The Beatles' classic LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns 52 on June 1 and on the eve of Paul McCartney's 77th birthday on June 18, the evergreen pop masterpiece that he made with his mates from Liverpool in late 1966 and early 1967 is today still hip, au courant, and even fresh again thanks to Giles Martin's 50th anniversary stereo mix in 2017 which utilized the original tracking tapes. The updated mix reveals Abbey Road’s spacious studios and the late Geoff Emerick’s brilliant engineering anew and also shows that despite the album’s many overdubs (a term even non-musicians know today thanks to The Beatles), Sgt. Pepper’s was made by a hard working and unified band. Which is, after all, what they set out to be when they first formed around 1957.
Perhaps not everyone will notice the difference between the 2017 stereo mix and the album they've known for all these years. Giles Martin’s 2017 Sgt. Pepper mix is based on the original mono mix that was personally supervised by The Beatles which contains with unique sounds and effects left off of the Stereo version more widely known in the U.S.And for the most discerning fans, the new mix is also the closest we will ever get to sitting at the original Abbey Road recording console and hearing the album off the 4-track Studer machines the Abbey Road staff used to create this strange, wonderful, and at times frustrating collection that continues to beguile both pop and classical fans.

The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released around the world June 1, 1967 and cost £40,000 (around $75,000) in studio and supporting musicians fees and took three months to record. No singles were drawn from the album, nor were any videos made to promote it (although footage of The Beatles attending the orchestra overdub for "A Day in the Life" –-conducted by Paul in an apron with guests from the Monkees and the Rolling Stones milling about--was later assembled as a latter day video).
Though there was little or no advance publicity for the release (like they ever needed it), Sgt. Pepper ‘s exploded on the music scene as a one-of-a-kind pop music greeting card that had everything from barn-yard animals to Hendrix inspired distorted guitars.  (Though Hendrix’s U.S. concert debut was still a few weeks away at Monterey Pop, he was already a sensation around London, where he had inspired and frightened Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend of The Who). Everything about Sgt. Pepper's was loud—the guitars, the bass & drums, and the brass had been sonically distorted and stretched in ways never heard before on record. The album included members of the prestigious London Symphony performing without a score merely as a special effect as well as sounds only a dog could hear.  It was ridiculous. It was outrageous. But it was original, too. Today, Beatle fans (and The Beatles themselves) have mixed feelings about it. But you can't forget Sgt. Pepper’s once you've heard it. For McCartney's bass playing and Ringo Starr’s drumming alone, the new mix is worth a new audition no matter how well you think you know the songs.
The story of the making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is filled with improbable turns of luck and happenstance. The lad's mid 60s mustaches were inspired by McCartney, who grew one to cover a bruised lip caused by a scooter accident. The title song –and the audacious idea to pretend that they were not world’s most famous band—came from Paul mis-hearing roadie Mal Evans on a noisy airplane asking for "salt and pepper" (not Sgt. Pepper). The most ambitious Beatles single up to that time and the first song recorded during the Pepper era, "Strawberry Fields Forever,” was written by John Lennon in Spain while making the film How I Won the War, directed by two-time Beatles director Richard Lester. It was Lennon’s first extended time away from his band in almost ten years, and the song described a longing for both meaningful contact and social retreat. The lyrics for "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" were mostly taken from an antique poster that caught Lennon's eye while wandering around London curio shops.

Perhaps the most underrated bit of good fortune of The Beatles story was that Parlophone-- the label that released their records--was owned by EMI, a giant in the music industry at the time whose UK-based acts all used the label’s designated studio at 3 Abbey Road in the St. John's Wood neighborhood of London. Opened in 1931, Abbey Road was not at the forefront of advanced multi-tracking technology. Many U.S. labels already were using 8-tracks including Atlantic Records engineer Tom Dowd and Les Paul. However, Abbey Road’s engineers were, in essence, like a small army of Les Pauls, expertly trained at building, modifying, and maintaining Abbey Road's state-of-the art microphone and amplifier collection as well as the Swiss-made Studer 4-track machines that still rival many of today's surviving multi-track tape machines. Abbey Road's technical staff enjoyed exceptional on-the-job training, and were probably the only engineering staff in the world that could have fulfilled The Beatles’ exacting—and often conflicting—requests and turn them into beautiful sound. 
“I started in 1965 so I was 23, remembered engineer Dave Harries in an interview for WXNA in Nashville. “I always wanted that job. I had an HND (Higher National Diploma) in electronic and electrical engineering and I thought I’d be a good tech for a studio. So, I actually started at Hayes (EMI’s pressing plant and duplication facility) in 1964 in the tape records department. And when I worked there, we were recording 3 1/4 ips (inches per second) mono 1/2 track of classical music—would you believe—and pop. After I’d been there for a nearly a year I got transferred to Abbey Road which was what I dreamt of doing all my life. And I got it.”

Harries started as a Tech at Abbey Road and at 23, was older than many of the staff.  “It was a really good grounding. They could come in straight from school --they could come in at 16, 17, 18 in those days. They started in the tape library and then they started in the cutting rooms—disc cutting. That’s when I met Geoff-- he was still in the cutting room when I first met Geoff. I distinctly remember meeting him for the first time—Geoff Emerick.”

Emerick had taken over for Beatles engineer Norman Smith in 1966 and earned The Beatles trust on his very first session, recording “Tomorrow Never Knows.”  “We all filled in when we had to, you know?,” recalled Harries who found himself in the engineering chair when The Beatles arrived to re-record John’s new song, “Strawberry Fields Forever” on November 25, 1966. The Beatles’ first attempt, now known as Take 1, can be heard on the Beatles Anthology and had proved unsatisfactory to the band.  But when the Beatles arrived for a remake—unannounced—they found their producer and engineer were at the cinema.

“Geoff and George usually started off a session, of course, but they went to the premier of a Cliff Richard film, Finders Keepers. So, there was I setting the studio up and the lads said: “We want to record this, we’re ready to record. What’ll we gonna do?”  I said ‘I’ll do it for you, I can do it.’ So, I put up a few random mics, mostly (Neumann) U48s and U67s around. ‘Cause they were all down there and they wall wanted to play. Mal Evans (Beatles roadie) and various people were playing tymps, John was playing the Mellotron, and they had things like tambourines and stuff. And they all went around any mic they could find and we did it. They knocked it out. They wanted some of the drums to be backwards. So, we had to record those and I had to put them on a different tape (machine). And then do a count-in and run in it backwards so it ran in sync with the track when they did it.”
When Martin and Emerick returned to the studio, they found The Beatles still hard at work on overdubs. “I recorded it and then of course George and Geoff didn’t like it! They said it had too much ‘top’ on it (treble). I said that’s the only ‘top’ that’s ever been on a Beatles record, get used to it!”  The version that Harries’ recorded became the bedrock of the “Strawberry Fields Forever” we hear today (check out the complete take on the deluxe version of Sgt. Pepper). 

Joining together Lennon’s favorite versions proved at first to be problematic but led to an ingenious solution that added to the song’s melancholy swirl of sound.  “John liked the beginning of mine and the end of mine and the middle of the other one. You see, they weren’t that well-rehearsed and up on musical things—George would have corrected them.  They (the two versions) were in a different key. So, what we had to do then was copy the two and slow one down and speed the other one up until they matched and they were edited.”
Though it's true Sgt. Pepper's was recorded on a 4-track, it was actually recorded on many 4-tracks.  Geoff Emerick would fill up all 4-tracks of one machine, mix those elements onto Track 1 of a second 4-track, and continue in that manner until The Beatles were satisfied.  Unlike modern (and aging) multi-track machines, the Studer 4-tracks used 1” tape—each track was afforded a ¼” width of space, which accounts for the hi-fidelity of the album overall and the super fidelity of the basic tracks which remain today in Abbey Road’s vault. Giles Martin's new stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper's utilizes the original tapes, sequenced and aligned together for the first time ever, revealing not only Emerick's inventive microphone techniques (Ringo's drum kit was recorded with as many as 6 microphones for some songs with mics both underneath and inside the individual drums) but the sparkling camaraderie of Billy Shears and his band.
In June 1967, Paul McCartney would celebrate his 25th birthday with nary a thought as to what he'd be doing at age 77 (or 64).  John Lennon was 26. (Dear reader, what had you accomplished in your mid 20s?)

