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Sgt Pepper at 50

Sgt Pepper at Abbey RoadThey’ve kept Studio 2 at Abbey Road looking much the way it did in 1967. The walls and movable screens are still covered with the sort of perforated acoustic pasteboard once found in record-shop listening booths. If you look up, you’ll see the window high in the wall through which George Martin looked down from the control room on “the boys”, as he always called them. Behind the cupboard doors you might even find random things to scrape or shake, as the need arises. There are scuffs and stains; like the interior of a vintage car, it has a patina.

It’s a tourist attraction now, of course; apparently you can have your wedding there, which is useful for EMI since the demand for big recording studios is no longer what it was. But there can’t be a better place in the world to listen to the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was almost entirely recorded there before being sent out into the world on June 1, 1967.

Last Monday, half a century later, about 100 people gathered in Studio 2 to listen to Giles Martin, son of George and inheritor of the mantle of sonic curator of the Beatles’ legacy, as he talked about remixing Sgt Pepper and then played the 96kHz/24bit result over a rather lavish sound system.

Some of those to whom the record always sounded pretty decent in any circumstances will inevitably harbour reservations about such a project. On the other hand, it sounded fantastic — as it was almost bound to do, given the emotional resonance of the setting. But there’s no doubt that the ministrations of Martin fils have exposed elements of the music inevitably obscured in the original mixdown from the four-track tape, and by the perfunctory way the original stereo mix was achieved at a time when only the mono version really mattered.

As often happens when you listen really closely to the Beatles, the most striking thing is what a great band they were, irrespective of all the trappings. “They really dug in,” Martin observed. “They didn’t play quietly ever.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the vicious guitars on the introduction, the wonderful swing-time bass on “With a Little Help From My Friends”, the fabulous tangle of sitars, tamburas and dilrubas on “Within You, Without You”, and the great drumming on “Lovely Rita” and the Lennon sections of “A Day in the Life” are all brought to the fore or otherwise enhanced by the subtle rebalancing of individual levels. An album so rich in incidental detail — to a degree arguably beyond the capacity of the technology then available — can certainly benefit from such restoration, if handled with care and sensitivity.

I remember being in a record shop on the morning that Sgt Pepper arrived. I’d once had a Saturday job there, so I was allowed to take the first copy out of EMI’s brown cardboard box, put it on the shop turntable, and listen while examining the lavish packaging. I found it impressive, of course, but nowhere near as engaging as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Help! or With the Beatles. I still feel that way. Giles Martin calls these sessions “the pinnacle of their collaboration — the happiest time they ever had in the studio”, and presumably he had his father’s word for that. The songs and the approach to presenting them were certainly a product of what he calls “the accelerative universe” in which they were living at the time. But, while admiring the artistry and the breadth of imagination that went into “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” or “When I’m Sixty-four”, I wouldn’t care if I never heard half Sgt Pepper‘s songs again.

“A Day in the Life” and “She’s Leaving Home” are masterpieces, of course (and it took Monday’s playback to make me realise what a great line “Leaving the note that she hoped would say more” is). As, it goes without saying, are “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, recorded at the start of the album sessions in November 1966 and included in the various formats in which the 50th anniversary edition will appear in the last week of May (full details here) — although Martin dismissed the notion that those two tracks should now be inserted into some kind of revisionist running order. That was just one of the “spiritual and technical challenges” he talked about having faced, and on this one he made the right call.

What can safely be said is that Giles Martin has done Sgt Pepper no harm. He hasn’t sprinkled some kind of artificial digital fairydust on the masters, and he hasn’t distorted the internal workings of the music. And anyone who would rather listen to a mono vinyl copy on a Dansette is still quite at liberty to do so.

29 Comments Post a comment
  1. Peter Walker #

    I also heard Sgt Peppers on the day of release. A bunch of us were sitting round at my friend John Baldwin’s house in Puller Road, Barnet. I have no recollection why we were there, just a bunch of teenagers hanging out. Around lunchtime someone arrived with the LP. We immediately put it on, sat down and listened to it. Not a word was spoken, even when side one finished and side two was started. It felt like we were listening to something very new and unique. At the conclusion of Day In The Life we just looked at each other, I don’t remember much discussion, but it’s as if we knew that pop music had changed that day.

    April 12, 2017
  2. All so very true. It’s always about the songs. I agree, apart from a couple, Sgt Pepper didn’t have the best of the Beatles.

    April 12, 2017
  3. Bill White #

    Couldn’t agree more, Richard about Sgt Pepper. Very good album but not in the same street as Revolver or, the best in my opinion, Rubber Soul. The general attitude towards Sgt Pepper, i.e. its lauding above all other recordings, seems part of the received wisdom when it comes to the Beatles alongside the nonsense that Ringo wasn’t a good drummer.

    April 12, 2017
  4. M Rosin #

    It’s too bad people are so dismissive of When I’m Sixty Four. It’s filled with great lines. The only track I don’t really care for on the whole album is Good Morning Good Morning.

    What’s great about Pepper is that — unlike Rubber Soul or Revolver — there is no other album out there that sounds and feels like Pepper. Absolutely unique.

    April 12, 2017
  5. I take the Chairman Mao on the French Revolution line with regard to Sgt Pepper, as I do with a lot of cultural matters. i.e. “It’s too early to say.” Lets see how this all plays our further on down the line. I think Sgt Pepper is saddled with far too much cultural baggage, and underneath all the pompous bullshit is a warm, life affirming, and actually quite modest little album, struggling to he heard. In my book Psychedelia & Other Colours which you kindly mentioned in your end of year review in the Guardian I locate among other things a gossipy scouse female voice in the narrative, plus a tangible element of Philip Larkin’s “and none thought of the others they would never meet and how their lives would all contain this hour.” A domestic multiverse. OK my theory hasn’t set the world alight among those who would rather hear anecdotes about Ringo’s dustman but its more plausible than all those TS Eliot Wasteland comparisons. There are layers of meaning in Pepper which won’t be unravelled by 32 bit digital or psychotropic drugs, but give it a generation or two and the small screen aspect ratio of the album might be a little more focussed. Oh boy.

    April 12, 2017
  6. Gary #

    Interesting article, I wanted so bad to love this album but I never did, like Richard says rubber soul, revolver and meet the Beatles were insanely engrossing. But being a teenager at this time in ’67 in was a phychedelic time and that’s what this album was. Not all the songs were in that theme but Lucy in the sky, With in without you, Rita was. It was the perfect album for that time.
    And remember it was recorded on a 4 track! But the most heart breaking news for me about this album was when I found out years later that strawberry fields/ penny lane were removed because of capital records needed a 45 a and b side. I thought oh my word that would have made this album their best, but fate stepped in and changed history. Then I thought if you had to remove 2 songs for straw and penny which 2 would you remove. My 2 would have been ” getting better” and sorry George you had so many better songs but “within you without you”wasn’t my fav.
    This was a McCartney album let’s be serious with some Beatles songs, when he heard johns
    ” day in the life” he talked john into adding a bridge which was his of course. It was paul’ s baby
    And I do love Paul but this was his idea and most of his songs. the other 3 went along for the ride. Even John said it was a bunch of songs what was the big deal?
    So that being said that is why I never thought it was the Beatles best, will I buy it?

    April 12, 2017
    • Lou #

      John only dismissed the album as a “bunch of songs” because he was a jealous guy, and resentful of the attention and critical respect it received. This was ego at work. John also changed his mind like he changed the TV channel. He’s not a reliable judge.

      April 12, 2017
  7. Ringo is one of the best drummers i ever played/worked with…right up there with Philly Joe,
    Elvin, Billy Higgins, Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon…

    April 12, 2017
    • Buell — If you cared to elaborate on that, it would undoubtedly be of great interest and value to me and others. Best, Richard

      April 13, 2017
      • GuitarSlinger #

        Why is it I get the very distinct feeling that either a) This is not the ‘ real ‘ Buell Neidlinger .. or b) If it is this is one of his many well documented moments of sarcasm . Hmmm . To borrow the words of the bard [ Randy Newman ] ” I could be wrong now . But I don’t think so ” 😉

        April 13, 2017
      • gimme a call !

