The Sgt. Pepper’s 50th Anniversary Remix: Blessing or Blasphemy?

Amid the twisting, delicately arranged Indian instrumentation of Sgt. Pepper’s‘ “Within You Without You”, a whispered voice appears at the three-minute forty-second mark. It’s the voice of George Harrison, author of the song, counting himself back in before the next verse. It was a strange thing to leave in, I always thought. But was it a leftover of the recording session that nobody remembered to take out, or was it deliberately included in the final pressing? Perhaps this hushed, insistent voice was there as an emblem of the production process. Maybe it was meant to peel back the swirling backdrop and mystical lyrics to show that a team of real, imperfect people was behind it all. It was one of the most mysterious little details that Sgt. Pepper’s had to offer. I could never tell exactly when it was coming, and it always took me by surprise.

But upon listening to the remix released in honor of the 50th anniversary of the record, an even greater surprise awaited: the voice was gone entirely. No count-in remained. George simply comes in with the next verse right on time. All in all, the new remix is a remarkable accomplishment. But at points, such as George’s missing count-in, I get the feeling that the remix fundamentally misunderstands some of the album’s genius.

Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, produced this new mix of The Beatles’ most critically and commercially beloved album. The Beatles themselves oversaw the production of the original mono version, but not the widely available stereo version. And the stereo version sounds like a product of its time, a time when sound mixing was far less advanced than it is today and stereo had not yet become the widely accepted standard for music production. But still, The Beatles and their crack team at Abbey Road were at the forefront of music technology, and the stereo version remains listenable to this day.

The original stereo mix has its problems though. As with much stereo music of this era, instruments are often uncomfortably shoved to the far end of the soundscape. The electric piano in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, the harpsichord of “Fixing a Hole”, the tablas in “Within You Without You”, and the grinding saxophones of “Good Morning Good Morning” all blast out of one end, which can sound jarring in headphones. The opening to “Lovely Rita” is a muddled mess on the far left end of the soundscape from which it’s nearly impossible to separate out the individual instruments. But this version of Sgt. Pepper’s is, to me, the trusty old version. It’s what I used to listen to while riding the bus to school in tenth grade. It’s what I used to listen to after sneaking out of band practice early, huddled in the corner of the auditorium with my iPhone and earbuds, lost in its colorful, cathartic world. Those days are gone, but the album remains.

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But now, a wrench has been thrown into those memories. Giles Martin’s 50th anniversary remix has arrived to correct the issues with the original mix. Using 2017 technology, Martin updated the album’s 1967 trappings with immaculate and smooth stereo sound. Even when features are stuck on the far end of the soundscape, it sounds well-rounded and finely tuned, and there’s nothing jarring about it. At first, it was strange to listen to. Beyond overall mix changes, small details have been altered as well. The smug laughing at the end of “Within You Without You” is much louder, and the aforementioned count-in is gone. “Lovely Rita” now sounds much clearer, but slightly sterile as well, and the massive difference between the openings of the old and new mixes made the new one sound a bit karaoke-ish at first. Paul McCartney’s carnival barking at the end of the title track reprise, a detail I never noticed in the original mix, now leaps from the speakers. “Good Morning Good Morning”, at one point my favorite Beatles song, sounds starkly different, as the saxophones fill out the soundscape brilliantly, and Ringo’s drums land right where they should. The drum hit just before the second verse of “Mr. Kite!” finally loses its old timidity and sounds as satisfyingly carnivalesque as the rest of the song.

The only major issue with this new mix, and the reason why I think it slightly misunderstands the original project, is that some of the mystery is now gone from the album. The new Sgt. Pepper’s sounds less like a musty vinyl record seeped in pot smoke and more like a precisely digital psychedelic workhorse. George no longer has to count himself in, because he knows exactly when to sing. Details that were once muddled enigmas sound clear as day. We’ve lifted up the rock of Sgt. Pepper’s to expose the creepy-crawlies underneath, and they can no longer escape the sunlight. The album now moves without antiquity slowing it down. But it sounds wonderful, no doubt about it. Every Beatles fan has to experience the stereo spectacle of the new mix. I’ll mostly listen to this version from now on, but not exclusively. And I still want to get my hands on that mono mix. The remix also brings up the question: what about the others? Will Revolver get this treatment? What would that sound like? But perhaps that’s the point. Sgt. Pepper’s is Sgt. Pepper’s. Nothing else is, or ever will be.

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