2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the seminal album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ by ‘The Beatles’. Oliver Cobbin reviews the Giles Martin remix.
Now, if you’re an avid reader, you may be wondering where this review of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ has suddenly sprung from and ask, ‘Oi Cobbin, why are you digging up this old relic instead of reviewing the latest crop of underground artists?’. Well, Mr/Mrs. inquisitive, seeing as it’s the 50th anniversary of one of the most widely celebrated albums in history, made by one of my all-time favourite bands, I thought ‘how could I not offer up my views on the piece?’. This article doesn’t intend to be a history lesson and I aim to analyse the Giles Martin remix, rather than just wax lyrical about the original 1967 release, of which we all know so much about already – well, a lot of us do. I listened to the new mix of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ all the way through once (bar a quick stop for a glass of water, it has been hot you know!), before replaying it to dissect each individual track. It’s long been one of my favourite albums, of which I own three different copies on vinyl, CD and the 2009 remaster, but I haven’t listened to the full album in over six months. I thought it was best not to listen to the original album before hearing this remixed version, as I wanted to approach it with a fresh pair of ears. If you’ve never treated yourself to the aural experience of this ground-breaking album, I suggest you do-so and then return to this article – the more readership the better! It’s less mop-tops and more mind-alteration…just to get all hippie on you.
Starting with that famous introduction of crowd ambience and orchestral tunings is ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. The first noticeable difference in Giles Martin’s remix is the crispness of McCartney’s basslines and the added crunch that has been applied to Lennon and Harrison’s guitars. The vocal harmonies are clearer and it’s easier to distinguish each of the three singers. These are subtle changes and only the most ardent of Beatles fans would notice the differences. The title track segues perfectly, as it always did, into the best Ringo number there ever was, ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’. Once again the main difference is the increased clarity of the bassline, which adds a bouncy nature to the song. Ringo’s ‘every-man’ voice sits perfectly in the middle of the mix and is soon joined by the chirpy rhythm guitar, which again has been made clearer in the mix by the extended stereo spectrum. The song is definitely Starr’s best vocal performance in their career and this remix has treated his voice well. One slightly sloppy addition is the drum fill, which has been turned up and given extra ‘boom’ by a healthy dash of reverb. It sounds good, until it hastily transitions back into the verse, which is too sudden and seems like an oversight on Martin’s part. The rest of the song is just as jaunty as it ever was and once again, the harmonies still ring clear in the hard left and right of the listener’s ear. Next up is a personal favourite of mine and the song that epitomises the psychedelic nature of the album, ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’. An auto-panning effect has been added to that famous intro riff, giving the song a ‘swirly’ nature very much aligned with the often-denied hallucinogenic subject matter. I compared this mix with the 2009 remaster, which seems so dull and muddy by comparison to this new mix, which is a lot more vibrant and sounds richer. Lennon’s vocal is doused with reverb and subtle phasing, much to the song’s benefit, and McCartney’s chorus harmonies blend a lot better. Hats off to Roy Harper Giles Martin for this one.
‘Getting Better’ follows on much the same; the harmonies are more prominent and present a new texture not heard in the past mixes. The overlaps are wonderful and showcases their skill as arrangers. George Harrison’s tamboura drones on, as does that insistent ‘G’ note on the piano. Yes, this is another impressive treatment and has promoted the song from being one of the lesser-cuts, to a worthy highlight. ‘Fixing a Hole’ has always been a song that sounds like it should be psychedelic, but always fell a little short on the original album. It certainly seems that it was the ‘McCartney show’ in those days, which is no bad thing, and this new mix seems to achieve the original intention of the composer; to write a dreamy song with just enough ambiguity to not arouse drug-based suspicions. The harpsichord may have been an instrument associated with the Baroque-era of music, but here it’s given a new context and adds to the ‘woozy’ feel of McCartney’s composition. Harrison’s lead guitar is given a bit more distinction in the mix and serves as a good counterpart to McCartney’s bouncy basslines, which seem to colour ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ – I’m getting flashbacks of my dissertation. Now, although I was aware that the sixth number ‘She’s Leaving Home’ was in a different key on the original mono mix, I was still surprised to hear it on this 2017 remix. Having never listened to the mono version of the album (as I’m neither 60, part deaf, nor rich enough to fork out the money for an original pressing), the song sounded really weird as I’d been so familiar with my stereo version, which is half a key lower. Semitones aside, this new mix doesn’t sound all that different from the original mix and instead just adds a bit of clarity to McCartney’s keening vocal. I’ve always thought ‘She’s Leaving Home’ was the song that best achieved ‘The Beatles’’ desire to out-do the baroque pop stylings of ‘Pet Sounds’ by ‘The Beach Boys’.
‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’ is Lennon’s vaudevillian romp, which works as a great centre-piece for such a colourful album. The remix does little to get in the way of this tale of a circus master and his subjects, which has such a creepy melody, and instead only reinforces the original’s plus points. The organ-centric piece is just as sneering as it probably was in 1967 and Lennon’s scornful vocals sit nicely in the mix. Despite being a purposefully over-layered piece of music, each instrument is distinguishable in that famous waltz section. ¾? Nah, 4 out of 4! Following on is probably the most divisive song on the album, ‘Within You Without You’. Often derided for being five boring minutes of self-indulgence, this sole George Harrison offering is the culmination of his Indian-music studies. I myself didn’t care for it the first time I listened, but it’s since become one of favourite songs on the album – I do prefer ‘Love You To’ from ‘Revolver’, but that’s a different matter. The tabla still booms away the left ear, whilst Harrison’s sitar and tambura buzz on in the middle. His vocal is as understated as it ever was and is complemented nicely by George Martin’s string arrangement. You’d get slaughtered these days for having these other-worldly musings, but in 1967 ‘Within You Without You’ represented the mysticism that popular music was incorporating. No more ‘Moon’ and ‘June’, now it was all about ‘walls of illusion’ and ‘peace of mind’. This may the song on the album that I can hear the least differences in, bar the weird decision to boost the laughter at the end – no longer being just ‘light’ relief. On the other side of the coin is ‘When I’m Sixty Four’, a song that would have seemed dated in 1967, let alone today. For all its tweeness though, it’s still a well-written song that brings the listener back down to more earthly dealings after the existentialisms of the previous offering. The remix retains the cheerfulness of the original and highlights a few components that may have been lost on the 1967 version. One of these being the rhythm guitar part, played by John Lennon, which has a slight folk-leaning in an otherwise music hall number. McCartney would become a repeat offender in the crime of making ‘granny music’ as Lennon put it, and whilst ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ can seem a bit too quaint to appear on such an innovative album, it’s nowhere near the worst song he’d ever commit to tape.
Starting off the last part of the album is ‘Lovely Rita’. The acoustic guitar intro has been boosted and compressed, making it sound a lot more metallic and folky, like a resonator almost. In comparison to the 2009 remaster, this mix sounds so much better. The stereo space has been utilised a lot more wisely, meaning that the blend of instruments is greatly improved rather than sounding all very separate. Once again the vocal harmonies enter on both sides of the spectrum and McCartney’s bass bubbles along nicely in the centre. That crow from the famous cock (no, not John Lennon) signals the start of ‘Good Morning Good Morning’. With its unusual time signatures and frequent changes, the song incorporates heavy brass instrumentation into Lennon’s corn flakes-inspired piece. The original doesn’t sound anywhere as insistent as this new mix and the filter used on Lennon’s voice only adds to his cynical vocal take. The rapid bass fills and drum rolls have been made punchier, with McCartney’s flamboyant guitar solo stinging even more than it did in 1967.
The reprise of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ sees Ringo kick things off with a ‘four on the floor’ beat, which sounds crisper on this remix. The blend of the harmonies is better too and the dual electric guitar are crunchier than Lennon’s cornflakes. The song has never been a major point of the LP and acts as more of an interlude before the momentous and well revered closer, ‘A Day in the Life’. Giles Martin had his work cut out for him here, as this is the big climactic finish to what is probably the most famous album in the world. Lennon’s verse vocals have been pushed to front and the slap-back echo is a lot more prominent. The piano, which provides much of the melancholy, glides along nicely on the left side whilst Ringo’s drum fills make themselves known on the right. The falsetto break floats around with some auto-panning, adding some extra doses of haziness to this already psychedelic cut. As the gradually rising orchestra enters, Mal Evans is more audible than usual with his monotonous counting. This 2017 mix brings the string parts to life, which sound more dissonant and discomforting than they ever have. McCartney and his jauntiness is never far behind Lennon’s bitterness and his section still bounces along nicely. His plodding bassline groove along in this section and his spacey vocalisations make for a nice transition between the two parts. In fact, Harrison is the only Beatle not to make his mark on this track, playing fourth fiddle (or should that be guitar?) to John, Paul and even Ringo. The second orchestral crescendo enters and as any Beatles fan knows, this marks the start of the cacophonous end. It rises and rises before Giles Martin puts even more oomph into that crashing ‘E major’, signalling the comedown. The ominous aftermath seems to go on for even longer on this mix, before that horrible tone enters (made to be only audible for dogs) and that gibberish loop…loops.
Giles Martin had a daunting task ahead of him, editing history. I would have been more nervous for the release if it hadn’t have been put in the hands of the son of one of the greatest producers of all time. George Martin may have helped make one of the greatest albums of the 20th century, but it’s Martin the younger who brings the album into the 21st century. He’s managed to strike that thin line between retaining the warmth and familiarity of the original album, whilst breathing enough new life into it, resulting in a fresh and exciting listening experience. I was sceptical as to whether this new mix would replace my 2009 remaster, but after several listens I’m certain that it will. Here’s to hoping that any future Beatles releases will be treated as well as ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ has been.
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