Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an album about which it is, I think, impossible to talk sensibly or objectively.
For the generation for whom it was created — those a few years younger than the Beatles themselves, people in their teens and early twenties on May 26, 1967 — it was self-evidently the greatest album ever made. This is something that couldn’t even be questioned by a surprising number of people — I certainly remember when I was a child, as the twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversaries of the album’s release were massive media events, seeing multiple documentaries on TV which simply took this as an objective fact. Sgt. Pepper was The Greatest Album Ever Made was a fact in the same way that it was a fact that the battle of Hastings was in 1066.
However, it was an equally objective fact to almost everyone I know who was around my age — at least among those of us forty or younger who have engaged at all with the Beatles’ music, which is a smaller proportion than many Boomers might think — that Sgt. Pepper wasn’t actually all that great. I mean, it’s a nice album, but frankly not even the best album the Beatles released in 1967 (assuming one counts Magical Mystery Tour as an album rather than an EP and a few singles).
I think there’s a parallel here with another cultural icon, which was released one day before Pepper‘s tenth anniversary — Star Wars. People only a few years older than me, who saw that film in the cinema, were convinced (and many still are) that it was the greatest film ever made. I’ve tried watching it on several occasions, but could only *guarantee* having sat through the whole thing once, when I watched it a couple of months back. Like Sgt. Pepper it’s an enormous technical achievement, but it does very little for me.
(Pepper does more for me — I love about half the album and wouldn’t be without even the half I don’t love. But same principle.)
In both cases, I think you have to have been the right age for the work. Not when you first experience it, but when it first came out. No-one now can watch Star Wars in its cultural context, and the same goes for Sgt. Pepper — both in fact destroyed, even as they were destroyed *by*, the cultural context they were created in.
In the case of Sgt. Pepper, when it came out, when it was first heard, it was an album that signified an inescapable progression, a forward momentum, a glorious future. People were capable of *this* now. What would it be like tomorrow?! Music was progressing faster than ever, and this was the New Exciting Sound, but tomorrow would have another New Exciting Sound.
But within a few months, it became apparent that, like all exponential curves encountered in reality, the “progress” of rock music was a sigmoid curve, and rather than being a point on an upward curve headed to infinity, Sgt. Pepper was a turning point. By early 1968 the watchword was simplicity, people were “going back to our roots” and “getting our heads together in the country”. There would, of course, be progress and innovation in rock music — that didn’t really stop altogether in the mainstream until the mid-90s, and may even continue to this day in some of the niche subgenres — but the idea of a mass of artists, all headed in roughly the same direction, racing each other to be the latest people on the charts with the new sound… that idea died with the summer of 1967.
So the album became canonised, not because of its own qualities (though again, it sounds like I’m saying it’s a bad album — it’s not. It’s an album I like a lot) but as a symbol of The Lost Time When Things Were Getting Better.
But being canonised as a never-to-be-bettered artifact of a mythical Golden Age is, of course, exactly the opposite of those things Sgt. Pepper stood for at the time. And now it’s been reissued in three different versions for the fiftieth anniversary (a single CD, a double CD, and a six-disc box set) it’s all too easy for those of my generation to see in it all the *worst* aspects of the generation it defined. Fetishism of the military, Empire nostalgia, an obsession with the past, appropriation of non-European cultures, casual sexism… they’re all here, present and accounted for. There’s been a fashion in the last twenty years or so to dismiss it as worthless (something I’ve been guilty of myself in younger, more reactionary, days).
But yet, that’s no more an objective judgment of the album than the one that says “Greatest EVAR!!!”, is it? It’s all cultural context stuff, too, and from a context that will, right now, only see the worst in the boomer generation that loved this album, because right now most of the social and political problems we’re going through are caused by them growing old resentfully.
The new reissue gives as good an opportunity as possible to judge the album *as an album* as we’re going to get. It’s now being presented in a new remix by Giles Martin (and I wonder if the 1967 stereo mix is now being deleted altogether, like the original Star Wars?). I’ve bought the two-disc version (I don’t have the money for the six-disc version, though if anyone wanted to spend a hundred and ten quid buying me a copy I’d gladly review it…), and it’s definitely worth doing.
The two-disc version contains the full album, along with outtake versions of every song on the album, and of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, both of which are also presented in new stereo remixes.
The remix is a genuine, subtle, improvement, at least over the original stereo mix. The 1967 stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper was, frankly, a mess. It had a song at the wrong speed, it had songs where the mix had all the instruments in one channel and all the vocals in the other… it was generally sloppy, as most mid-sixties stereo mixes were.
So Giles Martin has gone for a stereo mix which replicates the original mono mix in terms of instrument balance, but which has a modern stereo spectrum. He’s also gone back to the original multitracks before they were bounced down, so the sound quality is several generations better. It’s possible to hear details I’ve never heard before — for example in “Fixing A Hole” it’s possible to make out a tiny fluffed guitar note right at the end of the fade. But it’s *also* possible to tell that the harpsichord on the same track is doubled, thanks to the stereo separation.
This can be a double-edged sword — for example, listening with headphones to “Getting Better”, the tamboura pops out and resonates in a way it simply doesn’t on earlier versions. But at the same time, it’s also easier to notice the change in ambience when it drops out again. Listening to it in this way draws attention to the music as a made thing, as a result of technologies and choices, as an artifact, rather than as a whole thing in itself as the slightly muddier-sounding mono mix invites.
(Though again, this may be at least in part because I’m listening to it in those terms in the first place because of the presentation).
I don’t think this will ever become my preferred listening experience for Sgt. Pepper — that will remain the 2009 reissue of the original mono mix — but it’s a good, interesting, one. Some may, of course, regard it as blasphemous to have the album available in a new mix, but given that the band and George Martin’s *intended* mix has been unavailable for most of the last fifty years (except, latterly, as part of an expensive CD box set of all the mono albums) to my mind it’s better to have a good unintended mix out there than a bad one.
The outtakes are less interesting. George Harrison often spoke of how the recording process for Sgt. Pepper wasn’t very organic, and didn’t allow for experimentation by the band, as opposed to the relevant songwriter. “A lot of the time it ended up with just Paul playing the piano and Ringo keeping the tempo, and we weren’t allowed to play as a band as much.”
That’s borne out by the outtakes here. Other than the two full versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” which were spliced together to form the final single version (one of which was already available on Anthology 2 anyway) this is mostly just sparse recordings of backing tracks without the overdubs, sometimes with guide vocals. It’s fun enough to hear, but there are none of the revelatory outtakes here that one gets in something like the similar reissues of Kind of Blue or Pet Sounds — when arrangements stop being worked out by a live band, full alternate versions don’t exist in the same way.
This fiftieth anniversary set (in whatever form) likely marks the last moment that Sgt. Pepper has any real cultural currency. By the time it’s sixty-four, the majority of the generation who canonised it will, sadly, have died out. I suspect — though I can’t know — that the Beatles will remain listened to for as long as any recorded sound is, though in the same way we now listen to Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke. And I think that in fifty years’ time, their legacy will look very different. It seems likely that Revolver or Rubber Soul will be viewed as their true masterwork, though I wouldn’t bet against Please Please Me, the White Album, or Abbey Road either. I think the further we get from 1967, the more Pepper will fade.
But it’ll never fade away completely. This is still the album with “A Day in the Life”, with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, with “She’s Leaving Home”. As long as any music from the last century is listened to, people will still be discovering and loving those.
It’s been going in and out of style, but it’s guaranteed to raise a smile.
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