Review of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Super Deluxe Edition.
|It was 50 years ago today, more or less, that the Beatles' most famous and acclaimed album was released: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the cultural significance of this record, so I won't attempt to add to them. Instead, this is a review of the newest repackage of this album in its Super Deluxe Edition.
The Super Deluxe Edition (hereafter SDE) consists of six discs, one hard bound book, two posters and a cardboard sheet of cutouts; more on these later. Of the six discs, the first four are CDs, followed by one DVD and one BluRay, both of which contain identical content. Disc One is a 2017 stereo remix of the album; the remix was done by Giles Martin (Sir George's son) and Sam Okell. Discs Two and Three consist of outtakes and the remixed versions of "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever". Disc Four is a remaster of the original mono mix of the album followed by several outtakes and rare mixes, all in mono.
First, about the remix: This is the last reason why I purchased this set. I don't care for Beatles remixes in general. (Why? See my essay, "You Can't Do That" .) So I approached this remix with the same wary trepidation I give to all remixes of Beatles material. Happily, Martin and Okell got it right, for the most part. Their stated goal was to reproduce the power and intent of the mono mix in a newly rebalanced stereo mix, and on the whole, I think they did a very good job. In fact, their remix of "She's Leaving Home", which corrects the speed of the stereo to the same as that of the mono (originally it was noticeably slower), is a vast improvement. The balance of most of the songs is greatly improved, and the drums and bass are more upfront--almost too much so, at times. "Lucy In The Sky (With Diamonds)" is the best example; Ringo's drums thud in so loudly just before the chorus that it jolts me out of the dreamy atmosphere of the song. Another spot which irritates me is the first verse of an otherwise perfect "Getting Better", where an organ note is mixed loudly enough to stand out like a sore thumb and makes me wince each time I hear it. But the only real disappointment is, alas, the album's greatest track, "A Day In The Life". The orchestra, which was actually recorded on one track and then superimposed via ADT (Automated Double-Tracking) onto four separate tracks, is out of sync the first time around. The horns don't come in where they're supposed to sound. This spoils my listening experience. Also, for whatever reasons, Martin and Okell made the decision to move John's vocals into the center instead of letting them drift from side to side as in the original mix--one which John helped supervise and approve, unlike most of the songs on this album. The psychedelic feel of the original mix is sacrificed to a 21st-century audience's view on what proper stereo should sound like. That is a great pity, and I sincerely hope that for that reason, this remix never causes the original mix to be deleted from the Beatles' catalog. It would be a tragedy.
Anyway. My grade for this remix, which far surpasses any other remixes to date, gets a B+. Quite listenable most of the time, and yes, better than the original in spots, such as "She's Leaving Home", "Within You Without You", "Fixing A Hole" and "Lovely Rita".
Discs Two and Three go into greater depth of the recording process with each song, including the "Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane" single, represented by several outtakes so that listeners can hear how the songs took shape in the studio. This is what separates the hardcore fans from the casual ones. Most of the latter will be quite happy with the two-disc set (plain Deluxe rather than SDE) which includes the 2017 remix plus a second disc of the best outtakes.* For the former, highlights include the sequence for "Strawberry Fields" which shows how takes 7 and 26 were combined into the final song; the amazing initial takes of "A Day In The Life" along with the sessions for the original "humming" ending chord; the raw power of the Beatles without overdubs for "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Good Morning, Good Morning"; and George coaching the Indian musicians by singing to them with Indian note names in an arrangement rehearsal for "Within You, Without You". I'm convinced that if the Beatles had not done the extensive overdubs with outside performers, the album still would have been an eye-opener. That's how tight they were as a band.
Disc Four, the mono mix, is still perhaps the definitive version of this record. (For my explanation of the differences between it and the original stereo, see "One and One Is Two: Mono/Stereo Beatles" .) This differs from the 2009 remaster in that the "Inner Groove" experience from vinyl replicated on both discs repeats only once on this 2017 edition, where it is repeated several times and faded out on the original. (BTW, I couldn't verify this myself, but both my children and our dogs assure me that the 15,000 kHz note right after the end of "A Day In The Life" and just before the Inner Groove is still present on both the 2017 remix and this mono edition. Heh.) The bonus tracks include the original mono mixes of "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" as well as a "needle drop" of the very rare mono mix released to U.S. disc jockeys in 1967--the one with the additional trumpet riff at the end. Alas, the original mix tapes have gone missing, and so a vinyl disc was used. I don't listen to that for the sound quality, anyway, and it's still acceptable. A few alternate mono mixes showing differences from the final ones are also included.
I haven't been able to watch Disc Six since it's a BluRay and we don't own a player yet, but the identical in content DVD contains a phenomenal documentary, The Making of Sgt. Pepper, from 1992, with interviews from Paul, George, Ringo and George Martin. Lots of interesting material. The videos of "A Day In The Life", "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields" are basically identical to the ones on the 1+ Collection, as far as I can tell; they're great. Again, I don't own a 5.1 surround sound system, so I can't comment on those mixes of the album and PL/SFF single included here. I'm certain they're fantastic, for those who dig this sort of thing.
As far as the packaging: Gorgeous. The discs are placed in a folder which replicates the original vinyl album cover on the outside. I almost wondered if a mistake had been made and I'd gotten the vinyl edition instead, when I opened the box. The two posters are replicas of an ad from 1967 with a nice shot of the Beatles in their uniforms, and the poster which inspired John Lennon to pen "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!" The cardboard cutouts replicate those included in the original vinyl album. The hardbound book is 145 pages of essays, lyrics, recording session details and photographs. The essays are the least interesting; there's much pontification on What Sgt. Pepper Really Means and What It Meant In The Sixties. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But the photos and session details are awesome. One very nice touch: They put a ribbon on the bottom to fold over the top, which makes it much easier to get the book out of the box. Sweet.
All this is housed in a box which replicates the tape boxes used at EMI with recording session details written on the front, which is wrapped in an outer sleeve of the album cover. This made me smile when I first saw it, since it's a lenticular image--you know, that weird thick plastic over the image which makes it 3D and causes the faces to follow you when you tilt it--and that's the exact same way that the Rolling Stones did the cover of their Pepper imitation, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Hmm. A nod back to the Stones, perhaps? Who knows.
It's a fantastic package, and fans who can afford it--which is a whole other can of worms--will be ecstatic. I just wish they'd release a digital version for less money for those devout poorer Beatles fans. (The two-disc set is available digitally.) (UPDATE: The Super Deluxe Edition is now available digitally! But you have to look for it. Search Amazon or iTunes for “Sgt Pepper Super Deluxe Edition”. The cost is about $50, which is quite a savings. If you can’t afford that, go to Spotify and listen free (but you have to endure some ads).)
*NOTE TO COLLECTORS: The 2-disc version of the Deluxe set includes one track not available on the SDE. It's basically Take 1 of "A Day In The Life" with the final version of the humming chord grafted onto it. I don't care about it since all that material can be found elsewhere on this set, but completionists might. FYI.