In his scathing 1970 Rolling Stone interview, John Lennon bitched about Mick and the boys always being two months behind the Beatles. Had he lived to Sgt. Pepper's 50th anniversary, Lennon would've seen where the Beatles were 49 years and 169 days behind The Rolling Stones—the Sgt. Pepper 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition has a lenticular (3-D to you luddites) cover. That's right, just like the original wouldn't-cha-like-to-be-a-Pepper-too Their Satanic Majesties Request did in 1967! But, being Beatles, they still manage to outdo their Britpop baby brothers on that score by going the full 12 inches with their Michael Cooper photo, something the Stones originally wanted, but Decca's cost-conscious bean counters wouldn't allow for.
Just imagine the hoopla generated by this remixed, reimagined 50-year-old album applied to any of the other landmark albums issued in 1967, especially The Stones' Satanic Majesties. Bootleggers already showed us what a Satanic Majesties 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition would sound like with The Satanic Sessions. A more joyless jamboree spread out over 11 months and eight CDs you couldn't imagine. You sit through a 14-minute "Sing This All Together" and see if you feel like talking to anyone after. Compare any Stones outtake to the 18-minute recording of The Beatles clowning during a vocal overdub on "Think For Yourself," and you wonder if The Stones ever even talk to one another beyond counting a song in.
Swish pan to this week, where Beatles fans are coming up with different rationales for buying different anniversary editions. Think Giles Martin went too far with the compression and fighting the loudness wars with the remixed version? Buy the vinyl counterpart that was recorded at half-speed with very little compression! You want to hear Ringo actually learning how to play chess during the sessions? Snap up the 6-CD set with two discs of outtakes and hope that the between-song banter finds Ringo gushing about Lev Polugaevsky! Don't want to shatter the myth of Pepper otherworldliness by hearing workaday outtakes as if this were Let It Be with better songs and a slightly less bossy Paul? Shun the outtakes and play the original mono version, available in the 6-CD set, The Beatles In Mono box set and however many copies on vinyl you have accrued if you call yourselves a Beatle fan.
In any format, Beatles fans will shell out and find something new to complain about later. A guy who ran a second-hand record store in Greenwich Village used to hate those anal Beatles collectors. You wouldn't get a Velvets fan moaning about a poorly peeled banana cover. No, like the very heroin customers that music was meant to attract, they'd just snap up their fix and go away quietly. But you could have a Beatle nut with a reasonably priced rare U.S. picture sleeve like "Can't Buy Me Love" and he will complain that one of the flaps has been reglued so it isn't the same adhesive from Capitol's Hawthorne pressing plant.
If you share the same trepidation that justified not buying the 2016 The Beatles — Live at The Hollywood Bowl, I suggest you go to Spotify and compile your own Sgt. Pepper playlist that alternates the 2009 remaster with the 2017 remix for a then vs. now face-off, complete with a Petty Pepper Complaint to satisfy the Beatle anal-lysts!:
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"—This is the one Pepper track that always sounded anemic from being bounced down too many generations. The 1999 Yellow Submarine Soundtrack was the first time Paul's lead vocals were dead center instead of relegated to one side of the 1967 stereo separation. All that bouncing down, just so George Martin could slip in a louder laugh track!
Petty Pepper Complaint: With the layers of crud lifted, you can hear some woman sending her poor husband off to buy some Jujyfruits. But you'll have to listen really hard.
"With a Little Help From My Friends"—The original stereo mix is still pretty great. The new remix betters it by panning the background vocals to left and right. And there is slightly more cowbell on the new mix (incidentally, the cowbell is John's only instrumental contribution on this one).
Petty Pepper Complaint: Ringo's drums get the biggest boost on every song (see the tom fills) and George's guitar gets more prominence too, except his most identifiable lick, the guitar arpeggios after the band calls out for Billy Shears; once in the center of the stereo picture, now it's shoved off to the side.
"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"—The mono mix had more psychedelic effects than the stereo, and the remix tries to counter that by panning the opening Lowrey organ signature from left to center to right depending on which way you plopped on the headphones. Now you actually felt Ringo's kick-drum definitely as the heartbeat of the waltz. Like "Baby's in Black" with sitars.
Petty Pepper Complaint: At 1:31 after John sings "so incredibly hiiiigh," the original stereo mix had a bad punch-in where you still get an "aaah" from a previous take. Like most Beatles remixes, mistakes like that are taken out, like the missing second of tambourine on "Day Tripper." Also, the crazy, slapback echo applied to the vocals at the end of the mono "Lucy" is not applied here, where the mono mix is supposed to be the blueprint.
"Getting Better"—I loved hearing Take 1 of this on the outtakes disc, the distorted electric piano being so prominent reminds you so much of Queen's "You're My Best Friend" as to be suspicious of its side one, track four placement on A Night at the Opera, an obvious tip of the crown. And on the remix you can hear the distorted guitar verging on feeding back.
Petty Pepper Complaint: For such a momentous session as this one (captured in Hunter Davies's eyewitness account for his Beatles biography), the outtake discs contain neither John accidentally taking LSD instead of an upper or the visiting Pink Floyd and The Fabs exchanging "half hearted hellos." Years later, when the Floyd are recording Dark Side of the Moon at Abbey Road next door to Wings recording Red Rose Speedway, they interview Paul and Linda for the album and get half-hearted answers to questions like "When was the last time you were violent?" Nope, there's no lines like "used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her" there!