        April 17, 2017
  8. McCartney Sharpe #

    Great article but I just wanted to mention that The Beatles also recorded in studio 3 for much of the sessions as well. Also I believe they used studio 1 for the orchestra on ‘A Day in the Life’ as well as another studio entirely for the first ‘Fixing a Hole’ session. Looking forward to hearing the new mix!

    April 13, 2017
    • Regent Sound Studios in Denmark Street was the location of the “Fixing a Hole” session.

      April 13, 2017
  9. wayne hill #

    All these negative comments. My question to those people……..
    Where’s your album. And has it lasted 50 yrs?………didn’t think so.

    April 13, 2017

    Sir George Martin’s work is what sets Sgt Pepper apart.

    April 13, 2017
    • Much truth in that.

      April 13, 2017
      • GuitarSlinger #

        More then most people including the surviving Beatles are willing to admit to . Unfortunately . Suffice it to say without George Martin there would of been no Beatles .

        April 13, 2017
    • M Rosin #

      I think the number of people who over-rate George Martin’s role in the Beatles is about the same as the number of people who under-rate his role. Martin didn’t write the songs, sing the songs, or play the songs (with a few exceptions on piano parts). Yes he was essential — in part for some arrangements but mostly because he let the Beatles be the Beatles.

      In short, without the Beatles, would George Martin be known outside of small recording circles in the UK? No. Did George Martin ever produce a band that was anywhere near the critical, cultural, and commercial juggernaut that was the Beatles? No. Was George Martin essential to the Beatles’ music? Yes. But so were the 4 Beatles.
      P.S. McCartney is routinely generous in praising George Martin’s role in the band.

      April 13, 2017
      • I’ve wrestled long and hard with the whole ‘role of Martin’ issue too. Re, not working with anyone else at a success rate comparable to the Beatles, at the risk of sounding bland maybe he put all his eggs in one basket and was then content to coast after that. I mean, after all where do you go after the Beatles? Even the Beatles found that hard enough at times. One thing that is glaring though, and adds to the case for the prosecution, is that when you listen to those GM orchestra ‘easy listening’ arrangements he did of Whiter Shade of Pale, Hole In My Shoe. Itchykoo Park etc, even Walrus, they are pure hack work. And not a patch on Mike Leander’s work in similar MOR territory. Great embellisher but erratic even at his peak? My jury is still out.

        April 14, 2017

        It’s not difficult to establish what happened in Sir George Martin’s absence – Let It Be.

        April 14, 2017
      • Chris Michie #

        I’d like to weigh in on the George Martin thread but have no idea where this comment will appear. I think that the question of whether his other arranging work and film scores are merely hack work is irrelevant — they were made for a different audience and/or effect. His work on Eleanor Rigby, A Day in the Life, and …Mr Kite, to take just three examples, is innovative, sympathetic, and highly effective. The vocal double-tracking and percussion and occasional piano overdubs on the Hard Days Night album are uniformly brilliant, subtly enhancing an otherwise fairly basic sound (though applied to the best collection of songs they ever came up with, IMHO). The use of the Moog synthesizer on Abbey Road is subtle to the point of occasional indetectabilty (contrast this with ELP’s Lucky Man and other contemporaneous synthesizer appearances).

        Martin was a compleat producer. He played, he wrote, he arranged, he picked songs, and was able to draw great performances from often indifferent or erratic talents. He was authoratative without being dictatorial, and went to almost any lengths to meet his and the artists’ objectives: the impossible edit on Strawberry Fields is one example, the live recordings of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Live and Let Die soundtracks are others.

        It also appears he was successful in business. The AIR partnership built the premier studio complex in central London in 1971, one of the world’s most celebrated island studios in Monserrat in the ’80s, and the still successful Lyndhurst in the ’90s (I think). He championed quality and was in some part responsible for the early success of Neve and Dolby. Engineers and producers who worked with him have had successful careers of their own and I’m sure that Chris Thomas, Bill Price, Geoff Emerick, Peter Henderson, and many others would attest that they learned a lot from him.

