If you’ve been plugged into any social media the last few days, you probably couldn’t escape the news about the new remix of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.
I’ll be straight with you: I haven’t heard it yet.
My only opportunities since its release on Friday (May 26, 2017) would have minimized it to background music. And that just won’t do the album justice.
I want to experience it when I can really focus on it. I want to wear some good headphones, I want to let the sounds wash over me, I want the music to conjure visions and tickle my imagination.
I hope to be transported to the same Neverland (or Pepperland) that a very young me visited when I first delved into the Fab Four’s 1967 masterwork.
I’ve heard a few songs on YouTube and Spotify, as they trickled out before the release. And I thought they sounded pretty terrific. My appetite is definitely whetted for the full experience.
Thoughts on mixes
Many folks have already listened to this material and have presented their views. The most frequent criticisms seem to be about the bass and drums being brought up in the mix, both being more prominent. I need to experience these myself to determine if I find these changes bothersome.
I will say that Giles Martin, the son of original Beatles producer George Martin and the man who was charged with the daunting task of remixing this material, stated quite clearly that the intent of this remix was to make the album feel more contemporary, a presentation that doesn’t sound “old,” a sound as relevant today as it would have been in the Sixties. That means entering the fray of compression (loudness) wars, prominent bass parts and thumping drums.
We’ve all experienced the situation of cars driving past our homes, or going down the roads while we’re driving, and hearing those insanely loud bass beats. Most folks with any grasp of music history will recognize how often bass or drum parts get sampled by other artists.
And Giles (to his credit) has praised elements of the past mixes, and has worked to combine what he’s loved from them. These new releases (a two-disc CD set that presents the new stereo mix, as well as early takes of album tracks and new mixes of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”; and a box set dedicated to the album, with more audio from the vaults and with video too) exist alongside the previous versions. These provide a new way to listen to the material, and may give different perspectives and colors to the band we’ve known for all these years.
And that includes a bit more emphasis on bass and drums.
BUT … (And this is a big but) … The question is whether or not these elements being brought to the fore dramatically changes the songs, the experiences, etc.
When The Beatles’ “Live at the BBC” (now with the appended “Vol. 1”) was remastered and rereleased some years back, I noticed that the drums and bass seemed to be much more clear, much more prominent, than I’d remembered from the version released in the 1990s.
At first I thought to myself, “A ha, and the only surviving Beatles are the bass player and the drummer. I see what they did!”
It’s easy to be cynical, isn’t it?
Then I started to think about how buried the bass and drum work could get in many recordings from the 1960s, especially given the limitations of the number of tracks available, the source quality of tapes, etc.
When The Beatles’ catalog was remastered and reissued in 2009, many folks noticed just how much Ringo Starr’s contributions improved by the simple fact that increased separation and overall clarity showed how perfectly his drumming punctuated the songs.
And Paul McCartney’s bass playing evolved over the group’s lifetime, becoming increasingly inventive, melodic and occasionally more of a “lead” instrument rather than a simple part of a rhythm section.
Does George Harrison’s lead guitar work get buried to compensate for the better balance of drums and bass? Not on the BBC releases, and not on the 2009 remasters. So I’ll reserve judgment on “Sgt. Pepper” until I can hear the material myself.
My first musical love
My interest in this material isn’t limited to mixes and hearing what is different, or finding different textures, or anything like that. Sure, those will be interesting, but I’ve got a far more personal reason to explore these releases.
Put simply, “Sgt. Pepper” made me the music lover that I am today.
My folks played lots of music in our homes when I was growing up. Even as a very young boy, I have memories of many songs that remain favorites of mine decades later.
But hearing “Sgt. Pepper” really blew me away.
The crowd noises at the beginning. The crunchy lead guitar on the title track. The ethereal nature of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” that made me feel like I was floating. Ringo’s everyman quality that makes “With a Little Help from My Friends” so appealing. The animal noises on “Good Morning Good Morning,” the carnival atmosphere of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” …
EVERYTHING about the album engaged me. Every song sparked an emotional response and plucked something inside me, whether it was mental imagery that played alongside the music or awoke considerations I’d never pondered. Hearing the crashing chord at the end of “A Day in the Life” filled me with a sense of crushing finality, almost apocalyptic foreboding before I could even contextualize that kind of feeling.
And “Within You Without You” flat-out scared me when I was a kid. The different percussion, the droning qualities, the picked notes that sounded so foreign and otherwordly. I’d never heard sounds like that, and they seemed an odd mix of natural and alien.
As I aged and developed more ability to digest and consider music, I kept coming back to “Sgt. Pepper.” It was an album that could hold my interest no matter my mood, no matter the circumstances. “Cellophane flowers of yellow and green” seemed as vivid as ever. “I’m painting my room in a colorful way / and when my mind is wandering, there I will go.” I perceived that as something beyond the literal, and it gave me a lot to ponder about mindsets and creating your own mental landscapes.
“Sgt. Pepper” helped me understand that music didn’t just have to be THE SONGS. That music didn’t operate on only one level. The album turned me on to music as AN EXPERIENCE. Something that was perhaps intangible, but could take you to places in your thinking, in your imagination, in your feelings, in your soul that you never realized existed.
I remember my brother, my mother and I getting my father “Sgt. Pepper” on CD for his birthday back around 1988-89. It still had a sticker on it “It was 20 years ago today …” when the CD was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the album.
I remember the good times of listening to that CD everywhere. In the car, outside while tossing a frisbee around, at night before bed, all of it. It never seemed out of place. The music never lost its color.
It’s been decades since my first exposure to this music. And the material still moves me.
As I’ve grown older and experienced other music, other bands, other albums, my tastes have shifted and my appreciations have evolved. It’s fair to say that “Sgt. Pepper” isn’t my favorite album, it’s not even my favorite Beatles album, but I don’t know if there’s any music that I love more than I do the “Sgt. Pepper” record.
So when I finally give these new mixes a full airing, when I get to listen to them with headphones, when I get to experience the album with my full attention, you can bet I’ll be emotionally invested.
I’ll care about the bass and drums, sure. I’ll care about the effects. I’ll care about the panning. I’ll care about the edits. I’ll care about whether or not “it works.”
But I’ll care more about whether this remixed album moves me. If the colors flash through my mind. If my imagination soars. If my creativity is sparked. If tears come to my eyes. If laughter, hope and fear manifest, giving proof that audio magic is real.
And I am excited to dive into the vault goodies on the box set. I love hearing how music evolves. I love hearing how ideas can morph, turning songs into something very different. I love feeling like I’m a part of the creative process, watching these miracles get put to tape, becoming the finished audio gems.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” has been a soundtrack to so much of my life, and I’m eager to add new experiences to another chapter of my journey. Maybe it really is getting so much better all the time. (Hey, with the addition of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” it surely ain’t bad.)
So I can’t wait for Billy Shears and the gang to turn me on. Or to hang out with old friends Vera, Chuck and Dave. Maybe Rita will be free to take some tea with me.
Maybe these new mixes will take me right back to the little boy who studied the album cover and heard all those noises and pictured a live band, in the middle of a park, performing all these brilliant songs for an audience. Maybe the sounds will conjure the childish fantasies of The Beatles at a circus, under the big top, with orchestras behind them, as trapeze artists performed above them.