Remixed Sgt Pep­per shows why the Bea­tles are as vi­tal as ever

It is one of the great­est al­bums ever. A new remix of Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and a trove of demo record­ings has only added to the magic, writes John Robin­son

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - John Robin­son is as­so­ci­ate edi­tor of Un­cut. He lives in Lon­don.

An evening in early April. Out­side Abbey Road Stu­dios in north-west Lon­don, tourists are per­form­ing their cus­tom­ary dance with irate mo­torists as they at­tempt to have them­selves pho­tographed on the ze­bra cross­ing across which The Bea­tles walked in 1969 for the cover shot of Abbey Road.

In­side the com­plex, a group of 100 peo­ple are seated in Stu­dio Two – an­other his­toric land­mark, if one less eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble to the public. Here, guests are look­ing around, tak­ing pho­tos on their phones, peer­ing up the stairs to the con­trol room: spa­ces once pop­u­lated by liv­ing, work­ing, ac­tual Bea­tles as they went about their busi­ness mak­ing some of the world’s great­est mu­sic.

It is 50 years ago to­day, pretty much, that the Bea­tles re­leased their al­bum Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely

Hearts Club Band. The record starts with an orches­tra warm­ing up and ends with a thun­der­ous piano chord. There are sen­ti­men­tal songs and oth­er­worldly trips, rooster noises and laugh­ter. It’s the pin­na­cle of the band’s achieve­ment but pos­si­bly also marks the be­gin­ning of their end. Shortly af­ter, John Len­non and Paul McCart­ney be­came cre­atively es­tranged. Here, though, they are still work­ing gen­uinely in part­ner­ship and it’s mag­nif­i­cent to hear.

As the pro­ducer’s son – a 40-some­thing named Giles Martin – tells the gath­er­ing, it has been quite some­thing to work on such an al­bum. From the start of their record­ing ca­reer in 1962, his fa­ther Ge­orge worked with the Bea­tles to turn their ever-ex­pand­ing mu­si­cal brief – feed­back, sitar drones, a song which would sound like “monks chant­ing on a moun­tain top” – into some­thing which might be tech­ni­cally achiev­able in a record­ing stu­dio. From late in 1966 to April 1967, he em­barked on their most am­bi­tious project yet: a re­lease on June 2, 1967 that was both nos­tal­gic and thrillingly con­tem­po­rary. On the orig­i­nal vinyl record, the tracks were all run to­gether with no gaps be­tween them, to cre­ate a seam­less trip into the Bea­tles’ new world.

The group worked tire­lessly on the al­bum. They spent 30 hours record­ing the fi­nal song A Day

in the Life – three times longer than they spent on their en­tire de­but LP (Please Please Me) four years ear­lier. Long into the night, they laboured on the mono mixes of the orig­i­nal record­ings, then re­tired to their homes with ac­etates of the night’s work to con­tinue lis­ten­ing. The stereo mixes, roomier af­fairs, were cre­ated by stu­dio en­gi­neers, with Bea­tles sel­dom present. Be­fore this one, the last ma­jor Bea­tles project was the mas­ter­ing of the cat­a­logue in mono for vinyl – re­flect­ing the ap­petite for this form among the deep­est lis­ten­ers of the band.

The al­bum has been reis­sued in four edi­tions: a six-CD su­per deluxe; dou­ble vinyl set; dou­ble CD and sin­gle CD. As Giles Martin now il­lus­trates for the room, the aim of this new 50th an­niver­sary edi­tion – his remix of the orig­i­nal al­bum with a disc of un­heard takes; a deluxe six-disc set in which 33 out­takes can be heard in order of their record­ing; the first time the vault has been opened in this way for a sin­gle Bea­tles al­bum – is to com­bine the best of these two po­si­tions. Namely to pre­serve the im­pact and fo­cus of the mono mixes, com­bined with the clar­ity and sep­a­ra­tion of the stereo. Paul McCart­ney told him not to be too rev­er­en­tial. He said some­thing along the lines of it be­ing a good idea to push the en­ve­lope now and then.

Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was cer­tainly a record to do that. At con­certs the pre­vi­ous year, the Bea­tles were still play­ing Chuck Berry cover ver­sions – their com­plex stu­dio out­put not be­ing some­thing they could re­pro­duce live. Now re­tired from tour­ing, they be­came fic­tional per­form­ers: the al­bum’s mu­sic would be pro­vided by a brass band, of­fer­ing a pro­gramme of light en­ter­tain­ment, as might once have been heard near a band­stand in a provin­cial Bri­tish park.

