Music

Sgt. Pepper in 2017

A little over fifty years ago, 1st June 1967, The Beatles released one of their masterpieces, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

To commemorate the anniversary, Giles Martin has completed a new stereo mix of the album.  It is gorgeous and a fitting addition to The Beatles’ legend.

This is not to say that the new stereo mix challenges the sovereignty of the mono mix of Pepper – that will remain the real version of the album.  Martin has acknowledged this in saying that the new stereo mix is in effect a stereo version of the mono version; the mono mix was what The Beatles signed off in 1967, Martin has simply tried to update the music for modern ears; the performances and versions of the new stereo mix are all the same as the mono mix.

It’s always struck me as a stunning anomaly that the version of Pepper that most people are familiar with is the frankly shabby 1967 stereo mix.  At the time, The Beatles had no interest in mixing their work in stereo, which was a modern gimmick not really used in pop music (in the UK at least).  So the stereo mix of Pepper was left to the staff of EMI Studios to knock off, which they did.

The first time I heard Pepper was in about 1971.  My cousin had a tape recording which her late father (an enthusiast of photography and tape recording) had made.  We listened to it few times, but I can’t remember if it was the mono or stereo mix.  It was not great quality anyway.

The first time I heard Pepper properly was probably later that same year.

Growing up in Hermand Street in Edinburgh, which at the time comprised of two tenements facing a printer’s works, the only other child of a similar age was my friend Linda.  So we would spend a fair amount of time together and would share toys and games as we grew up.

Linda had an older cousin who was a student; this was a species quite unknown in our social background and could have been seen as a wee bit exotic.  The Student had got his girlfriend into trouble but was going to do the right thing by her (if you understand these idioms, you are probably Scottish and about my age).  The expectant couple had had a party, which I guess was a “goodbye to freedom” party, and being a bit short of cash and facilities, had asked to borrow Linda’s Dansette record player.

When they returned the record player, The Student also loaned Linda about a dozen LPs, which she took no interest in and passed them on to me.  It’s hard to imagine now, but getting my hands on about a dozen contemporary records for a couple of weeks was a huge feast – people used to save up to buy LPs, which were relatively expensive.  If you didn’t like the LP you had saved up to buy, you would play it until you did…

I’ve forgotten what most of the records were.  There was the second Wishbone Ash album (sample song title “Jail Bait,”) and a record by Ten Years After that was awful.  Of the only other two I remember, one was John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which administered a thoroughly enjoyable psychic beating, from which, happily, I have never recovered.  I got my own copy in about 1976, it’s still my favourite album, if that can ever be a sensible appellation (it can change every other day.)

The other one of The Student’s benison which I played a lot was The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  I was of course familiar with it from my cousin’s tape, but this format sounded a lot better.  I don’t know if it was the stereo or the mono mix (and I would never have thought to look at that age,) but on my dad’s radiogram, a fine piece of furniture in possession of a bakelite record player and one eight-inch speaker, everything came out as mono anyway.  (All TV was black-and-white until about 1980 as well).

John and Yoko

(Trainee John and Yoko…)

Anyway, Pepper was played a lot over the couple of weeks before The Student wanted his records back and was well loved.

I got my own copy in about 1974 or 1975, from Sweet Inspiration in Edinburgh, a record shop spun off from a mobile disco business and sited in the same building as the cinema where the The Beatles had played all their Edinburgh shows.  I took it home and played it on my little Phillips stereo and something wasn’t right.  But I couldn’t say what was wrong either.

It was clear this was not the record I had previously enjoyed so much.  But what was wrong?  It looked the same, the songs were the same.  Why did it sound so crap?  This was meant to be the greatest album of all time, after all.  The NME had said so.

As I gradually picked up over the years, the problem was that the record was in stereo, the very mix which had been knocked off in EMI Studios after The Beatles had signed off on the mono mix and gone on to their next adventure.

