Music Review: The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Super Deluxe Edition)

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Magnificent. That's the adjective that came to mind after delving into the 50th anniversary Super Deluxe boxed set of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first CD issuance of the 1967 landmark commemorated its 20th anniversary ("It was 20 years ago today," indeed). That disc was part of the much-ballyhooed 1987 roll-out of the band's catalog on what was then a cutting edge format (and still remains a great one, despite its free-falling popularity). Unlike the other albums on those original CDs, that first Sgt. Pepper included an expanded liner notes booklet (and the longbox—remember those??—reproduced the original vinyl's cardboard cutout figure!). Not exactly a special edition, but it was as special as that first wave got. It would take a staggering 22 years for Apple/Capitol to remastered the stereo version and (finally) issue the mono mix on CD.

Now, at long last, we have the first-ever standalone, truly special edition of a Beatles album. While it is available in single-disc and double-disc configurations, the boxed set is the one that'll produce the greatest sense of euphoria for Beatlemaniacs. While pricey, the big box offers the most comprehensive version of this album we're likely to ever see. Inside the slipcase (which features a snazzy lenticular image of album cover) is a sturdy replica of an EMI tape box. Within that, the six discs (four CDs, one DVD, one Blu-ray), each in a cardboard sleeve, are housed in an LP-sized gatefold replica Pepper album. There's a pair of posters (one is the circus ad that inspired "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite") and a replica of the cardboard cutout (now you can finally get rid of that old longbox). But the meat of the printed supplements is the 144-page hardcover book detailing nearly every imaginable aspect of the album's creation.

The album itself remains the centerpiece, with a brand-new stereo remix (the first commissioned for an entire original Beatles album) on disc one and the original mono mix on disc four. A few bonus tracks adorn the latter, including the original mono mixes of "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" (two songs recorded early in the Pepper process, but designated as the two sides of a 45), the U.S. promo single mix of "Penny Lane," and previously unreleased early mono mixes of three Pepper cuts.

So about that stereo remix, produced by Giles Martin (son of the late Sir George) and Abbey Road Studios engineer Sam Okell... Is tampering with the original sacrilege? Let's be clear: the original stereo mix is not part of this set. A continuing point of confusion is the difference between the Beatles' mono and stereo mixes. Many consumers remain unaware that the mono version of Pepper is not simply a fold-down of the stereo. It's a completely unique, independent mix—and the one labored over by The Beatles themselves, working with producer George Martin. The stereo mix was done by Martin on his own, regarded almost as an afterthought. The differences between the two range from subtle to quite drastic (compare the slightly slowed-down "She's Leaving Home" to its mono original—same take—which ran at the correct tape speed). Giles Martin has stated that he and Okell deferred to the mono mix while remixing the new stereo master, because that's the version that best represents the band's own vision.

Having heard (and been impressed by) Martin and Okell's tasteful remixes of the 1 compilation reissue from 2015, I wasn't too concerned we'd be hearing anything too radically "improved" (see the 1999 Yellow Submarine Songtrack for a more drastic, less successful remix). I feel they knocked it outta the park on Pepper. From opening guitars'n'drums of the title track to the final crashing chord of "A Day In the Life," this new mix of Pepper leaps from the speakers and fills the room. But you won't hear that slower-tape speed version of "She's Leaving Home." Martin chose to remix the higher-pitched original that previously only appeared on the mono. If you didn't get the pricey Beatles In Mono boxed set (and don't have the mono vinyl), you might not be familiar with this shorter (by about ten seconds, due to the different tape speed) version. The original mono and stereo versions used the same take, but for some reason it ran slower on the stereo. It's arresting when you hear it for the first time.

Between discs two and three, there are 33 tracks made up of alternate takes and mixes, many of which did not appear on Anthology 2 (which actually has a few tracks from the Pepper sessions not included on this 50th anniversary box). Your mileage will vary based in part on your own personal level of Beatlemania. Those of us who want it all (hand raised here!) will find the studio chatter and incidental moments (track 11 on disc three is "George Coaching the Musicians" for "Within You Without You," track 13 on disc two contains four ill-fated attempts at humming the final chord of "A Day In the Life," followed by track 14 in which they're heard recording the final piano chord that was eventually used).

But the previously unreleased stuff isn't made up entirely of minutiae. The positively slamming first take of the title track is a jolt of energy (it's sans vocals, but that allows you to hear how hard they're grooving). The instrumental take six of "Penny Lane" presents a chance to study that song's multilayered piano parts. A clarinet-free "When I'm 64" offers Paul McCartney's vocal in its original key (unlike that original stereo "She's Leaving Home" this one was varispeeded on purpose). Though the "Strawberry Fields" 'demo sequence' from Anthology is not here, this new set features the first official release of the oft-bootlegged horn-driven remake of the song. Recorded in different keys and tempi, the band-only version and the horn-scored version were famously combined for the final master. Anthology inexplicably omitted that remake, which makes makes this five-track sequence the most complete tracing of the song's evolution.

The DVD and Blu-ray contain nearly identical content (BD audio is lossless). The primary video element is the 49-minute The Making of Sgt. Pepper, originally produced in 1992 for television broadcast but making its home video debut here. Though not a definitive look at the album's creation (there are no archival recollections from John Lennon, though there are contemporaneous interviews with McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr; the doc goes kinda/sorta song-by-song but weirdly leaves out "Getting Better," "She's Leaving Home," and "Fixing a Hole"). Still, this is a neat piece highlighted by Martin's multi-track studio demonstrations that allow brief glimpses at isolated tracks. The other video pieces are the promo clips (i.e. early music videos) for "A Day In the Life," "Strawberry Fields," and "Penny Lane."

The audio-only content includes 5.1 mixes of the entire album, presented on the Blu-ray in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. Uncompressed 2.0 stereo is an option as well. Having not previously listened to many of albums in 5.1 surround form, I'm at a loss for truly evaluating the quality of the presentation. They sounded good to me (without a huge difference between DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD when toggling back-and-forth), but my system is optimized for movie-watching (maybe that's why the bass level seemed overly aggressive; I didn't want to get into tweaking channel levels).

Awesome package overall, totally essential for Beatles nuts. The caveat is the revisionism of the stereo remix. I completely understand anyone who finds it unacceptable that the original stereo mix is not included. I'm not sure whether another remaster of the original stereo would prove revelatory so soon (relatively speaking) after the 2009 remaster (which is still available). But yes, it would've been even more comprehensive. I like the new mix and hope to hear more from the Martin/Okell team (ALL the Beatles' album deserve similar Super Deluxe treatment). To my ears they were absolutely respectful in their stereo-ization of the mono mix.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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