“It was a game-changer in the development of modern music and recording...” hmv.com talks Sgt. Pepper with Giles Martin
As Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band reaches its 50th birthday this week, a special anniversary edition of the Beatles' 1967 album arrives in stores today and the new version has been given a fresh mix by Giles Martin, son of the band's producer George Martin. To find out exactly what we can expect from the 50th Anniversary Edition, we spoke to Giles about how he got involved with the project, why new technology enabled him to present the Beatles music in a new light, and what we can expect from this brand new edition of Sgt. Pepper...
How did you get involved with the 50th-anniversary reissue of Sgt. Peppers?
“I have been involved with music projects for The Beatles since I started working with my dad on the Anthology releases in the mid-nineties right up to last year when I worked with the Ron Howard film 8 Days A Week and the album, Live At The Hollywood Bowl. During the process of creating the 5.1 mixes for the 1+ project, we had to create new stereo mixes as part of that and I realised that the work that I and Sam Okell had done with those singles could be applied to Sgt Pepper as a whole album. So it is an organic process of discovery and discussion with Apple Corps and when we all felt we had a plan for how we might do it, we got the approval to give it a go.”
Obviously the album is seen as a kind of cultural milestone, is that why there's a 50th anniversary release for this but not for albums like Revolver?
“Partly, yes of course. There are significant anniversary dates all the time around The Beatles and every single album they recorded is arguably a cultural milestone of some sort. However, Sgt Pepper is special in that it was the album that followed their decision to stop touring and instead to focus on the process or writing and recording in the studio. So it was a game-changer in the development of modern music and recording as well as within their own development as a band. But it was also the time of the summer of love, of experimentation and a new feeling in the world, so the album took on a life beyond even that of a Beatles album!
“But there is also the practical world of getting a project like this off the ground - we have to believe that there is something we can do with the mix to make it feel at the same time more modern and yet also closer to what the band wanted the stereo to sound like; and also to have enough sessions and takes that could be good enough quality to present to the public. So it is partly the cultural significance but also it is the overall opportunity of what the archive holds and how we can work with it to make something new enough and significant enough for the band to allow us to release.”
There have been several remasters and reissues of Beatles albums over the years, including Sgt. Peppers – what makes this one different?
“This is a REMIX. When the record was first issued in 1967, the Beatles, my dad and Geoff Emerick spent a great deal of time getting the mono album mixed and ready for a release. Getting the mono mix right involved the band and was a creative process in itself. Stereo was in it's infancy. As a result the stereo version wasn't their focus, those mixes were completed without the band and so some of the key decisions taken on the mono mix did not get transferred into the stereo. So ironically, although that stereo version is what we all know and listen to now, it wasn't the band's original vision. The previous versions of the album have been remasters and reissues based on those original stereo masters limited by the technology of 1967."
So what exactly were you able to do this time that wasn't possible before?
“Using the technology that we have today, we have been able to go back to the original recording sessions and the four track tapes of the time - before they were 'bounced down' or combined to fit all the instruments and vocals into one master - so that we can now lift the lid of the box and reveal the layers of recording for the first time. If The Beatles and my dad had been able to use today’s studio they would have been able to mix an almost infinite number of tracks to create the master - in those days, they only had four!
"What this does then is it enables us to create a new stereo mix; one that is based on the mono mix which was after all the album that the band themselves wanted, one that gets you closer to the band than ever before, with the vocals and band arranged much more naturally in the sound-field (no longer are the vocals pushed to one speaker, etc) with the width, depth and height of a truly modern recording.”
Is the reissue just going to feature a stereo mix? Or will there also be a mono mix, or something different?
“Yes, as above, in terms of the stereo mix. However, the six-disc Super Deluxe set also includes a mono disc with the flat transfer of the original mono album as well as some additional bonus mono recordings, such as Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane and some outtakes.
“Myself and Sam Okell have also created a new 5.1 mix of the album and those two songs, all of which are included on the DVD and Blu-Ray.”
We understand that the new version will include Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever, both of which were recorded during the album sessions - did you consider changing the order of the track listing?
“Sgt. Pepper is Sgt. Pepper, that has not changed because we didn't want to change the tracks on what is arguably one of the most iconic albums of all time. Because those tracks were recorded at the time of the album sessions, it makes sense to have them included within the package, but not as part of the album.
“Instead, we have included them on disc two of the deluxe two-CD set, which is an alternative version of the album made up from session takes in the same running order - so it is almost an unplugged version of the album, for want of a better word. We felt it was best to add session takes of both these songs and alongside these we have included the new stereo mixes. They also appear with their session takes on the discs in the super deluxe box, but that is sequenced in the order in which they were recorded.
What else can we expect to find on the new reissue?
“There are different formats with different levels of additional material. The one-disc CD is simply the album in the new mix with no additional material. The two-disc Deluxe set contains an alternative album of 13 previously unreleased takes with an additional five tracks of takes of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane along with their new stereo mixes. The Super Deluxe Box set contains 33 session takes, all of which are previously unreleased in this form (any that were included in Anthology have here been presented in their original and full form and so have never been released like this before) as well as the additional mono mixes and 5.1 surround mixes which are completely new and therefore have never been previously released.”
You've worked with the Beatles master tapes before for the Anthology series and LOVE, and it seems like you've been pretty hands-on with this – how did you approach the task this time around?
“My involvement has been completely hands-on. All the mixing has been done by myself and engineer Sam Okell. I approach the task with a sense of reverence and responsibility but also with a sense of adventure and being open to the possibilities. We have to listen carefully to the original mono mix since this was our base reference for what we were trying to get closer to and then we have to work with the team at Abbey Road to ensure that we have all the tapes from the sessions to start to mix.
“Once our mix was done, we then checked and re-checked every decision to see whether it was in the service of the feel and emotion of the song since we want this to sound great but it also has to FEEL great - this album above all others created a special emotional connection and impression on everyone that has ever heard it and we recognise that our new mix has to have the same emotional impact too. When I was younger and working on LOVE, I once created a mix that sounded incredible, but then when I listened to it against the original song I realised I had created some kind of sterile version of it that was technically great but emotionally had lost its impact. So in creating this mix we had to both make it sound modern and better than it has before, but which also feels the same and has that same emotional connection.”
Have Paul & Ringo been directly involved?
“They have not been in the studio working on these tracks but yes, they have heard everything and I sat with Paul to play him the new mix. No Beatles release ever makes it to the world without the full and active approval of all of the team of Paul, Ringo, Yoko and Olivia.”
For years now there has been speculation about an avant-garde piece recorded during those sessions called 'Carnival of Light' – do you think it'll ever see the light of day?
“I hope so. It is really not a piece of music in the same way that we know of from all the other Beatles recordings, so it is not easy to find a place for it, but yes I am hopeful that we will be able to find a way that serves the music without creating too much expectation of it."
There's quite a lot of other stuff going in around the anniversary, especially in Liverpool – have you been involved with any of that?
“There is so much happening all over the world that it really does seem to have become a massive cultural moment - and partly this is Sgt. Pepper but also partly it is the summer of love and the celebration of that time.
“In terms of the Liverpool celebrations - everyone involved in The Beatles’ world is terribly excited by the creative ideas that they have come up with but I am not directly involved in them. I do know of several TV shows that have been made, including one by the BBC as well as radio shows and all sorts of celebratory events but there are far too many things for me to be hands-on involved with. However, I have done a special mix which I can’t yet talk about but which will be part of a major event on 'Pepper Day' of June 1st, worldwide.”