The Beatles' classic LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band  has turned 50. On the eve of Paul McCartney's 75th birthday, the evergreen pop masterpiece that he made with his mates from Liverpool in late 1966 and early 1967 is suddenly the rage again thanks to a beautiful new stereo mix by Giles Martin that utilized the original tracking tapes. The new mix—which reveals Abbey Road’s spacious studios and Geoff Emerick’s brilliant engineering anew—also shows that despite the album’s many overdubs (a term even non-musicians know thanks to The Beatles), Sgt. Pepper’s was made not at the mixing board but by a hard working and a unified band.  Which is, after all, what they set out to be when they first formed in 1957.

Perhaps not everyone will notice the difference between the new stereo mix and the album they've known for all these years.  But the new stereo mix of Sgt. Pepper, based on the mono mix supervised by The Beatles with unique sounds and effects left off of the Stereo version more widely known in the U.S., is the now best way to experience the album as The Beatles intended it. And for the most discerning fans, the new mix is also the closest one will ever get to the experience of sitting in front of an Abbey Road recording console and hearing the album off the original reel-to-reel 4-track Studer machines The Beatles and the Abbey Road staff used to create this strange, wonderful, and at times frustrating album that continues to beguile both pop and classical music 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 musician 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" has sense been assembled as a latter day video).

Though there was little or no advance publicity for the release (like they ever needed it), Sgt. Pepper exploded on the 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 was a sensation in London but was not yet known in the US). The album included orchestras playing without a score and sounds only a dog could hear.

It was ridiculous. It was outrageous. But it was original, too. Some love it, some don't.  But you can't forget it once you've heard it.  For McCartney's bass playing and Ringo Starr’s drumming alone, the new mix is worth an audition no matter how well you think you know the songs.

The Beatles story is filled with improbable turns of luck and happenstance.  Their mid 60s mustaches were inspired by McCartney, who grew one to cover a curdled lip, the result of 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 Mal Evans on a noisy airplane asking for salt and pepper. The most ambitious Beatles single 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 an aching 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 may not have been 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-tracks 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.

“I started in 1965 so I was 23, remembered engineer Dave Harries. “I always wanted that job. I had an HND in electronic and electrical engineering and I thought I’d be a good tech for a studio. So I actually started at Hays 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” November 25, 1966.  The Beatles’ first attempt, now known as Take 1, can be heard on the Beatles Anthology and had proved unsatisfactory.  But when the Beatles arrived for a remake—unannounced—they found their producer and engineer were at the movies.

“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. 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 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.  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 kit) but the sparkling camaraderie of Billy Shears and his band.

In June 1967, Paul McCartney would celebrating his 25th birthday with nary a thought as to what he'd be doing at age 75 (or 64).  John Lennon was 26. (What had you accomplished in your mid 20s?)
Sgt. Pepper was 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 (including Mr. Wrecking Crew/Hal Blaine himself). 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 some guitar, George Harrison played killer leads and rhythm all over the album and there are lots of photos to prove it. So just who were these guys?  And where did they go?

Pepper 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 wherever they went, regardless of where they recorded. True, Abbey Road played a big part in the sound.  But in the end, the Sgt. Pepper came from the spirit of the musicians, not the 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 Pepper again and nor will planet Earth ever be the kind of place that could produce it.  But after all these years, is it any good?  Can there ever be a place like Pepper? Well, dear chaps--that's up to you.   Give a listen. A splendid time is still guaranteed for all.  “It’s was a very complicated album,” says Harries. “But I still like Abbey Road.  Better tunes on that one I think.”

Thanks to Beatles.com (Paul McCartney), Abbey Road (recording console) and Dave Harries.