It’s a de­light­ful, in­no­cent con­ceit – but the con­cept is a loose one. The ti­tle track opens the al­bum, and in­tro­duces Billy Shears (in fact, Ringo) to sing With a Lit­tle Help from My Friends. The penul­ti­mate track (the fi­nal song recorded, April 1, 1967) is a more rock­ing reprise of the opener. All around these songs, how­ever, is mu­sic which bears no re­la­tion to brass bands per se, but is about fa­mil­iar­ity, change and look­ing at the world with un­jaun­diced eyes.

Penny Lane/Straw­berry Fields For­ever, the Bea­tles’ sin­gle of Fe­bru­ary 1967 in­tro­duced the ideas which the al­bum then went on to de­velop. As you can hear from demos in­cluded here, both songs made psy­chic pil­grim­ages back to sites known from child­hood – McCart­ney to a busy thor­ough­fare; Len­non to the grounds of a chil­dren’s home where an an­nual sum­mer fête was held.

Penny Lane is lovely, but Straw­berry Fields For­ever, with its melt­ing tem­pos and mul­ti­ple lay­ers, is where the Pep­per method re­veals it­self. Po­ten­tially, the al­bum might have dis­tanced the group from their au­di­ence – it was, af­ter all, not every Bea­tles fan who could have, or even wanted to have, par­tic­i­pated in the mind ex­per­i­ments which helped to bring the band to this new place.

The Bea­tles would never again play live and were also plainly no longer the same dis­arm­ing fel­lows who had ap­peared on Sun­day Night at the Lon­don

Palladium. One might be­gin to think them un­reach­able.

In fact, the Bea­tles took ev­ery­one along for the ride. Pep­per wasn’t only a place for paisley-shirted hip­sters but was – as Be­ing for the Ben­e­fit of Mr Kite! had it – a place where “a splen­did time is guar­an­teed for all”, young and old, chil­dren and par­ents.

Lis­ten­ing to the al­bum again, you won­der at the sub­tle re­la­tion­ship be­tween McCart­ney’s She’s

Leav­ing Home (in which a teenager runs away while her par­ents are asleep) and When I’m Sixty-Four, which seems to de­pict those same par­ents at the start of their mar­riage, not look­ing for rev­e­la­tion, but for­ward to their dotage, when they will be com­forted by their mem­o­ries. In a time when gen­er­a­tional order was be­ing ques­tioned, McCart­ney’s com­po­si­tions gen­tly probe ques­tions of age and ex­pe­ri­ence, and the value of un­re­ported work­ing-class lives.

As much as a mag­i­cal and multi-lay­ered sound world, it’s also a recog­nis­able one. You could take Pep­per psychedel­i­cally, or you could take it at face value. Who hasn’t taken a walk back to their old school, as John Len­non does on Good

Morn­ing, Good Morn­ing? Many a young per­son could em­pathise with try­ing to date some­one who still lives with their par­ents (and sis­ters), as does Lovely Rita. It works ei­ther way.

Fix­ing a Hole is about just that: mend­ing the roof to get the job done and to move on to more in­ter­est­ing things. The al­bum’s closer A Day in the Life sur­re­ally re­ports the death of an Bri­tish aris­to­crat in freaky modal sound (Len­non’s bit) – but also has ties to the ev­ery­day (McCart­ney’s bit). The mid­dle sec­tion, in which Paul day­dreams on the bus go­ing to work, could be any­one’s ex­pe­ri­ence.

The sec­ond disc of this an­niver­sary edi­tion, with its charm­ing stu­dio chat and demo takes, un­der­lines this idea, bring­ing those orig­i­nal, em­pa­thetic Bea­tles right back. The Bea­tles were not fix­ated on the idea of mak­ing the great­est-ever al­bum. They were, as Giles Martin puts it, mak­ing noise in a room, play­fully try­ing things out. On the sec­ond disc, you can hear them do it. Some­times they even get things wrong.

Pep­per has al­ways sur­prised and de­lighted its lis­ten­ers, and this new ex­panded edi­tion helps it to do so again. Namely to re­veal how, even when their mu­sic was at its most unique and unas­sail­able, the Bea­tles were ac­tu­ally not that dif­fer­ent from any­body else.

Cour­tesy Ap­ple Corps Ltd

Ringo Starr, John Len­non, Ge­orge Har­ri­son and Paul McCart­ney work­ing on Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at Abbey Road Stu­dios in Lon­don, 1967.

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