        Maybe he wasn’t the best record producer ever. Maybe another producer could have achieved as much with the obviously talented Beatles. But who? Norrie Paramor? Richard Perry? Burt Bacharach? Jeff Wayne? Ron Richards (who actually produced some early sessions)? I think not.

        I really don’t think that the claim that George Martin was not really central to the success of The Beatles is valid. But I’m open to other suggestions.

        May 1, 2017
      • wayne hill #

        Chris, you nailed it perfectly.

        May 1, 2017
  11. I too listened to Sgt. Pepper’s album on June 1, 1967. One of my friends – a hippy-wannabe – asked me and another friend to listen to the album in its entirety at her house. This was my first time to see her bedroom, and boy was I shocked. She had painted all of the windows black and had a huge assortment of strobe lights to add to the psychedelic atmosphere. Needless to say, I was totally blown away by the album. As the lost, long, and mournful note sounded on “A Day in the Life,” I realized that the Beatles had transitioned into a more complex musical level. I would always love those uncomplicated tunes of their early years, but Sgt. Pepper’s is still my favorite album. And by the way, I think they did pass the audition.

    April 13, 2017
  12. Jonh Ingham #

    The important question: Did they “fix” the piano stool squeak on the fadeout of ‘Day In The Life’? One of the recent “remix” or “remaster” versions did. Sacrilege!

    April 13, 2017
  13. J M Jack #

    Good day Richard your latest “moment” kindles some of mine . My initiation into the Abbey Road sanctum came a few years prior to the “Scoucer scruffs ” when maestro Martin had the perception to participate in the recording of several sides by the Wally Whyton and the Vipers that soon surged up the sales charts in the mid-fifties. A few years later I spent three days peering down from the same control room ,often in complete amazement as Ornette wrestled with the ,often completely bemused, members of one of the alleged great symphony orchestras and his score for “Skies of America “. In one part the trumpet line ,after numerous attempts had to be shared out to each player and recorded bar at a time as none could handle what ” Jazzers” such as Henry Lowther and Kenny Wheeler would almost certainly done it in one take ; likewise trying to explain a simple rhythmic pattern to the ‘drummer’ became an amazing tribute to Ornette’s patience , luckily most of the gentlemen of the orchestra reduced the embarrassment factor by burying themselves in their “traditional second instrument” on sessions the daily newspaper !. ‘Oh hay hoe ‘ , funny old world who’s paths I have tottered along John

    April 13, 2017
  14. Interesting! 1967 was a crucial year for me too, and I have a photo with Sir George Martin when I was working with him and Sir Paul McCartney, years later. My ‘Beatles Connexion’ sung by London Voices is part of the Gala Concert at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday 6 June in the presence of Dame Cleo Laine too! Richard – Hoping to contact you about new CD ‘Daryl Runswick – The Jazz Years’ and ‘Daryl Runswick at 70’. Any chance you could get in touch by email?

    April 14, 2017
  15. simonc1952 #

    The “96kHz/24bit” bit (sic) is – as ever and pace Neil Young – utter nonsense. It is always down to original mastering or remastering. That said I agree entirely re-Pepper. The wider cultural resonance of Pepper (I like “accelerative universe” very much) was greater than that surrounding any of those other albums but, to my mind, Revolver was by far their best album and (as George Harrison once suggested) could almost be a double abum with Rubber Soul (not quite… in Revolver they had, as ever, marched strongly forward in the intervening months).

    April 17, 2017
  16. Peter Zec #

    I think that the comments regarding George Martin’s later work are a little unfair. I would cite Jeff Beck’s ‘Blow By Blow’ as an example of his great influence on artists with whom he works. By Beck’s own admission, Martin caused him to listen to a wider range of music than hitherto and impacted his song choices.
    Not as famous, but groundbreaking in its way and a foundation for both Beck’s later work and also opening a door for many other artists to produce jazz/rock/blues fusions.

    April 19, 2017
  17. Martin #

    The albums I probably listen to most are Rubber Soul and Revolver. Rarely Pepper, but it wasn’t just the music that set Pepper apart, it was the whole artistic and cultural package that came with it. I will be in UK in late May, looking forward to the buzz about the 50 years!

    April 29, 2017

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