Sgt. Pepper’s heralded a bold new sound in 1967 with deep, articulate bass, booming drums, and a collage of keyboards, tape loops, and music smears--ideas that can still be heard today in the styles of Stereolab, Radiohead, Lambchop, and many others.  It was all things to all people--both whimsical and detailed, off-handed and almost desperately arranged. It was a new kind of 'Pop' music and though many have tried since, all other contenders never quite sounded as fun.  It was a young person's world then, and a young person's record.
Perhaps Frank Zappa was right when he quipped that the record business was in better hands when non-rock and rollers ran the labels and let "young people" throw things in the air to see what might stick.  Today, a 20-year old recording engineer would not get any where close to the world's biggest rock band and nor would most big rock bands trust a youngster to help shape their sound.  Once again, rock and roll is safe, predictable, and a pawn to publicity.

What did The Beatles think of Pepper? In later years, Ringo joked that he learned to play the game of Chess during the sessions (a lot of waiting around, in other words) but his Hal Blaine-inspired drumming was instantly copied by pop drummers everywhere. Contrary to popular thought, John and Paul collaborated throughout the album and especially on the album's key tracks like "A Day In the Life," "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds, "She's Leaving Home," and "With A Little Help from My Friends."  The first two songs intended for the album--"Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane"--didn't even make the final line-up but instead were released as singles to distract the public while the band was hard at work in the studio. And though Paul did play guitar, George Harrison played impeccable lead and rhythm guitar all over the album and there are lots of photos to prove it. So just who were these guys?  And where did they go?

Sgt Pepper’s was not, as legend has it, a cut and paste album thrown together at the mixing board. "Sgt. Pepper's Reprise" was one take. Many of the other cuts also went down pretty quick.  The Beatles--already restless and tired of EMI's rule book--even experimented by cutting a rhythm track at Regent Sound on Denmark Street where their friends The Rolling Stones cut their first record. And to the slight bemusement of the Abbey Road staff, it was clear upon hearing the tapes that The Beatles sounded like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band wherever they went, regardless of where they recorded. True, Abbey Road played a big part in the sound.  But in the end, Sgt. Pepper's is the sound of a spirited group of musicians, not their equipment. (But hey, if you're gonna play some Pepper songs, you're gonna need an Epiphone Casino, the band's most-played electric guitar on the album) Henry Grossman, who took The Beatles' photos from 1964-1968 was one of the few photographers allowed to attend the sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s. "The only recording session of theirs I ever actually attended...was the session for 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.' I took over 250 pictures that night," said Grossman in an interview with the Examiner for his photo book, Kaleidoscope Eyes.

"When Paul came into the studio that evening, he started playing something on the piano, and everyone gathered around. And by the end of the evening, you wouldn't have recognized the song," said Grossman. "Even though the Beatles were a group of four very unique individuals, there was also a very strong sense of unity, a strong sense of we. They worked as a team." 

The Beatles never sounded like Sgt. Pepper's again and nor will planet Earth ever be the kind of place that could produce it.  But after all these years, is it still any good?  Perhaps Mr. Harries, whose last-minute engineering of "Strawberry Fields Forever" was the spark that started all, should have the last word. “It’s was a very complicated album,” says Harries. “But I still like Abbey Road. 'Better tunes on that one, I think.”

Thanks to (Paul McCartney), Abbey Road, and Dave Harries.