A Song-By-Song Look at the 50th Anniversary ‘Sgt. Pepper’ Remixes

To mark the occasion of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band‘s 50th birthday, Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin and longtime producer of many a Fab Four reissue and remix, once again entered the studio and refreshed the album.

Drawing from the original tapes (no copies here), Martin reconstructed the Beatles’ masterpiece in stunning stereo, “lifting the curtain,” as he told NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” in order to bring the listener closer to the band.

Though we’re all intimately familiar with these 13 tracks, the REBEAT staff took a closer look at these new versions, examining them, comparing them, and playing them over and over (and over). Here are our impressions.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

The first impressions of the second working of a piece of art are critical.

You’re familiar, intimate even, with the original. And there’s the nagging fear that in restoring the piece, something will go wrong and the original will be lost for good. Sometimes it’s the fault of the restorer, making a bad decision that changes the overall tone (an example of which is below). More often, the real danger is that in restoring the piece, you find a flaw that was there all along but somehow missed; you see it or hear it, and you feel betrayed for having defended the work all this time.

There are cases where the rework goes off spectacularly, showing you more of what there was to love the first time. Restoring the Sistine Chapel back in 1994 was a great example of this, as was the cell restoration and re-dub of Akira in 2002, the opening bike chase scene from which is still one of the most exciting openings for any project.

The same applies to the title track of the new version of the album. Each instrument is distinctively crisp as the same ear-popping rifts remind you why you held this album so dearly in your heart since the first time you listened. Ringo’s drums, Paul’s bass, even the individual “plink” of the violin tuning up before the first chords are strummed, all come through. It’s the equivalent of taking a flat image and turning it into a 3D sculpture.

It’s an approach that works well in this instance, as we start the album off. — James Ryan

“With a Little Help From My Friends”

If the opening track is the offer to listen and pay attention to the album, “With a Little Help From My Friends” is what closes the deal for you to sit and listen. It has always been an infectious, warm song, a snappy tempo backing up Ringo’s voice that radiates happiness. And the subject of the lyrics — friendship and community, reaching out to people in need — is not only a great distillation of the main theme of the “Summer of Love” but also a universal aspiration we have, to get along and help each other out.

The help Giles Martin gives the track in the remix keeps it as fresh to a current ear as it was for listeners in 1967. There’s an aural warmth that comes through in the bass riff that just makes the piece feel like putting your hands up to the fire during a cookout. Amazingly, the bass focus doesn’t drown out the other components of the song; the harmonies are very distinct, and the rest of the elements are crisp and embraced in the bass without being lost in its folds.

Most important is Ringo’s voice. Even in the new mix, it’s still the perfect means to provide the lyrics and themes of the song. There’s nothing here to diminish how large this song looms in Ringo’s renown; if anything, it reminds us all what we looked for from him time after time. — James Ryan

“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”

A lot has been written about the iconic “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” so to be expected to have any sort of original ideas regarding the track is daunting, to say the least. Personally, I can attest that this song was my introduction to the wonderfully vibrant and soulful world of psychedelic art and music. This was the case for many listeners, especially when the song debuted in 1967 and jumpstarted the Summer of Love.

I personally can’t think of a more appropriate introduction to the psychedelic subculture. The poetic and lulling Alice in Wonderland-inspired lyrics transport the listener to a vivid dreamland, full of sound, color, and amusing anachronisms.

Apparently, during the writing process, McCartney helped Lennon suss out his imagery, ping-ponging ideas off of each other. According to both writers, newspaper taxis and cellophane flowers were McCartney, but the rest was pure John. After all, the inspiration for the song was supposedly taken from the title of a picture drawn by John’s son Julian of his then-classmate Lucy.

But for Lennon, Lucy represented much more than the innocent doodlings of a nursery school art project or childhood infatuation: Lucy represented the hope that one day a woman would rescue him and set him free. Although he had yet to meet Yoko Ono, John claimed in later interviews that “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” proved that he was always looking for his Yoko, he just didn’t know her name yet.

