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Spins: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Deluxe Edition Reviewed

| June 4, 2017


The Beatles
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Deluxe Edition

The 50th anniversary celebration for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has sparked ample debate. The outpouring of opinion was inevitable, given the album’s status as the most universally-praised release of the rock era. Beatle diehards may argue whether Abbey Road is a stronger set than Paul McCartney’s carnival-colored concept piece, but it’s no exaggeration to say that Sgt. Pepper advanced the state of the art in recording while defining the psychedelic era in pop culture. The principal criticism is obvious. If the Pepper “you’ve known for all these years” is considered a masterwork, why monkey with it?

The answer lies in the results. Fans may always prefer George Martin’s original mono mix, and that’s certainly valid. Sir George is said to have spent three weeks with the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s mono mix, and three days alone on the stereo mix. For headphone enthusiasts and general stereo listening, the new stereo mix is frankly better than the old, familiar one.  Current mix engineers Giles Martin and Sam Okell devoted months to their painstaking effort. Martin’s credits are bona fide, including Kula Shaker’s 1994 psych-rock treat K, the Beatles score for Cirque du Soleil’s LOVE, and Paul McCartney’s New. The younger Martin served as Sir George’s ears in the studio as the acuity of his famous father’s hearing began to wane. It’s obvious that the elder Martin’s work and the Beatles’ music were treated with due reverence and meticulous care.

The Beatles’ 2009 catalogue-wide campaign was a major clean-up effort coinciding with the Mono and Stereo CD box sets. It constituted a clear improvement over the earlier 1994 master on hand for review. The 2017 mix and master top both results handily. The dimension, depth and chaos of the closing climax to “A Day in the Life” place you within a swirling storm of detailed sound. Ringo Starr’s drum fills thump, bloom and expand.

Much of the change is like removing a towel from your speakers to permit more clarity and detail. Giles Martin’s new Deluxe Edition mix benefited from access to original component tapes that captured instruments before they were bounced into his father’s lushly-layered final four-track tapes. As a result, the new mix allows previously-unheard separation. John Lennon’s circus scenes during “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” go from two-dimensional to sparkling 3-D, as Henry the Horse dances his liveliest waltz ever.

The most noticeable alterations include changes in the soundstage, moving fundamental elements like bass, drums and lead vocal back toward the middle of the stereo spectrum for a more balanced listening experience. Paul McCartney now sings his carnival barker introduction for the title cut from center stage, rather than singing from the wings in the right speaker. George Harrison’s lashing guitar line for “Fixing a Hole” splashes across the sonic canvas during its descent. Even Harrison’s trippy “Within You Without You” explodes into new psychedelic hues, with vibrant string orchestration balancing the sitar.

The pitch of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is adjusted, giving a more natural sound to Lennon’s voice, even while recovering the shimmering audio effect present on the mono mix. There’s more body to Paul McCartney’s bass, and more power to Starr’s caveman tom fills at the choruses. The pitch of the melancholy “She’s Leaving Home” is raised to match the original mono release. Any such changes match the Beatles’ and George Martin’s original vision and notes.

The refreshed Sgt. Pepper is available in several configurations to suit your level of devotion or budget. For sheer, interactive fun, the vinyl is hard to beat. The set includes a faithful reproduction of the original sleeve art. There’s a sheet of cut-outs with moustache, badges and stand-up figures. New liner notes are provided by McCartney and Giles Martin, and there’s an essay on Peter Blake’s famous cover image. Other extras include alternate takes of every album track, spit-polished pre-Pepper singles “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” surround and high-definition audio, a circus poster heralding the exploits of Mr. Kite, and a 1992 documentary on the making of the album. Put aside any purist prejudice and rediscover this classic but still vibrant recording from a distinctly different era, released before principal architect McCartney had even turned 25. “A splendid time is guaranteed for all!”

9 out of 10

–    Jeff Elbel

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