"Fixing a Hole"—More prominent harpsichord is about the only major difference, although you can hear McCartney stretching out vocally on Take 3 and you hear a bit more of that on the remix fade.
Petty Pepper Complaint: Having recently seen the abysmal 1978 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, I can't get the image of George Burns soft-shoeing to this out of my mind.
"She's Leaving Home"—Most McCartney bashers save their ire for this one, complaining that he should've waited for George Martin to score it instead of tapping Mike Leander, who scored the Stones' "Yesterday" ripoff "As Tears Go By." Personally, I think Leander's silent-movie score sounds perfect, as if it was Mary Pickford leaving home. And it was the perfect accompaniment to all the years of studying the bygone faces on the cover and wondering out which ones had the lonely hearts.
Petty Pepper Complaint: The mono version was sped up to make Paul sound younger and although Giles Martin adheres to that, the song sounds rushed, robbing it of the aforementioned silent-movie pathos. But hey, if you've always thought this was a sappy counterpoint to "Eleanor Rigby," the remixed 2017 stereo mix ends nine seconds sooner!
"Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite"—Most Lennon bashers save their ire for this one, including John himself, who tends to knock all third person songs including his own. The mono version always carried more menace to it which is happily there in the remix.
Petty Pepper Complaint: Actually improves on the mono version on which the end reverb died out early instead of resonating. Since McCartney started performing this in concert, one suspects maybe he had a bigger hand in it than John, who maybe just bought the poster.
"Within You Without You"—Admit it, most of you skipped this song for the first couple of years owning this album. My first copy had more scratches at the beginning of "When I'm Sixty-Four" than the beginning of "Honey Pie" because it had become a needle landing strip.
Petty Pepper Complaint: George's sitar is more prominent—almost treble-y compared to the original. And the laughter at the end is a lot louder, maybe to compensate that the remix is way more serious now with the louder cellos!
"When I'm Sixty Four"—More prominent clarinet! McCartney's lead is centered and the background vocals are spread across both speakers.
Petty Pepper Complaint: Ringo's brushwork is more discernible now with less tape hiss. Cue fanatics who miss the tape hiss.
"Lovely Rita"—More bass drum and louder acoustic guitars. And another showcase for Ringo's tom fills.
Petty Pepper Complaint: Instead of just getting a kazoo, the group spends valuable studio time experimenting with a comb and EMI toilet tissue. On the original stereo mix you can hear the faint teeth of the comb being pulled back or what could be a zipper being pulled up after "when it gets dark I tow your heart away." Brace yourself, it's not on the remix!
"Good Morning, Good Morning"—This lone Lennon rocker, which always sounded like a grumpier English cousin of "Summer in the City" to me, rocks way harder now, and it rocked pretty hard before! For people who like to give the Beatles credit for everything, it sounds like Ringo invented the double bass pedal here on the coda.
Petty Pepper Complaint: The remix is seven seconds shorter. We're missing at least three chicken clucks!
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)"—The lone clunker of the mono version is the rooster that turns into a guitar, perfected on the stereo version but tossed off on the mono, with a really awkward lag, as if you can hear the turntable whirling on. That's corrected now.
Petty Pepper Complaint: You can hear McCartney screaming at the end "Paul is dead! really, really dead!" or whatever it is that he was supposed to be screaming. But you still can't be sure what he is screaming.
"A Day in the Life"—The orchestral freakout you've known for all these years is even more freaky now and although the piano slam at the end is louder in the remix, Ringo's squeaky folding chair is kept at the same volume it was before. Because they knew you would be listening in for it.
Petty Pepper Complaint: While the squeaky chair was saved and you can still hear someone yell "Hey" after Paul sings that he had a smoke, on the original stereo, you could hear a lot more mumbling before that. But seeing as you are getting a lot more unobstructed Beatle studio chatter on each new package, that's the tradeoff you'll have to live with.
Beatles fans spent the Memorial Day weekend soaking in the remixes and the outtakes as if it were the first time. You can even see fans unboxing it and giving their first impressions on YouTube, something that you had to do word-of-mouth in 1967. As first impressions go, I'll always remember being a plump little 6-year-old gazing upon the cover the first time in the window of a TV repair shop in June 1967 (recreated for your benefit here). It was just plopped there along with two other albums, Pat Cooper's Our Hero and The Monkees' Headquarters, then still sitting at number one. I was freaked out by the Pat Cooper album (a man inside of a sandwich, possibly about to be eaten) as any normal 6-year-old would be. But I was also more freaked out by the funereal Sgt. Pepper cover, the multitude of bearded, bald, old people, the bust of someone who looked like Lurch from The Addams Family, the presence of dead people like Laurel and Hardy and W.C Fields and the Beatles themselves who were no longer recognizable from their wax dummies of three years before. It wasn't until I saw the inside cover later that I was relieved the smiling Fabs were the same guys on my Beatles' "Flip Your Wig Game" with facial hair.
I couldn't have known the subversive messages being sent out on a cover that had Hindu gurus, Aleister Crowley, Karl Marx and Lenny Bruce, I just knew looking at that window, in the midst of TV tubes and rabbit ears, I was looking at the past, the present and the future. That future turned out to be now. We have no Summer of Love to ponder, no Vietnam War to protest, no miracle drug that's going to save us. But we do have an unpopular president and Sgt. Pepper to marvel over all over again. It's not the same, but it kinda is, and that's about the best splendid time that can be guaranteed for all in 2017.