Perfectly married to Lennon and McCartney’s playful lyrics is the iconic instrumentation, featuring McCartney playing a Lowery Organ with the settings tweaked for maximum trippiness, and Geroge Harrison shaking a tambura that fades in and out of the mix.

For this 2017 restoration, a lot of the wrongs that the previous stereo mix had wrought upon the song’s mono arrangement had been fixed. For starters, Lennon’s lead vocals are at the front and center of the mix, allowing other musical elements to flit back and forth (especially that previously mentioned Lowery) surreally throughout the song. As with the original mono mix, the vocals are slightly double tracked and just a little off-kilter. This lends itself nicely to the entire dreamscape that the band was attempting to paint.

This is a vast improvement over the original stereo mix, in which Lennon’s iconic vocals are shoved unceremoniously, single tracked, into the right channel. Putting Lennon’s vocals in the middle almost make him feel like your personal guide through his fantasy realm. Also, the remix of the chorus is particularly stunning. Giles Martin gives it a crunch and a coherence that it was lacking in other versions. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how hard The Beatles rocked, but their tenacity is on full display here.

There are some very revealing outtakes for “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” on the deluxe reissue of Sgt. Pepper as well. Both takes 1 and 5 are included and what sticks out to me most about them is John’s stunted vocal delivery. Lennon claimed that he was feeling nervous during the first few takes on the song, and you can really tell on the takes included. Something special happened as recording continued: Lennon ended up smoothing out his nerves and delivering an unforgettable final vocal.

I find it difficult to imagine a world in which “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” never happened. Although influenced by Lewis Caroll, little Julian Lennon, and of course, the Beatles’ own well-documented experimentation with psychedelics, the song really is its own unique and unreplicable wild animal.

“Lucy’s” arrival meant that psychedelic culture had truly made its way into the mainstream, and it’s never left. Large and grandiose pieces of more modern culture like Keith Haring paintings, the music of Dan Deacon, and even the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time all share some technicolored DNA with “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” The world would be a much less colorful place without its influence. — Louie Pearlman

“Getting Better”

This album may be the work of one Sgt. Pepper and his Club Band full of Lonely Hearts, but “Getting Better” is one of the few spots on the album where we’re allowed a glimpse at the four moptops we know and love. Lyrically, the song starts out fully within the Beatles’ wheelhouse: Paul (the cute one) offering thanks to the good woman whose love has changed his life for the better.

Even the music backing him up is recognizably that of the Beatles: that buzzsaw guitar intro, which sounds so amazing in this new remix, a simple beat from Ringo, a few jangly plucked Rickenbacker notes for extra that Beatles feel. It serves to re-orient the listener after wandering through the LSD wonderland that is “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” a reminder that these guys were on Ed Sullivan a mere three years prior.

But then, almost as if that wily Sergeant caught the lads mucking about with his gear and kicked them out, a tamboura begins droning like the roar of a jet engine, and the following lyrical bombshell is dropped: “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved” Holy shit! Can you imagine being a teenage girl in 1967 and hearing your beloved Beatles admitting to domestic abuse? There’s no going back to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” after such a searing confession as that.

From there, the Beatles of yesterday (and “Yesterday”) fade into the background. “Getting Better” is a glimpse of things to come, of these boys becoming men, and realizing that romance is less like “She Loves You” than it is “Hello, Goodbye.” But you can’t say hello without saying goodbye. — Liam Carroll

“Fixing a Hole”

I feel as though “Fixing a Hole” is often glossed over when considering Sgt. Pepper. Situated between the much-loved rocker “Getting Better” and the poignantly gorgeous “She’s Leaving Home,” “Fixing” is easily hidden. In spite of this, it’s always been one of my favorite McCartney compositions and arrangements — and the remixed rendition highlights all the little details that make it so lovely.

McCartney definitely understands how to balance a song. “Fixing”‘s juxtaposition of structured harpsichord and playful bass line is a prime example of him using both instruments to complement — rather than compete with — each other. The updated mix only accentuates this compatibility, with the bass accentuated and the harpsichord coming across as less treble-y. It’s “fatter,” warmer, and just all-around a more pleasant listening experience. Paul’s vocal has gained clarity, despite its being soaked in reverb. Even the electric guitar flourishes and hi-hat hits somehow seem to have an added brilliance to them. Every little sonic detail seems to have been taken into careful consideration.

For as many times as I’ve listened to “Fixing a Hole,” I’ve never really noticed the Beach Boys-esque “do do do”s in the second refrain. Maybe they got somewhat overshadowed in the chaos of the previous mixes and remasters (or maybe I just subconsciously tuned them out, because after listening to those previous mixes and remasters again, I must say the “do do do”s are most certainly there). Regardless, they’re prominently featured now, reminding listeners of just how much influence Pet Sounds had on Pepper.

Where the original “Fixing a Hole” can come across as a bit disjointed, this version helps the myriad sounds — the sharp harpsichord, the buoyant bass, the metallic drums, and the smooth guitar and vocals — to gel cohesively. This is a mix that does not need any fixing. — Danielle Zabielski

“She’s Leaving Home”

What is it about classical music that causes all these controversies?

We have the debate about Beethoven’s metronome. We have 4’33” by John Cage. And let’s not even go there over anything Igor Stravinsky did.

So finding another one here, on the most classically infused piece of Sgt. Pepper, shouldn’t be a surprise, really. In the re-release, the song gets the most noticeable, even jarring, rework; it’s higher by a step and puts the harps in greater focus over the rest of the chamber pieces, especially the bass violin, which, considering it’s a “Paul song,” seems especially odd. It’s such a rework that Paul’s voice seems up a register as well in the new mix.

In some ways, doing this changes the whole tenor of the song. It’s less ponderous and grounded with the overall tonality shifted up, and seems almost too light considering the subject matter. Are we trying to focus more on the girl (Melanie Cole, whom Paul ironically met on Ready Steady Go!) and her liberation, than her parents and their loss? Is this tonal shift an intended POV change to give the story a different patina?

After 50 years of a song that evoked thoughtful consideration delivered through pain bringing wisdom, trying to laugh off a difficult relationship moment like this now seems inappropriate. It feels badly thought out, especially if in the last 50 years since the first issue the listener’s had children and had to consider the likelihood of such a scenario. Are we really expected to smile now when we used to be asked to get ready to cry? — James Ryan

“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”

When we were asked to contribute to this review, I knew right away which song I wanted to write about: “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” I’ve always considered it the most important song on Sgt. Pepper. That’s not to say it’s the best song, but I say it is the most important because I think it ties the album together thematically.

If the whole concept of the album was to record it as if it were based on a performance by the fictional Sgt. Pepper’s band (as it apparently was), it had to sound like a performance. In the case of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” it works because the idea for the song came about from a 19th-century circus poster John Lennon bought in an antique shop, so the inspiration lends itself to the album’s concept. Located seven tracks in and as the last song on side one of the original album, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” reinforces the “performance” idea more so than any track on side one save the introduction.

What makes it work is the song’s carnivalesque sound, with calliopes, organ, harmonicas, harmoniums, and the like. Those instruments are as prominent as ever in this new mix, clearly reinforcing the circus setting in the best way possible.

But what really stands out here is the clarity of Ringo’s drum playing and the cymbals. Some critics in the past complained that at times on Sgt. Pepper’s Ringo’s contributions were often minimalized, mixed down to feature a variety of other instruments and vocals. In this remixing, we hear the brush on the snare drum and the hi-hat cymbals more prominently. It’s often been said that Lennon told George Martin that in this song he wanted to be able “to smell the sawdust on the floor,” and in this mix it’s not hard to imagine Ringo sitting in front of a sideshow working his drums and cymbals. It’s really superb. — Rick Simmons

“Within You Without You”

It’s hard to believe that when Sgt. Pepper was released 50 years ago, George Harrison’s major contribution, “Within You Without You” was the “skippable song.” Positioned at the start of side two, listeners would often bypass the record’s outer grooves and proceed right to “When I’m Sixty-Four,” missing what might just be one of the album’s most complex, deep, and sonically impressive tracks.