And for many years, this was what anyone buying or hearing Pepper got; a dull, turgid mix of something which (as we eventually found out) was originally conceived and born in glorious mono.  But if you went and bought a copy of Pepper on LP, tape or eventually CD, you heard this clumsy, uncomfortable and discomforting mix.  I can’t think of any other instance where a work of art has been so badly misrepresented in such huge quantities to the public, where one thing has been passed off as another until generations of listeners think of the stereo mix as being Pepper.  And it still happens – I heard a trail on BBC Radio 2 the other day for a Pepper documentary by Howard Goodall, which was tailed by the old stereo mix of “She’s Leaving Home,” one of the worst casualties of the original stereo mix when compared to the mono.

It was Twenty Years Ago Today ...

(1987 promo poster for reissue on CD for the first time.)

It beggars belief that at no point in the eighties, nineties or beyond did McCartney, Harrison, Starr or George Martin speak up and make sure the situation was fixed (“fixing a hole” indeed – the whole being that one between the speakers).  I was first aware if hearing the mono mix of Pepper (again?) in the nineties on a cassette copy a friend gave me of his mum’s original LP.  I still remember hearing the spaceship taking off on the last chorus of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, which just doesn’t happen in stereo…

Eventually, I learned the story behind the superiority of The Beatles’ mono mixes and was delighted with the release of The Beatles in Mono box set in 2009 – until then, I’d had to be content with bootleg copies of the mono mixes, usually mastered from vinyl or open-reel copies of the original albums.

So, what I’m getting at is that Giles Martin did not have a difficult target if he was trying to improve the 1967 stereo mix of Pepper.  It’s true you can’t polish a turd, although you can roll one around in glitter a bit and sometimes that happens.  Thankfully, what Martin has done is to go back to the master tapes and create a true stereo mix based on the vibe of the 1967 mono mix, trying to do what The Beatles would have done if they had been interested enough (and had the tools) to do a proper stereo mix.  And I believe he has been very successful in that quest.

Remember - Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band IS the Beatles in 2017

(2017 press advert for reissue.  “Remember Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is The Beatles.”  Whit?  It made sense in the original 1967 ads, but maybe not now…)

So how is this different and why is it an important addition to the canon?

Generally, in Giles’ stereo mix of the mono version, he has emphasised the drums (in a proper stereo soundstage for the first time) and clarified the bass.  In short, he has made the sound of Pepper contemporary, so that I doubt if anyone listening to the album for the first time would be able to date is as fifty years old from the sonic evidence.

For those of us listening definitely not for the first time though, there’s loads more; a percussive whomp of harmonium at the start of “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” and a carousel effect over the stereo sound stage in the instrumental section of the track (giving it an even greater sense of menace;) “She’s Leaving Home” in proper stereo at the correct pitch and with the gorgeous nimbus of reverb around McCartney’s voice; we can hear the piano that plinks out a G throughout the chorus of “Getting Better” – I’d never heard that before.  “Lovely Rita” was never a sweeter meter maid…a hugely rewarding experience.

The bean-counters at EMI have unfortunately realised what Dylan’s people realised a good few iterations of The Bootleg Series ago; by including an expensively produced book in a deluxe edition which includes a couple of CDs of outtakes and working versions, you can effectively charge loads of money for niche market stuff because the people who have to have it will pay for it, however grudgingly.  The actual music in the deluxe version should cost about £20 tops, but in fact it comes in around £100.  The DVD material is disappointing, being mostly a very old documentary about the making of the album which has been around for years and heavily excerpted for the Anthology series – but if you want all the outtakes, you’re buying it, along with an identical Blu Ray version.

This is the sleeve of the entry-level edition, which is only the new stereo mix – I’ve no idea why they would screw up the classic cover image with the strip down the left hand side…

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band Anniversary Edition

…but they did it before with these classic sleeves…

The desecration of The White Album’s minimalism is particularly jarring.

White Album by The Beatles

But these aren’t much better…

Let it Be / Abbey Road - Beatles anniversary

Giles Martin has already mentioned that he will be remixing The White Album for the next big anniversary release, which is strange – to my ears, there is nothing wrong with either the mono or stereo mixes of that beast. But I guess that the cash cow has now been sighted and there will be more and more lavish reissues with any vaguely believable anniversary. Sigh.

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