Sunday 28 May 2017

Review: The new remix is the definitive Sgt. Pepper


Fifty years, almost to the day, The Beatles have properly mixed Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in stereo. Producer Giles Martin and engineer Sam Okell have reconstructed the album by sourcing the original tracks to present vocals and guitars that sparkle and bass and drums that roar.

Martin has centered the vocals, forever erasing the ugly extreme panning which segregated vocals to one channel and almost all instruments to the other. On every track he has added new details from guitars, keyboards, tablas, strings and backing vocals that ring out of speakers and headphones alike. Layers of sound that The Beatles and his father George with engineer Geoff Emerick first constructed in the winter of 1966/67 burst across the stereo picture in songs such as Getting Better.

Pepper was never my favourite Beatles album. (Revolver is.) In fact, Pepper was down my list. I listened to the 1967 stereo all these years and lamented how the album just lacked something. Too whimsical in places, not enough weight. Sounded flat. However, this 2017 remix makes me reassess Pepper. I now see its depth and appreciate its complexity. Its sheer force is now undeniable--and exciting.

Overall, Martin and Okell have injected the overall album with power and dimension. Long buried in the original 1967 stereo mix, Ringo's drums propel virtually every song, balancing the whimsy in tracks, such as Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, and adding menace to others, including Good Morning, Good Morning.

Sgt. Pepper rocks.

Oh God, you may be thinking, another bloody Beatles reissue. Not at all. This release is not a re-master, but a brand new mix. It ain't a paint job and scrub, but an entire re-design by shifting vocals and re-organizing sounds to realize the effect that The Beatles originally intended in spring 1967. The band oversaw three weeks of mono mixing, but weren't ever around for the stereo mix that lasted three days. Mono outsold stereo in 1967. The audience lagged behind the imagination and ambition of The Beatles. In turn, their Pepper would propel stereo's dominance, usher the rise of the long-playing record and spark the transition of "pop" to "rock."

Giles' stereo mix takes its cue from the mono mix which was the mix that The Beatles intended the world to hear. Mono packs a sonic punch, forceful and aggressive, compared to the thin 1967 stereo. Here's a review of each track, plus the single that was originally planned for the album, Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane:

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Opens with snare drum on the left channel, a much louder bass that rumbles in the center and a guitar that now snarls on the right. The guitar offers far more detail than before and sounds like Jimi Hendrix. The guitar continues to slash as Paul screams the vocal in the centre to create an exciting dialogue. Backing vocals are spread across both channels in exquisite detail. An amazing opening.
Verdict: Excellent

With A Little Help From My Friends
Vocals are centered, and the overall track has a mono feel except that Paul's melodic bass dominates the right channel. This is one of the simpler tracks of the album, so there are no sonic fireworks, but all the elements roll along in the right place.
Verdict: Good

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
The opening keyboard riff dances across the left and right channels to mesmerizing effect that runs through the entire track. It's a subtle, but brilliant touch as if enticing the listener to run down the rabbit hole with vocalist Lennon. John's vocal is centered, anchoring the song. Drums, tamboura are center-left, while Paul's bass is center-right in a delicate balance. This is one of the few tracks where Ringo's drums aren't pushed to the forefront, and I understand why. That would have smothered the sound collage that Lucy creates.
Verdict: Good

Getting Better
The fireworks return with this track. Paul's bass is right upfront and gives the song a whallop that was missing before. Again, vocals are centered. New to my ears were the guitars chiming in both channels and the piano plucking in the right. Ringo's high hat sparkles in the left. The remix shows off the layers of sound like never before which hum together like a mighty machine.
Verdict: Stunning

Fixing A Hole
The opening keyboard has never sounded so detailed. Ringo's drums are predominantly left, guitar mostly right (except the solo) and Paul's vocal at center to anchor the sound picture. Backing vocals also mostly right, but the panning is balanced, not lopsided or distracting.
Verdict: Good

She's Leaving Home
The first thing you notice is how fast this track is, nearly as fast as the mono (which never sounded right to me). This mix demands some adjustment, because I'm used to hearing the slower 1967 stereo version. But in direct comparison, the slower version sounds melodramatic. Also, Giles has separated the individual stringed instruments across the channels giving them room to breathe while allowing Paul's vocal to dominate in the center. Faster, less emphasis on the strings, less melodramatic. Also, John's key background vocals are more distinct and detailed. Overall, a well-balanced track. This faster version gives the song more urgency and bite.
Verdict: Surprising at first, but overall good

Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite
This was one of the worst-mixed songs on the 1967 stereo, your typical hard-pan with the vocals 2000 miles away from the instruments. I hated it. Centering the vocals is a huge step forward here. Secondly, the individual instruments are separated across left and right, and each rings clearly. The difference is immediate and amazing. Third, Ringo's drumming adds weight to a song that was whimsical, even slight, before. And fourth, the wash of sound at the end is downright dazzling. Another WOW moment.
Verdict: Stunning

Within You Without You
Every instrument, stringed and Indian, sparkles on this track. They are spread across both channels instead of lumped together into a dull mess as before. George's vocal in the center literally bridges both sets of instruments. Most astonishing is the extended musical break starting at 2;23 where Giles exploits the soundscape to contrast and blend the Indian and Western instruments. Hands down, this is one of the most breathtaking moments of this remix.
Verdict: Stunning

When I'm 64
Brushes-on-snare on the left, clarinets on the right and Paul's vocal in the middle. Simple and it works.
Verdict: Good

Good Morning Good Morning
Crank this one. This new remix is a monster rock track. Ringo drives a tank throughout this song, adding a layer of menace which injects John's lyrics about a dull day with paranoia and chaos. And I mean that as a compliment. Another WOW moment. This remix is light years from any you've ever heard.
Verdict: Stunning

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)
Given the bass-and-drums boost of every track before, it's a slight letdown to hear this mix. On the 1967 mix, this track rocked the hardest, but no longer. Is this a bad mix? Not at all, but it doesn't surprise like the others. Paul's vocal, though, is crisper, and you can hear him scat in the fade out just like he does on the mono mix.
Verdict: Okay

A Day In The Life
Mixed feelings. John's vocal is centered throughout and--for once--I miss the extreme panning. In the 1967 mix, his vocal starts in the extreme right than gradually shifts to the center and eventually hard-left, counter-clockwise. I miss this sense of disorientation and movement. That said, every sonic element on this track rings clearer with more detail, notably John's unearthly Ahhhh at 2:46. And the final piano chord is a knock-out punch.
Verdict: Mixed feelings

Strawberry Fields Forever
Actually remixed in 2015, but the structure is the same as the other tracks: centered vocals and individual instruments and effects delicately mixed on the left and right channels. The svarmandal still deliciously sweeps across the soundscape. Again, the instruments offer detail and immediacy.
Verdict: Good

Penny Lane
It's subtle, but this is one of the most radical remixes. It's not a hard rock song, but a collection of vignettes that Paul imagines of his hometown, Liverpool. Storyteller Paul is front and centre. Flourishes appear discreetly on the left and right channels, like the piccolo trumpet solo on the right, or the fireman's bell on the left. Again, subtle. My only complaint is that the trumpet near the end of the song is slightly buried in the left channel. (If anyone's asking, on my iPod I've placed SFF/Penny between Within You Without You and When I'm 64 and chucked Lovely Rita altogether.)
Verdict: Good

OVERALL: Though imperfect, the 2017 stereo remix is the new definitive mix of Sgt. Pepper. It comes closest in capturing the Beatles' intentions and in conveying the complex soundscapes created in 1967 when the band was limited by four-track technology. All vocals, instruments and sound effects burst with fresh detail. Centering the vocals is a leap forward and boosting the drums and bass restores the visceral power of this rock album that used to be found only in the mono mix. My only real misgiving is the vocal placement in A Day In The Life, but the remixes of the title track, Getting Better, Mr. Kite, Within You and Good Morning are breathtaking. This remix firmly places this album in the 21st century and (partially) restores Pepper's reputation which has been overshadowed in recent years by Revolver.

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Sgt. Pepper box set: What's really new?

Unless you've been in a coma, you've heard by now that a 50th anniversary Sgt. Pepper box set will soon be released on May 26. Never mind the single- and double-CD packages. Anyone reading this blog will care only about the Super Deluxe 4CD/DVD/blu-ray multiorgasmic set that looks promising.
That optimism is based on early reports, including this one by Rolling Stone last month, that covered an exclusive preview at Abbey Road that a handful of lucky mortals in London attended. These reports tell us of mind-blowing early takes from the album and a fresh remix where Ringo's drumming leaps out of the speakers. I hope so.
However, the box ain't cheap: US$150 for Americans and C$199 for poor Canadians. In contrast, 100 quid for U.K. listeners is halfway reasonable. That's still a lot of cash for 6 discs and a 144-page hardcover book. I'm tempted to shout "cash grab," but will refrain until I get my hands on a set.
So, what's on this box and what do we already have, whether it's legit or bootleg? Here's the track listing and our notes:

CD 1
Sgt. Pepper 2017 Stereo Mix

Yes, this is a re-mix, not a typical "remastered" version that no human can distinguish from the old. By all reports, George's son, Gilles, with Sam Okell, have laboured to produce a brand new mix that will dazzle listeners. Compare that to 1967 when most record-buyers owned mono record players while portable music devices like iPods and smartphones were science fiction. Supposedly, Ringo's drum kicks ass in the new mix, and that's a welcome relief. I have every reason to believe this, given the way Ringo's bass drums leaps out of my speakers in Hey Bulldog from 1999's Yellow Submarine Songbook. I hope Gilles and Okell can inject as much percussive muscle into the new mixes, as this will do humanity a great service by replacing the extreme panning of the original (read: horrible) 1967 stereo mix. Expect instruments and vocals you never heard popping up. Verdict: can't wait.

CD 2 (Complete early takes from the sessions, sequenced in chronological order of their first recording dates)
1. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Take 1]
2. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Take 4]
3. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Take 7]
4. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Take 26]

Takes 1 and 7 of the song that kicked off the Pepper sessions already appear on The Beatles Anthology and, except take 26, as far back as the landmark 1985 vinyl bootleg, Nothing is Real, and boot CDs notably the comprehensive, It's Not Too Bad (which includes take 26). The only thing we can hope for is some sonic polish to these tracks.
5. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Stereo Mix - 2015]
Gilles' mix from the 1 deluxe reissue that year.
6. "When I'm Sixty-Four" [Take 2]
7. "Penny Lane" [Take 6 – Instrumental]
8. "Penny Lane" [Vocal Overdubs And Speech]
9. "Penny Lane" [Stereo Mix - 2017]

As far as I can tell, these are all new. The Anthology 2 outtake is a blend of several takes, which may or may not come from these outtakes. And the stereo mix will be brand new. Rolling Stone reports "a lavish Pet Sounds-style version led by Paul's piano and harmonium [and] a backing vocal track that's all Paul and George doing handclaps and harmonies." 
10. "A Day In The Life" [Take 1]
11. "A Day In The Life" [Take 2]
12. "A Day In The Life" [Orchestra Overdub]
13. "A Day In The Life" (Hummed Last Chord) [Takes 8, 9, 10 and 11]
14. "A Day In The Life" (The Last Chord)

Again, the Anthology 2 outtake combined several outtakes, including 1 and 2, but here these takes will be presented in their entirety. That should be interesting.  I've read that the mythic hummed last chord sounded dreadful and they were unable to maintain the hum long enough without falling into fits of laughter. We've had a short snippet on VHS for many years, but with four takes of this ending, we'll hear for ourselves exactly why it was dumped.

The total effect of all these tracks should demonstrate how The Beatles built their most celebrated (and complex) song.

15. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" [Take 1 – Instrumental]
16. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" [Take 9 And Speech]

New. There have never been any outtakes of this song, so this is meaty. Rolling Stone describes these takes as a "long, raw guitar jam."
17. "Good Morning Good Morning" [Take 1 - Instrumental, Breakdown]
18. "Good Morning Good Morning" [Take 8]

Take 1 is new, but take 8 already appears in Beatles Anthology 2. Why not replace that with another outtake, since anyone buying the box set will own the Anthology set?
Verdict: Despite a few redundancies, the first disc of outtakes promises enough surprises and buried treasures.

