Friday, July 5, 2019
The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band- 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe (1967)
Things got quiet at Apple after the 2013 copyright extension release Bootleg Recordings 1963; in contrast to the busy catalog excavations of other '60s artists, each year passed with no sign of any new glimpses into the Beatles' recorded but unheard legacy. Things got remixed and reissued, at times generously, but there was no invitation into the depths of the vaults with new material, booted or otherwise. Finally, in 2017, came a milestone that not even the most tight-lipped quality control stalwart enterprise in rock & roll could ignore: the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles' quintessential album, Summer of Love totem and onetime conventional-wisdom masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Rumors about elaborate deluxe repackagings of the record had come and gone many times over the years, especially in the wake of the Beach Boys' game-changing boxed set The Pet Sounds Sessions, which proved the marketability and scholarly value of such investigations into the mechanics of a classic pop record. But the Beatles and their staff always tended to keep the reins tight on this sort of stuff -- every band member or widow wields veto power, which is why at this writing you haven't seen a reissue of the film Let It Be in almost forty years -- so it was another two decades before something actually happened.
To their credit, they did it right when the time came, and while there was no way that the Beatles' working methods (at least in this period) and relatively primitive recording techniques would ever have allowed for something as intricate and revelatory as The Pet Sounds Sessions, this first full-on deep dive into the pieces, parts, mechanics of a canon Beatles LP serves as a model for future releases of its kind. There were budget CD and lavish vinyl versions of the release, but the most complete edition was a four-disc collector's set formatted in a manner evocative of old bootlegs: two discs containing mixes of complete tracks, and two discs of session material. That last element made this the largest collection of "new" (meaning: not previously booted) Beatles material since the Anthology series. Unfortunately, this distinction is rather deceptive, as you learn once you sit and listen to the session CDs, but we'll come to that in a moment.
God knows why, since previously unheard Beatles session music seems like it should be considered a much bigger deal by any stretch, but much of the fanfare around this release centered on Giles Martin's new remix of the album and its associated single ("Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane"), meant to bring the urgency of the mono version -- the band and George Martin's preferred mix -- into the realm of stereo and surround sound, and to subtly update the sound of these songs, giving them a hopefully more robust, "modern" feel. The results are tasteful and mostly well-done, and objectively may even be superior to the original 1967 stereo mix, though sentimentality toward the version most of us grew up with will prevent it from overtaking the old stereo album's place in the canon in the minds of most longtime fans. (Pointedly, the boxed set does not include the original stereo mix at all but does make room on disc four for the original mono releases of the album and both sides of the single; it sounds fine here as usual, with the new remaster placing a lot of emphasis on Paul's meticulously crafted bass parts.)
Still, there's no way to deny that the care taken here and the dynamics, clarity and stunning level of detail give the new mix a nicely rich, full quality that points up some general weaknesses of most of the Beatles' original stereo albums. Martin may be a bit too slavishly devoted to the decisions made in the old mono mix at times -- the presentation of "She's Leaving Home" in its faster speed being the best example -- but he rarely seems to arrive at a certain sound just to be different, or to trip up those who know the record well. His only noticeably bad choice is the dried-out intro to "Lovely Rita"; otherwise the mix stands up just as well as the 1967 versions, but don't tell that to certain hardcore fans who've been out for blood ever since the remix was even announced, much less released. If you actually have the energy to become upset about Giles Martin tweaking Beatles songs to make them sound slightly younger and meatier, perhaps it's time to track down some semblance of a life purpose beyond all this.
The remainder of the set -- in addition to a Blu-ray and DVD and book and all the rest -- is dedicated to two discs of sessions and outtakes, nearly all previously unreleased and mostly never heard on bootlegs either, totalling about 100 minutes. As noted, this seems more generous at first glance than it really is, but this isn't really the fault of the compilers. As Richie Unterberger has pointed out, this is probably the least interesting year of Beatles outtakes, in terms of their radical differences from the finished product; Sgt. Pepper was worked out and recorded piece by piece, so with the exception of "Strawberry Fields Forever," there are not really any "alternate versions" per se from this era -- the band just recorded a rhythm track and refined each song as they went. So instead of straight outtakes of the kind familiar from the Anthology CDs, these are more like works in progress. Apple has done very well to largely avoid overlap with Anthology and even skirts competition with boots for the most part, but nothing can really change the fact that none of this is nearly as fascinating as hearing totally different approaches to the Beatles' material, or Brian Wilson conducting rooms full of brilliant musicians while constructing his teenage fantasies, or Bob Dylan just playing and playing and playing and generating brilliance and a feeling of completeness with every performance.
The basic format is smart enough; with the exception of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day in the Life," we get one or two tracks devoted to listening in on each song from the record at various stages in their development. At best, this tends to be of primary curiosity to hardcore fans schooled in the minute details of Beatles tracks. It's nice to hear the backing tracks to "Penny Lane" and "Getting Better" (which, sans vocals, sounds like Deerhunter!) and even "She's Leaving Home," but actual drama is thin on the ground here. That said, the "Strawberry Fields Forever" cycle is truly glorious because, as we well know, that song did change radically from first take to last, and every step along the way is fascinating and beautiful in some fashion, with take 26 -- the fast version that was used to construct the second half of the single -- one of the greatest Beatles outtakes of all, and one of their most violently unpredictable forays into psychedelic rock. The moment when the cacophony that closes out the single starts pounding its way in without the respite of a temporary fade is unhinged in the best way; John Lennon's vocals -- across all of the versions of the song here -- are natural, impassioned, angelic. Plus, takes 4 and 26 will be entirely new to most fans who haven't dug deep for the bootlegs.
"A Day in the Life" gets the only other deep dive, with specific emphasis on the end of the song in addition to two proper takes; we get a window into that wildest of Beatles sessions on the night the orchestra was recorded, and the chance to hear them fumble their way through getting the final chord on tape, along with a weird attempt along the way at closing the thing out with a ghostly, Coltrane-like vocal hum. (The last disc throws in a complete early mix of the song with all of Mal Evans' creepily urgent count-down in the place of the later orchestral overdub. There is also a solid piece of ephemera in the form of "She's Leaving Home" with the full extra bars cello at several intervals intact. Unfortunately Apple botches one of the most interesting canonical alternate mixes from the period; the U.S. promo of "Penny Lane" with the extra trumpet ending makes the cut, but was clearly transferred from a scratchy record someone found, rather inexplicably.)
Otherwise, despite the logic of running everything in session order, this feels as slapdash as a bootleg; some of the songs, like "Fixing a Hole," differ only slightly from their released counterparts and feel like desperate inclusions (finally, "Lovely Rita" with a few overdubs missing). If you're familiar with Anthology 2, think of that rather sad version of "I Am the Walrus" that made the cut there and was really just the master without bells and whistles. It's never unenjoyable to hear a Beatles track in progress, but unless you're trying to get a very detailed sense of the order in which each song was put together, you're left mostly just missing the feel and finality of the masters themselves. More fun than the music, honestly, are the scattered windows into the Beatles' regular lives as of 1966-67 through unaltered studio interactions that flare up here and there. For recreational listening to Beatles performances with vocals recorded, guitars worked out and decisions made, this doesn't stand up to the Anthology albums, for all their flaws.
Still, my personal advocation would be that every minute of these sessions should be out there for people to hear if they so wish; at this point, the historical importance of all of the Beatles' sessions seems as obvious to me as that of Bob Dylan's or Miles Davis'. Apple's unlikely ever to go that far, so what we're left with feels a bit like a compromise that few listeners are likely to ever cotton to. But I hasten to add that it was exciting to, for the first time in a very long while, actually have "new" Beatles tracks to hear, and the context in which this set places them is more than ideal. Thankfully, the following year would bring an even more exciting release to which very few of these same criticisms apply. For the moment, fans of Sgt. Pepper will undoubtedly appreciate the deconstruction of the Beatles, George Martin and Geoff Emerick's finely tuned working methods circa '67, and the celebration of Pepper on this scale is obviously very long overdue. I suspect, however, that assuming "Carnival of Light" is as bad as Mark Lewisohn says, there really isn't much else to hear from this era, and therefore this box is as good as it could possibly be.