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!

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