CD 3 (Complete early takes from the sessions, sequenced in chronological order of their first recording dates)
1. "Fixing A Hole" [Take 1]
2. "Fixing A Hole" [Speech And Take 3]

New. No outtakes exist on bootleg. Rolling Stone says that Paul takes a rockier, R&B approach and Ringo takes off the drums. Intriguing.
3. "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" [Speech From Before Take 1; Take 4 And Speech At End]
4. "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" [Take 7]

Only take 4 is new. The rest is already on Anthology 2. Again, why not something new??
5. "Lovely Rita" [Speech And Take 9]
New. No outtakes exist on bootleg. 

6. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" [Take 1 And Speech At The End]
7. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" [Speech, False Start And Take 5]

An outfake, based on takes 6, 7 and 8 appear on Anthology 2, so these tracks are new. Yipee! However, it begs the question of why Gilles, Apple and the Beatles themselves didn't select new outtakes for Mr. Kite and Good Morning, Good Morning.
8. "Getting Better" [Take 1 - Instrumental And Speech At The End]
9. "Getting Better" [Take 12]

New. Says Rolling Stone: "Paul leads on Wurtlitzer keyboard for a more aggressive attack."
10. "Within You Without You" [Take 1 - Indian Instruments Only]
11. "Within You Without You" [George Coaching The Musicians]

An unidentified instrumental take appears on Anthology 2, so it may or may not be take 1. Probably not, since the Anthology 2 version sounds polished. In any case, this should be interesting. Likely new.
12. "She's Leaving Home" [Take 1 – Instrumental]
13. "She's Leaving Home" [Take 6 – Instrumental]

14. "With A Little Help From My Friends" [Take 1 - False Start And Take 2 – Instrumental]
New. An early run-through with Paul leading on piano, John on guitar and George on cowbell (yes, cowbell). No bass.

15. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" [Speech And Take 8]
New. Always a kick-ass track, I wonder what this version sounds like.
Verdict: Only two cuts are redundant, while the rest are new. Thumbs up.

CD 4 (Sgt. Pepper and bonus tracks in Mono)

1-13: 2017 Direct Transfer of Sgt. Pepper Original Mono Mix
14. "Strawberry Fields Forever" [Original Mono Mix]
15. "Penny Lane" [Original Mono Mix]
Likely the same as the Mono Box Set and countless mono transfers from vinyl to digital.
16. "A Day In The Life" [Unreleased First Mono Mix]
17. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" [Unreleased Mono Mix - No. 11]
18. "She's Leaving Home" [Unreleased First Mono Mix]

New. A little intriguing, since I've never heard of these. I don't expect significant differences, but rather touches here and there that may surprise.

19. "Penny Lane" [Capitol Records U.S. Promo Single - Mono Mix]
This has been around since the 1980 Rarities vinyl LP released by Capitol. It features an extra horn riff at the coda. Will it change your life? Nope. But it's cute.
Verdict: If you already own the mono mix, then only four tracks are really new, and even then that's a stretch.

DISCS 5 & 6 (Blu-ray & DVD)

New 5.1 Surround Audio mixes of 'Sgt. Pepper’ album and “Penny Lane,” plus 2015 5.1 Surround mix of “Strawberry Fields Forever”
This is where owning a 5.1 sound system pays off. What's better than a stereo remix of Pepper is a new surround mix of the album. Excellent!

High Resolution Audio versions of 2017 'Sgt. Pepper’ stereo mix and 2017 “Penny Lane” stereo mix, plus 2015 “Strawberry Fields Forever” hi res stereo mix (Blu-ray: LPCM Stereo 96KHz/24bit / DVD: LPCM Stereo)
Doesn't hurt, though only audiophiles will appreciate these.

Video Features (both discs):
The Making of Sgt. Pepper [restored 1992 documentary film, previously unreleased]
Long bootlegged, this fine film is most welcome here. Can't wait to see the restored video and audio.

Promotional Films: "A Day In The Life" "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" [4K restored]
Will these be any better than the 1 deluxe blu-ray set?

Verdict: Love seeing a new 5.1 mix included (long, long overdue) and the 1992 documentary released.

Overall verdict: Though pricey, this box set contains an overwhelming majority of new studio material, entirely new stereo and 5.1 mixes and presents the often-bootlegged Making of documentary with few redundancies with existing official releases. A splendid time is (likely) guaranteed for all!