With Revolver, the Beatles made the Great Leap Forward, reaching a previously unheard-of level of sophistication and fearless experimentation. Sgt. Pepper, in many ways, refines that breakthrough, as the Beatles consciously synthesized such disparate influences as psychedelia, art song, classical music, rock & roll, and music hall, often in the course of one song. Not once does the diversity seem forced -- the genius of the record is how the vaudevillian "When I'm 64" seems like a logical extension of "Within You Without You" and how it provides a gateway to the chiming guitars of "Lovely Rita." There's no discounting the individual contributions of each member or their producer, George Martin, but the preponderance of whimsy and self-conscious art gives the impression that Paul McCartney is the leader of the Lonely Hearts Club Band. He dominates the album in terms of compositions, setting the tone for the album with his unabashed melodicism and deviously clever arrangements. In comparison, Lennon's contributions seem fewer, and a couple of them are a little slight but his major statements are stunning. "With a Little Help from My Friends" is the ideal Ringo tune, a rolling, friendly pop song that hides genuine Lennon anguish, à la "Help!"; "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" remains one of the touchstones of British psychedelia; and he's the mastermind behind the bulk of "A Day in the Life," a haunting number that skillfully blends Lennon's verse and chorus with McCartney's bridge. It's possible to argue that there are better Beatles albums, yet no album is as historically important as this. After Sgt. Pepper, there were no rules to follow -- rock and pop bands could try anything, for better or worse. Ironically, few tried to achieve the sweeping, all-encompassing embrace of music as the Beatles did here.
[Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band always has been treated differently than the rest of the Beatles catalog. Upon its 1967 release, it was hailed as a masterpiece and it has never shaken its reputation as the album where rock & roll turned into art. The Beatles naturally adopted this position and chose to spotlight Sgt. Pepper whenever they could, including releasing it alone on its 20th anniversary when the band's music debuted on compact disc in 1987. Thirty years later, Sgt. Pepper is given the full-blown deluxe reissue treatment, where the album gets a new stereo mix from Giles Martin and there are two separate editions filled with outtakes: one a simple double-disc set, the other a lavish six-disc box containing the original mono mix and DVDs and Blu-ray with 5.1 mixes, promo clips, and documentaries. Expanded reissues have been commonplace since the '90s, but this is the first time the Beatles have offered a deep excavation into their archives for one individual album. Such an archival project may be long overdue but the 50th anniversary editions of Sgt. Pepper are excellent, in no small part due to Martin's stunning stereo remix of the original album. Working from the multi-track master tapes and using the original 1967 mono mix -- the one mix that the Beatles supervised; the 1967 stereo mix was an afterthought -- as a guide, Martin achieves something wondrous: a remix that retains the vibe of the original album yet feels vivid and immersive. Nothing new has been added to the mix, either for the stereo or the accompanying 5.1 version, but the expanded soundstage helps highlight everything from vocal harmonies and guitar vamps to the wallop of the rhythm section of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. It's as colorful as Pepper's psychedelic reputation but its muscularity emphasizes how much of the album was cut by four musicians playing in a room, a fact underscored by the bonus material on the deluxe editions (the six-disc contains two discs of highlights; the two-CD set has a disc of highlights). While there are tracks containing studio musicians -- the most interesting of these is an instrumental "Penny Lane," which emphasizes its debt to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds -- most of these feature the Fab Four figuring out which direction to take a song and there are sly revelations lying within their interactions. Anchored by an electric piano, "Getting Better" glides along to a soulful groove, "When I'm 64" feels lithe without its woodwind overdubs, the chorus of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" feels funky when there are no vocals, and the Beatles tear it up on an early take of "Sgt. Pepper." "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "A Day in the Life" both evolve -- "Strawberry Fields" in a manner familiar from Anthology 2; "A Day in the Life" finding the group testing out a group hum for its final chord -- and hearing these working versions helps illuminate the work behind the finished product. And, for as good as the bonus material is, what impresses most is Sgt. Pepper itself, presented here both in a new master of its original mono mix and startling stereo mix that makes a perhaps overly familiar album feel fresh.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine