Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Anniversary Edition

The Beatles

Fifty years ago when the Beatles turned the world on its ear with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album as a format was blossoming from a flat, vinyl receptacle filled with a random batch of songs into a poignant means of expression. Bob Dylan pushed its limits in 1966 with Blonde On Blonde, and Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys used it as a canvas for Pet Sounds. Leave it to the Beatles to take it up a notch by not only creating a cohesive and magical album, but transforming the world around them as well.

Since then, much has been written about the record, its songs, its cover and its influence. There's a nifty selection of essays, liner notes, commentary, lyrics and photos in the coffee table book that comes with the six-disc Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Anniversary Edition box set Apple Corps Ltd., Capitol and UMe have put together. Once you get past the goodies — a Mr. Kite poster, the Sgt. Pepper insert that accompanied the original record, an advert, a 3D cover, and the aforementioned book — the material in question is worthy of close examination.

Let's start with Giles Martin and Sam Okell's new stereo mix of the original album — at once breath-taking, ear-tingling and mind-blowing. The title track leaps out of your speakers, its canned audience roars, the brass rings out, and George Harrison's stinging lead guitar sidles up next to Paul McCartney's powerful vocal, announcing the main attraction. It only gets better from there. You feel the harpsichord, guitar and bass pulsate on "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" as they slither around John Lennon's haunting melody. Another harpsichord swings gingerly to the beat of Ringo Starr's high-hats on "Getting Better," opening the gate for Harrison's edgy lead to dart from the left, across the aural spectrum.

You could go on and on about the melancholic strings that carry "She's Leaving Home," and pick yourself up from the sweep of swirling organs and bass harmonicas that bring "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite" to life. Harrison's "Within You Without You," once regarded an anomaly of the collection, is now a perfunctory piece of the whole, its sitar-flavored majesty and subtle beauty a bridge to the more utilitarian world of McCartney's "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Lovely Rita." By the time you get to "A Day In The Life," your membrane is in a vulnerable state, ready to accept the sonic thrust belying the ying and yang of Lennon and McCartney's greatest yarn.

For those curious about how these songs came to be, the second and third discs are filled with alternate takes — revealing in their stark origins, ambitious in their development. Don't be surprised by the inclusion of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," alternates and new mixes to boot, because they were supposed to be on the album. Though we may have gotten a decidedly different Pepper — and who can imagine where those songs would have landed in the sequencing — George Martin said he regretted leaving them off. The set's book cross-references many of the outtakes, offering context for Beatles scholars, maniacs and concerned onlookers.

And, of course, the set wouldn't be complete without the original 1967 mono mix, faithfully restored, that comprises the fourth disc. Giles Martin notes that the Beatles were on hand for the mono mixes, and no where to be found when the album was mixed in stereo, despite the stereo version becoming the more popular of the two. Early stereo mixes of Beatles records didn't sit well with many of the mono purists of the day, largely due to the part and parcel panning of the technology. These days, however, the stereo mix is much more natural, which makes spinning through the mono mix essential in appreciation of the monumental advances in audio technology.

And while we're at it, let's take a gander at the high-resolution mixes on the DVD and Blu-ray Disc. The PCM stereo mix on these discs might sound a little bolder than the CD, while the 5.1 mix transforms the album into a cosmic, almost religious experience. A vocal harmony from the right speaker, a guitar from the left, brass in the back, McCartney's bass crushing the subwoofer — fans of surround won't ever want to leave their sweet spot on the couch. Once the clouds clear, you can switch over to the video for a The Making of Sgt. Pepper documentary that originally aired on the album's 25th anniversary in 1992, and features commentary from McCartney, Harrison, Starr, and George Martin. Promotional films for "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Penny Lane," and "A Day In The Life" round out the visual extras.

Single and double CD reissues of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, both with the new stereo mix, are available to those less impressed with the details and economics. Whichever configuration you go with, no one is sent home without a prize. The brilliance of the record and its legacy may well revive the album as a piece of art, a musical counterpart to the novel, a soundtrack all its own apart from the movie. Fifty years later, Pepper still stands as one of the great artistic achievements of the 20th century. Likely, as time rolls on, its impact will gain traction for generations to come.

~ Shawn Perry

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