producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick spent considerable time creating the mono mix, then they had little concern for the stereo mix, as mono was the dominant format then, particularly in the UK. Many fans – including The Beatles themselves cited the mono mix as the “definitive presentation” of the album. John Lennon famously muttered, “you haven’t heard ‘Sgt. Pepper’ until you’ve heard it in mono”. Using the mono mix as the template, Martin and Abbey Road engineer Sam Okell created a new mix that presents the album the way The Beatles would have done it in 1967 had they cared about making a proper stereo mix and had access to today’s digital technology.

Among the handful of tracks from the forthcoming box set that Martin demoed was the legendary attempt by The Beatles to close “A Day In The Life” with a unison vocal hum (more accurately “Aum”) of the note “E.” As Martin pointed out, even geniuses sometimes have bad ideas. The trick is to USE the good ones – something the band did with the grand crescendo of “Day in the Life” pounded out on multiple keyboards. He played us the 1967 mono and stereo mixes of “She’s Leaving Home,” demonstrating the vari-speed technique applied to the mono mix only, resulting in the mono mix a semi-tone higher in pitch as a result of being “sped up.” Now given the same vari-speed treatment, the song is perhaps the best example of the original mono template being followed for the new stereo mix. Another example is the artificial double tracking applied to “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” that was missing from the original stereo mix.

After setting the stage, Martin presented the entire 38-minute Sgt. Pepper stereo remix that will be the centerpiece of the anniversary editions. The differences between the 1967 and 2017 mixes were immediately apparent. With better placement of the instruments, Paul’s bass and guitar parts punch through the speakers on the title track, as does Ringo’s drumming. On “With A Little Help From My Friends,” Ringo’s lead vocal is dead center in the spectrum, with John, Paul and George’s backing vocals surrounding him left and right. This was achieved by separating the double-tracked backing vocals into separate channels, working to great effect. On “Fixing A Hole,” you clearly hear two harpsichords. “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” is a song that should have sounded better in stereo than in mono with its swirling sounds, however, the mono mix was vastly superior. That is no longer the case. The new stereo mix breathes new life into the circus atmosphere.

On “Within You, Without You,” the Indian percussion and string instruments benefit from greater separation, providing more clarity and definition. “Good Morning, Good Morning” presents guitars with more punch and presence, punctuating the verses and delivering a harder rock sound. The “Sgt. Pepper Reprise” is another example of the mono template being followed to a T, with the audience effects and Paul’s scat vocal given more prominence than in the original stereo mix. As expected, “A Day In The Life” was breathtaking. Nuances, such as Paul’s piano playing and the orchestral build-up, benefit from the new placement of instruments.

Overall, the new stereo remix highlights the brilliance of the group’s singing (greater clarity on lead and harmony vocals) and playing on the album. Paul’s melodic bass lines, stinging lead guitar and keyboards are heard as never before. Ringo’s drums are a revelation, demonstrating his creativity and uncanny ability to play the perfect drum part for each song. As with the rhythm section, the interplay between George and John is evident throughout, particularly on “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” with Harrison’s guitar lines fluidly echoing Lennon’s lead vocal.

Following the album presentation, Martin and Jones took questions on a variety of topics, including why they chose to include “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” in the anniversary edition. Although the release of the songs as a single months ahead of the album precluded their inclusion on the LP, they’re included now as part of the anniversary edition, having been recorded during the same sessions. The Deluxe Edition shows how “Strawberry Fields Forever” evolved by including multiple takes and a new stereo master. For good measure, the set also includes the mono Capitol promotional single of “Penny Lane” ending with the additional 7-note piccolo trumpet flourish.

As was the case 50 years ago, great care and attention to detail was given to the packaging, seen above on display. Fans and critics alike should be pleased with the anniversary edition. Many in attendance commented that “t was like hearing the album again for the first time”. We can certainly concur that for this re-release, “A splendid time is guaranteed for all”.

Listen to Joe Johnson’s Beatle Brunch to hear the new mixes and outtakes from Sgt. Pepper and to WIN the 2-CD set from Universal Music.

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