Recorded without the other Beatles, Harrison recruited members of the Asian Music Circle on traditional Indian instruments like the tabla, dilruba, and of course, the sitar, which Harrison himself picked up from Ravi Shankar. Some of the most fascinating outtakes from the album’s deluxe box set are Harrison coaching the guesting musicians through the tune, speaking fluently about his Mixolydian methodology.

The result is a fusion of two distinct genres: Indian music and pop. Although unconventional at the time, it, perhaps more than Harrison’s first Indian-classical offering, “Love You To” and certainly more than the sitar’s cameo on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” helped to broaden the interest in Eastern sounds, maybe by sheer virtue of how instantly ubiquitous Sgt. Pepper became.

In the lyrics, Harrison reflects a combination of different ideologies and philosophies. Certainly, the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda (who also appears on the album cover) are represented, along with the ’60s countercultural belief of cosmic oneness with both the universe and each other. That, along with the Westernization of Indian tones and instruments, makes this not only quintessentially of its time, but also a groundbreaking achievement in bridging an ancient philosophy with one adopted by the Beatles themselves and their listeners.

Through Giles Martin’s inspired new remixes, “Within You Without You” engulfs the listener, demanding attention. In its new incarnation, where the melody is even more hypnotizing than in any previous mono or stereo version, there’s no way anyone in his or her right mind would dream of skipping this sensory experience. — Allison Boron

“When I’m Sixty-Four”

“When I’m Sixty-Four” is the only track that could have been performed by the fictional Victorian-era music hall band that formed the loose Sgt. Pepper concept. Yet, it was the only song on Sgt. Pepper that wasn’t written for the album.

Paul wrote it years before. It was a staple of the Beatles’ Cavern Club days, and its reliance on piano made it their go-to choice when the amps blew out. He probably only remembered it after so many years because his own father turned 64 years old in 1966. But it’s the perfect choice at the perfect moment, bringing the concept to life and bringing the album down to earth after the mind-bending trip that is “Within You Without You.”

John Lennon would hate me for it, but I’ve always a huge fan of this song, and all of McCartney’s “granny music.” So I knew this was the one I’d be most excited about on the new release. And it did not disappoint. The richness and subtleties Giles Martin was able to pull from a song that seems so simple on the surface is astounding.

Things I always unconsciously knew were there but never really registered — the surprisingly trippy background harmony, the clarinet countermelody that could be a song unto itself, and the artful and calculated use of bells to emphasize lyrical points — are all brought to full life in this arrangement.

And Paul’s voice is so crystal clear, he might as well be in the room. This mix turned what many feel to be a throwaway number into a standout track that is deserving of many more listens. –Erika White

“Lovely Rita”

I’ll admit that this has never been one of my favorite Sgt. Pepper tracks. It felt like filler, a song that would have been destined for deep-track obscurity had it been recorded by any other band. That was especially true on the original stereo version, where the vocals and bass line were relegated to the right channel, making for an artificial and unbalanced listening experience. But this new mix has completely changed my view.

Listen closely to this song. Every layer and building block that went into creating the track can be heard, and Martin has mixed it perfectly so the right sounds — whether bass, vocals, drums, or even special effects — pop at just the right time, surprising the listener again and again. Elements that were originally buried or muffled are now out in full force, and nothing, no matter how small, goes unheard or unnoticed. Check out the tiny pops after “had a laugh and over dinner” (1:29). What is that supposed to be? Laughing? Champagne corks popping? Whatever it is, it’s newly uncovered and delightful to discover.

More than that, the new approach Martin took to mixing in stereo is a revelation. Gone are the muffled drums and odd one-sided vocals. In their places is a sound that bursts from the speakers, drawing you in from the first note. Bass and drums are smoking hot here, and harmonies that were once muffled backing vocals are as spine chilling and powerful as on Abbey Road’s harmonic masterpiece “Because.” The end tag sounds so fresh and modern it could have been recorded yesterday, with Martin emphasizing hardcore elements that would be at home on any Top 40 station today.

