Following on from my Def Leppard Hysteria boxset review, I now want to do a review of the 50th anniversary box set of the Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This follows on from the unboxing video that I did of the set recently.
I did already own a copy of the original album, thanks to downloading the Beatles albums on iTunes a few years ago when they finally gave permission for their albums to be made available for download. But I loved the idea of getting extra outtakes and work-in-progress tracks, as well as the other background information from the book, so I figured it would be a nice treat for myself – and, indeed, Mum bought this for me as a birthday present. And I’m very happy with it.
The set is very nicely packaged, in an LP sized box with a lenticular cover. It contains 4 CDs of music – a new stereo mix of the album on disc 1, outtakes from the sessions on the next 2 discs, and the original mono version of the album on disc 4. You then get a DVD and a Blu-Ray disc, containing a documentary about the making of the album, a few promotional videos, and a high definition audio version of the album if you have a suitable player to listen on.
There is also a large hardback book, which is really colourful and packed full of interesting background information about the album’s creation, each of the tracks on it, the clever tricks and engineering feats that went into its production, the music scene and the world in general at the time of its release. the story behind the cover art, and much more, along with loads of photos as well. It’s a fascinating read, it gives you a really deep insight into the album so you can appreciate and enjoy it even more. And finally, you get a poster the band in their Sgt Pepper costumes, a copy of the poster that inspired Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite, and a copy of the original card insert from the album with cut out figures.
My only slight issue with the design is that there are various instances of black text on a red background – e.g. the lyrics on the back of the album, and the text on the back of some of the CD cases. And because of the different colours of text and backgrounds used for each section of the book, some chapters are easier to read than others. However, the back of the album is a faithful reproduction of the original, meaning the black text was there originally, so it would have upset the purist fans to change it. The lyrics are also presented in black on white in the big hardback book, which is much clearer, and I could also get them online if I really wanted to look at them. So I’m not missing out on anything major. It’s just one of those colour contrast things that bugs me sometimes. Thankfully here it’s not a major issue in the end. So overall I love how vibrantly colourful and nicely packaged it is.
The original album itself is presented in a new stereo mix (CD 1), and its original mono mix (CD 4). Now, I’m not an audiophile, I just enjoy listening to music for entertainment, so I’m not going to give an in-depth assessment of how the stereo and mono versions compare. However, I can say that they do sound very distinct from one another. To me, the stereo version is louder, fuller and clearer, with a well-rounded sound, and it’s really enjoyable to listen to. So the tracks sound better that way, I think. However, the mono mix still sounds great as well, to be fair, and there may well be purist fans who prefer that as the original and definitive version, which is absolutely fine.
The music on this album is consistently brilliant in any case, as you’ll already know if you’re a fan of it. Most people know at least some of the songs on here. but every one of them is a winner – including catchy sing-alongs like With A Little Help From My Friends and When I’m Sixty-Four, the strange but fun Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (not about LSD as some claim), the sad but gorgeous She’s Leaving Home, the fairground-infused Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!, the beautiful Within You Without You with its use of Asian instruments, and the epic A Day In The Life that closes the album, along with the fabulous double A-side of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane (the stereo mixes of those two tracks are on CD2 amongst the session outtakes). There’s so much to enjoy here, and the album certainly embodies the variety show that the fictional band led by Sgt Pepper is hosting.
Every track is unique and special, and each are complex in their own way, And you can hear different things every time you listen to them. There’s a whole section of the book dedicated to information about each track in turn, telling you all about the conception of the song and extensive information on how it was recorded. And that really helps to make this set interesting. Reading the book gives you a great appreciation of how each track is constructed, and that means you can have fun listening out for elements that you perhaps had never noticed before.
It’s all the more impressive when you remember that they only 4-track tapes to work with – so they had to do a lot of merging of tracks to create ‘reduction mixes’, and ‘bounce’ things around from one tape to another, in order to add all the different components and effects they wanted. It required a lot of careful planning and work, and was a major feat for its time, and not being a music engineer I don’t pretend to fully understand it all, but the results are certainly worth it. The artists of today that use mixing desks with an infinite number of channels all organised and mixed on a computer can’t appreciate the skill and engineering involved. So it’s well worth listening to each track closely to see what you can pick out, there are lots of different instruments, textures and fun touches to discover.
