IT WAS 50 YEARS AGO TODAY: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Fifty years on – technically, 50 years and a week – Pepper’s still prospers.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

There’s no small risk involved in tampering with a classic, and the Beatles in particular. The Love spectacular by Cirque de Soleil aside, any attempt to enhance the Fabs’ original intents takes history down a rabbit hole where the producers’ vision threatens to supersede the Beatles’ intents with their own vision of how history should be represented

Naturally then, those concerns are magnified when it comes to a near perfect masterpiece like the immortal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Rated by most as the best rock album of all time, it would be hard to improve upon, at least so far as content is concerned. Still, given the limited sound capabilities that existed in 1967, that does allow for the fact that some essential upgrade in the sonics could be effected, especially if the individual assigned the task is Giles Martin, son of George and perhaps the closest participant to the original recording sessions other than Paul and Ringo themselves.

So let’s cut to the chase. Is there a discernible difference in terms of aural enhancement? The immediate answer is yes. The sound is clearer, less muddy and far punchier than before. The little nuances offer evidence enough, from the clarity of the strings and vocal fades to the rich sheen that surrounds the instruments overall. Granted, a passive listen might not bring these differences to the fore, but with a concentrated hearing it’s quite clear.

Still, that’s not the biggest bonanza, and for the hefty price tag, one wouldn’t expect that it would be. The various takes of “Strawberry Fields Forever” spotlight the song’s evolution and Lennon’s early vocals offer an intimacy that’s far removed from the darker trappings of the finished version. Other early takes of “Penny Lane,” “A Day in the Life,” the “Sgt. Pepper’s” theme, “Good Morning, Good Morning” and all the other tracks are similarly revealing, taking the listener from skeletal origins with minimal instrumentation to the final build up that results in the songs’ finished versions. (Simply listen to Paul McCartney humming and hand clapping in an early demo of “Penny Lane” to imagine what it must have been like to actually be present for the proceedings.) It makes for a remarkable revelation, far surpassing any of the bootleg versions that have popped up over the years. It is, in fact, a coup—the world’s most famous album divvied up and dissected in a most remarkable and revealing way.

There’s more to the package, however. Far more. A hardbound coffee table book provides extraordinary commentary and insights, along with reproductions of handwritten lyrics, photos, notes and essays that provide background and context. The book itself would be well worth the price of admission, but taken in tandem with the recordings and a Blu-ray of a making-of documentary that’s rarely been seen since its first appearance 25 years ago, it’s a sumptuous package to be sure, one well worthy of the Sgt. Pepper’s pedigree.

It may have been 50 years ago, but Pepper’s still prospers.

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