As Ringo says at the end of the track, “I don’t believe it.” And I don’t. It’s that awesome. — Erika White

“Good Morning Good Morning”

Although on its surface “Good Morning Good Morning” is a peppy Beatles banger, further examination reveals that the song is John Lennon’s cry for help. At the time of its writing, it’s been much documented that Lennon was feeling trapped in suburbia and in a marriage with Cynthia Lennon he no longer wanted.

The result is a song full of anachronisms. Instrumentally, “Good Morning Good Morning” is bright and percussive, featuring a blazing Paul McCartney guitar solo, but the lyrics like “nothing to do to save his life, call his wife in” and “I’ve got nothing to say but it’s okay” are full of evidence that Lennon wanted to escape. Also of note are the animal sounds, pulled from an Abbey Road sound effects library, at the end of the song. Inspired by Pet Sounds (as was the whole album), this is a fitting coda for the song and an effective segue into the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise that follows this track.

It honestly feels like listening to the song for the first time with this new Giles Martin mix. Ringo is often judged as “the most useless Beatle,” but this new mix brings his drumming to the forefront in a way that proves that Starr brought an incredible amount of texture to his musical contributions. Also, Lennon’s vocals, which sound needlessly double tracked in the original stereo mix, come in as clear as the rooster crow that starts the song. It’s an absolute treat to feel closer to the band while they’re playing, which the new mix accomplishes.

Although not often singled out as being one of the most important songs in the Beatles canon, this track is not without its fans. For starters, it was used in the final episode of The Monkees,”The Frodis Caper,” which was directed by Micky Dolenz himself.

This couldn’t have been known by Dolenz at the time, but “Good Morning Good Morning” was inspired by a Kellogg’s commercial John Lennon had seen while watching his afternoon soaps (one of which was Meet The Wife, mentioned in the song). Kellogg’s was a major Monkees sponsor: a strange loop of influence for a song that, although feels pretty straightforward on first listen is quite bizarre underneath. — Louie Pearlman

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”

You’re familiar with the term “too much of a good thing,” I presume?

In making every element of the reprise as distinct as each element of the opening was, every possible pitfall noted in the opening of the album, unfortunately, comes into play here. Yes, we get to hear each instrument distinctly, including a tambourine that’s furiously overused from the moment the guitars come crashing through following Ringo’s drums rolling up into the guitars. We hear Paul going off in a set of yells that tries to undercut the crescendo. The least jarring of the new features, the crowd giving an “awww” when the band announces it’s time to go, still feels off.

Better these were found later on, after all the goodwill brought us back, than in the opening. Coming between two strong re-workings, we can refuse to let this get put off. –James Ryan

“A Day in the Life”

Your life is your life, but is it only your life? Is it merely your life? Are there layers that we cannot perceive, but perhaps deep down know they’re there? Is seeing a photograph of a man, his mind blown out in a car, the same as seeing it in person? If you recreate a war on film, which is in and of itself a recreation from a book, does the carnage still feel real? Why must we always go into a dream when someone speaks? Are we that self-centered? Will we ever know how many holes it truly takes to fill the Albert Hall?

Can pop music reflect the lives of ordinary people when it’s made by gilded millionaires, groovy though their attire may be?  Is the idea of writing about a so-called “average person’s” life condescending or beautiful? Does it seem ballsy today for the biggest band in history to end their most popular album with a collection of minutiae about a person’s morning routine?

Did you know it was possible for a song you’ve most likely heard countless times before to sound completely new again? Is there any way to prepare yourself for how much more dynamic and bursting with life this song sounds when that rolling piano joins in with the strums of the acoustic guitar? Does it change your experience of that song to hear it’s parts individually reassembled? Does it lose some power when recast as just a R&B church organ folk diddy? Or just an acapella plea to the heavens? Or just a nightmarish miasma of strings?

Is there a way to stop the tears (tears of joy, tears of wonder, tears of birth and death) from spilling out when that final oceanic chord comes bearing down like the entire weight of God, only to stretch out serenely across the universe?

Never to see any other way? Quite the contrary. — Liam Carroll