So all that in itself is interesting, but it’s the two discs of session material that are really fascinating. Here you get lots of outtakes and work-in-progess material relating to every single track on the album and the double A-side single. So there are plenty of ideas and experiments here that never made it to the final album, work-in-progress instrumental versions, mixes of tracks that expose elements you may never have heard or noticed before, chatter between the band, and more.
For instance, you’ve got multiple takes of Strawberry Fields Forever, two of which were spliced together to make the version we all know, despite one take originally being faster and in a different key until it was slowed down to match the other take. For Penny Lane you can hear an instrumental version, and the band chatting away as they work on vocal overdubs for the track. A Day In The Life gets 5 tracks dedicated to it, with early takes, the orchestral overdubs, and various attempts at humming and playing that iconic last chord. The Indian instruments used for Within You Without You can be heard in isolation here and sound beautiful, plus you get to hear George Harrison coaching the musicians. She’s Leaving Home also sounds lovely in its instrumental form. And so on – there’s a lot of material to get through here. There are a few bonus mono mixes on the end of the mono album as well (CD 4), so don’t miss those either.
It’s great to have such an extensive insight into how the album was recorded. Some of the tracks could probably have been released as the final versions in their own right, but the band kept adding to them to improve them further, and their work always paid off. And, again, the book gives plenty of information relating to each of the session tracks, as part of the descriptive analysis of each song.
The DVD & Blu-Ray Discs
The contents of the DVD & Blu-Ray discs are the same. You can listen to the album in surround sound, and watch a making-of documentary and a few promo videos. I don’t have the facility to test either surround sound or Blu-Ray discs at the moment, so I can only look at the DVD.
The menu system is nicely animated – for instance, the various elements of the Sgt Pepper logo come together, and then that zooms out to reveal the album cover around it. Sweeps of coloured stripes across the screen happen with some menu choices too, and music from the album plays on most of the menu screens.
It’s simple enough to navigate on the whole as well – although some of the colour contrast choices aren’t ideal. The first choice you get, for instance, is Audio or Video, and that seems to be somewhat light red text on an orange background. I can make the text out, but not without looking closely. The text there should be darker, ideally, to show better. The actual selection of menu choices is quite clear though, with a nice bold line or border to show which option you’re on, so that’s good.
In the Audio section, you can listen to the full album, along with the double A-side of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, in DTS or Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, or PCM Stereo. All I can listen to at the moment is the stereo option, but it sounds very good. When you’re listening to the main album, the album cover animates on the screen, revealing the various elements and characters from the bottom up. It’s a short animation that just keeps looping, basically acting as a screensaver while the audio is playing.. For the double A-side single, you just get a static image of the single cover. The colour contrast on the menu screen for the single is a strange combination of orange text on a green background that doesn’t seem to work well, at least not with my eyes, but never mind.
In the Video section, the main thing is a 50-minute making-of documentary, which was made for the album’s 25th anniversary back in 1992. It’s a very interesting and comprehensive look at the album, featuring interviews with Paul, Ringo and George from the band, producer George Martin, others who were involved, and musicians like Brian Wilson and Phil Collins. You also get taken through the creation of some of the songs by George Martin at the mixing desk, allowing you to hear session outtakes and isolated sections of the audio tracks. And there’s some video footage and photos from the time as well of course. So it’s very detailed and very well put together, it’s great to watch.
And finally you can watch the music videos for A Day In The Life, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane as well – quite weird sometimes, but enjoyable. You can hear these in surround sound or stereo, just like the audio tracks in the other section (the documentary is only available in stereo). Incidentally, subtitles for all the video content is available in 7 languages.
One of the most surprising facts for me here, that I discovered in the book, is that the video for Strawberry Fields Forever was shot in Knole Park, Sevenoaks, along with parts of the Penny Lane video as well. Hardcore Beatles fans will already know that I’m sure, but I didn’t. And it caught my attention because it’s a location that holds major significance for me. Why? Because I went there with Emily Davison just a few weeks ago! If only I’d known that fact then, it would have been an interesting thing to bring up in the vlog we did. Never mind. It’s a fun coincidence though!
All in all, therefore, I’m very pleased with this box set. It’s a brilliant album that’s been given the proper special edition treatment it deserves. The main album sounds wonderful, the session tracks are fascinating, the book is really colourful and extremely informative, the documentary is very interesting, and it’s all very nicely packaged. So if you’re a big fan of the album, it’s certainly worth getting in my opinion.