One week before its release, the 50th anniversary edition box set of the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper” ranks at number on amazon. It’s been there more or less every day for the last month. The box costs $117.99. Capitol Records doesn’t release pre-order figures, but at this rate the box could be the number 1 album the week it goes on sale.
Is it worth it? I’ve been listening to it for a couple of weeks now and the answer is “absolutely yes.” And listen, I’m old. I have the original LP. the picture LP, replacement LP, the original CD, the updated CD, the CD from the 2009 box set and the CD from the 2009 mono set. And still the production on these discs is so lovely and superior, I’ve put all those aside.
First of all the box itself, physically, is beautifully designed. In addition to the discs (four audio, two video) there’s a substantial book that tells the story of “Sgt, Pepper.” You also get the original posters. And the discs come in a replica of the original album.
The book is quite substantial, by the way. There’s so much information about the making of the album– including recording logs and replicas of the original lyrics– you don’t need to buy any other books.
But it’s the music that has kept me listening. McCartney’s bass on “Lucy in the Sky,” his piano on “A Day in the Life,” Lennon’s overall contribution to keep the album rocking and not ever cloying (which could have happened), Ringo’s brilliant drums, and George, George, George. Plus, George Martin’s prowess as the Fab Four’s guide here reaches nirvana.
Recently, I’ve been focused on “A Day in the Life.” It’s a masterpiece, of course. You do know the BBC banned it from airplay in 1967 because of “Drug references”? The letter to EMI from the BBC is included in the book. I’ve been listening the mono mix, but there is the ‘new’ stereo mix and the outtakes. You listen to this and wonder how, 50 years later, we’ve traveled backwards from here musically. It’s very sad. “A Day in the Life” rises to some level we only give to Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. Extraordinary.
Two other important features of the box set– the addition of “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Originally recorded for the album, they became a standalone double A sided single. Once they were hits, the Beatles decided to leave them off “Sgt. Pepper”– which had no singles of its own. Now they come at the end of the mono CD, with work versions included on the “extras” CDs. It’s hard to say where they’d fit in the actual sequence at this point– somewhere before the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise, I suppose.
As I say often in this space, these songs are each stories– every one of them is a story, and that’s why they’ve lasted and grown in importance. They’re short stories, and we know the characters’ names– from Billy Shears to grandchildren Vera, Chuck and Dave, Lovely Rita the meter maid, the girl who’s leaving home, Mr. Kite and so on. If Bob Dylan could get a Nobel prize, how can the Beatles be excluded for this landmark creation? “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” is the very definition of literature.
More to come…