Monday, September 17, 2018
The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
The Purple Chick volume dedicated to Sgt. Pepper is the most extensive yet, chronologically, with five full discs dedicated to the album and supplemental content; but it's also arguably -- in 2018 -- the most superfluous, since Pepper is the only Beatles album so far to get a deluxe treatment officially, as of the record's fiftieth anniversary last year. And with that said, genuine Beatles outtakes from 1967 are already thin on the ground because of the changes in the Beatles' working methods. Still, not everything saw an official release in 2017, so from an archival perspective it's still nice to have this material all gathered in one place. In this entry I will do my best to lay out what is still unique to the bootlegs, and what you can hear more clearly on the official boxed set.
There aren't many sources of bickering more iconic in Beatles fandom than the discussion of which classic mix of Sgt. Pepper one prefers: the band-sanctioned mono mix or the somewhat slicker stereo version? There's plenty to be said for each of them, truthfully. I like how much rawer and more immediate the album sounds in mono, but some of its effects lose a bit of their punch without multiple channels to play with; the more robust rock songs, like "Getting Better" and "Fixing a Hole" and the title cut, sound fuller and healthier in mono, but then again, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" -- a song I never fully "got" outside of its reconfigured context in Yellow Submarine -- acquires more spacey magic than it ever demonstrated in the form I grew up with. Speaking of that, for those of us reared on the CD masters, the mono is notable for providing a new way to hear music we otherwise know back to front. I wouldn't go so far as to say I strongly prefer either mix; I lean toward stereo, but I'm glad to have both. The same goes for the attendant single, "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane"; both songs sound terrific in mono and stereo, but mono is more accurate in the sense that those are the mixes that became hits at the time.
Among other genuine remixes from the master tapes, we're provided the relevant songs from the 1999 remaster of the Yellow Submarine film, this and that from the Anthology videos, and several available mix variations for "Only a Nothern Song" (none of which make it good), plus a couple of complete variants on "A Day in the Life" providing us with the unedited acoustic guitar intro. The mono disc adds the U.S. promo of "Penny Lane" that adds the closing trumpet solo, a touch (first widely available on the American Rarities album) that I always liked, though others feel it makes the track a bit too cute. Speaking of cute, there's inexplicably a version of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" made apparently for Yellow Submarine and then discarded, with alternate lyrics sung by actor Dick Emery as Jeremy Hillary Boob in the film. Its deletion was probably wise.
Moving on the outtakes, Purple Chick divides them into an outtakes disc for the single, an outtakes disc for the album, and a disc of monitor mixes and other fragments. Most everything on that last disc is only for the most obsessive of obsessives, like the painstakingly extensive documentation of every attempt at a stereo mix for "A Day in the Life" and some out-of-context extracts of George Martin fiddling with the knobs for a TV documentary.
PC covers the entirety of the evolution of "Strawberry Fields Forever," a complex and brilliant record constructed -- though it wasn't really planned as such -- in increments. Unlike the official Pepper box, PC has all of the known takes, including false starts, and like the released version, it restores the beautiful backing vocal overdub to the eerily beautiful take 1, which had been strangely excluded from the same track's appearance on Anthology 2. The slow, lethargic take 4 is the next complete take, and take 6 is a PC exclusive, but it's really just the more widely available take 7 without a few overdubs. PC also separates the drum track used to make the coda and edit piece at the end of the single, and dissects the "fast" version a bit more completely. That same "fast" version -- take 26, in the final analysis -- is an absolute wonder, and was my favorite unreleased Beatles track until it found its way out to the public in 2017. It's amazingly kinetic and now stands as, along with "It's All Too Much" and "Tomorrow Never Knows," the truest piece of psychedelic rock the Beatles recorded. The PC cuts frequently have additional count-in or studio chatter, but for the most part you can now get the essential parts of the "Strawberry Fields" sessions from the 50th Anniversary release.
The creation of "Penny Lane" was a bit more conventional. PC duplicates Anthology 2's offering of take 9 with a different horn section and also has fourteen minutes of the overdub session for said horns, plus yet another alternate mono mix (RM8) with different supplemental instrumentation overdubbed; this did not make it to any official release. "A Day in the Life," the first album track undertaken, is enhanced on the official Apple release -- PC's versions of takes one and two are shorter, though PC adds take 4, a false start, and an early mono mixdown plus an isolated piece of the closing piano chord. Take 9 of the song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is the same as the released version except with no overdubs and a longer, awkward ending; this ended up being used on the 2017 discs as well. Neither this song nor "Good Morning, Good Morning" offers us anything here that the official discs don't have. And so it goes for the rest of the outtakes, with PC really just consolidating what was made available on Anthology 2, periodically adding some isolated bits of chatter, sound effects or other ephemera.
The monitor mixes dip into a lot of very minor variants that, again, won't be of interest to most listeners except those who want to research a day in the life of George Martin at the board in the studio. So ultimately, the only thing you're gaining by seeking out the bootlegs of Pepper material is the chance to hear an even more extensive rundown of all of the many speed and performance variations "Strawberry Fields Forever" went through on its way to the final release, and even that distinction is now dubious. But this isn't PC's fault; there just wasn't very much significant material recorded at these sessions that was radically different from the actual releases. And what did exist was mined quite adequately in 2017.
One interesting exception is that, sometime in the late 2000s, several four-track masters of songs from the Pepper album leaked out, which gave the opportunity for straight transfers of the individual multitracks. These are quite fascinating, and not likely candidates for official release, and they will be examined separately on our page of bootleg capsules.