Critics of all stripes love analogies. We use them, too often and crutch-like, for rhetorical support. A waggish film critic once, in jest, took the practice to its logical extreme and called Citizen Kane, “the Citizen Kane of movies.” Well-deserved mockery aside, certain monuments tower high enough into the firmament that we can’t help but point to them over and over again, cliché be damned.
In the geography of pop music, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is repeatedly deemed a gigantic meteor-strike. What’s forgotten, or at least glossed over, is that it’s also a superlative creative work, performed and recorded by actual human beings in a studio. The Beatles’ eighth LP is widely considered, with the force of inertia behind it, and to its detriment, the Citizen Kane of pop albums.
Students of popular music understand the incomparable status Sgt. Pepper holds within the context of an industry still reeling in its wake. Its importance may be taken for granted, but so is its quality as a spotless and momentous work of art. Listeners who aren’t Baby Boomers can be forgiven for any bafflement as to why this of all Beatles albums is considered the best, not to mention the standard bearer of the album as a format.
Sgt. Pepper as a sonic artifact was slaved over in mono, and that labor, meticulous in every way, was unleashed to universal praise in 1967. Enter the much-ballyhooed stereo update, released on compact disc in 1987, which took its place as the official version of Sgt. Pepper ever since. Rather than being an improvement, it presented a sloppy downgrade from the original mono mix. A creature of its time, with vocal and instrumental voices separated between the left and right ears, the stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper most listeners are familiar with now sounds dated to the point of distraction.
Maybe that’s why we’ve accepted Sgt. Pepper’s greatness as a truism rather than a byproduct of engaging with the album itself. Until now. Giles Martin — son of the late, great Beatles producer George Martin — has heroically swooped in, unearthed pristine tapes, and studied studio notes for original intent. His handiwork, Tetris-like in its dexterity, has remedied the aural blunders of 1987. The new stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper, the finest component of a lavish 50 anniversary package, is revelatory, if not jaw-slackening.
Sgt. Pepper was always meant to be a conceptual substitute for a concert from a band who couldn’t bear the burden of performing live any longer. By adopting a different moniker, the Beatles were freed from the stage’s structural constraints and, thus unshackled, soared into the stratosphere. But the mono recording of Sgt. Pepper placed the listener behind a hazy scrim, and offered a dampened experience for an outsider looking into its wild stylistic journeys. The new remix instead seats us squarely in the crowd. The ovations of its two title-tracks ring through our ears as if we’re deep in the throng.
The expedition we take in between those two songs is astonishing. We fly through genres: rock, psychedelia, baroque pop, circus pageantry, vaudeville, ragtime, and even classical Indian music. It’s a head-spinning voyage that culminates with the Beatles’ supreme composition: the magisterial “A Day in the Life”. No matter the genre, these tunes are matchless, their construction perfect, their execution flawless.
With the six-disc Anniversary Edition of Sgt. Pepper, we gaze into the nuts and bolts of what has seemed to be, from the start, a fully formed work of art. These studio outtakes are generally curios, only interesting one time around with little additional payoff. But that first pass is repeatedly surprising. Who knew “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” began as a mid-tempo shuffle that could’ve been ripped from Blonde on Blonde? Or that “Fixing a Hole” was road-ready had the Beatles decided to keep touring? Or that “A Day in the Life” might have ended with a vocal chorus instead of multiple pianos played in tandem? These outtakes offer us a peek behind the curtain, a glance into the gear-work that studio trickery has smoothed out of existence.
With an extraordinary remix of Sgt. Pepper, Giles Martin has knocked down the wall between the myth of the greatest pop album of all time and the listener’s experience. We now hear granular details: the bow striking a string, the thumping of a drum, the breath of a clarinetist. The younger Martin has transformed an important album into what it was always meant to be: an unsurpassed sonic playground. A once-hermetic monument has become vital again, busted wide open and ready for a younger generation to discover anew. A PLUS