The 50th-anniversary remix version of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, conducted by Giles Martin and Sam Okell, is a revelation. This is a remarkable feat, given that the 2009 remasters would seem to have offered the last word on the Beatles’ catalogue. But what sets this new collection apart is a welcome sense of sonic separation and clarity that should establish a new standard for the Beatles’ long-playing masterworks.
At first blush, the commemorative six-disc box set might seem extraneous. With the exception of such Holy Grail Beatles tracks as “Carnival of Light,” the 27-minute “Helter Skelter,” and the elusive “Etcetera,” many of the outtakes featured here have been circulating among avid collectors and audiophiles for years.
But the real prizes here are the remixed tracks themselves from the original Sgt. Pepper album. To Martin and Okell’s great credit, the songs enjoy a renewed buoyancy and musical color. Astute listeners will feast their ears on the enhanced separation that elevates Ringo Starr’s drums, in particular, as well as the exquisite harmonies that adorn the album from top to bottom.
If there are standout tracks to be identified from an album already renowned for its embarrassment of riches, then one need look (or listen?) no further than the aural triumph inherent in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” with Martin and Okell’s careful panning treatment afforded to Paul McCartney’s Lowrey organ introduction. The effect is mesmerizing. And then there’s the shimmering beauty of Lennon and McCartney’s vocal performance on “She’s Leaving Home,” which Martin shifted a half-tone up in accordance with the latter’s longstanding intentions, as well as with the sound palette of the original mono recording. A similar effect is revealed on George Harrison’s “Within You Without You,” which comes to life in new and unexpected ways with the greater definition afforded to the song’s Hindustani instrumentation.
Of particular note is the manner in which Starr’s drums move center stage in such tracks as “Good Morning Good Morning” and “A Day in the Life.” In both instances, his drum parts have been elevated within the mix, undergirding each song with a driving energy in keeping with the tracks’ larger musical ambitions.
While the outtakes are welcome additions to the standard Beatles corpus of previously unreleased recordings, the signal gift of the six-disc box set is clearly the DVD version of the album in 5.1 surround sound. The DVD edition makes for the finest distillation of the remixes, affording listeners with a superior opportunity to experience the Beatles’ masterwork in all of its incredible aesthetic power and enduring beauty.
In many ways, the DVD version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band offers the ultimate means for encountering the legendary album on the occasion of its 50th birthday celebration: as a singular, unbroken experience as one fabled track bleeds into another, finally punctuated by the climactic piano chord that brings the album to its crashing, unparalleled conclusion. Sgt. Pepper, for all of its overwhelming accolades and influence, is still as resilient and awe-inspiring as ever. But as the DVD helpfully reminds us, the album is best experienced—not by randomly sampling one track hither and yon—but as a seamless, uninterrupted whole. I’d love to turn you on, indeed.
Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. His latest book, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966), is forthcoming in 2017. His previous Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com.