On the remixed Sgt Pepper

Whoa.

If you’ve never listened to Sgt. Pepper, go right now and listen. Feel free to skip the original version and head right to the new remix. Also? If you’ve never listened to Sgt. Pepper you can skip this post; it’s probably not for you.

In 2006, Beatles producer George Martin and his son Giles Martin released Love, a “soundtrack remix album” that mashed up “the whole Beatles lifespan” to accompany the Cirque du Soleil show that’s still running at the Mirage in Vegas. Beatles purists may have been aghast, but for a short period of time I couldn’t get enough of it. I blogged about it at the time:

I picked up The Beatles Love over the weekend, and on each listen it literally surprises me. Leaving aside for a moment whether this is a “good” or “bad” thing, the record is an object lesson in Jeff Hawkins’ memory-prediction framework as outlined in On Intelligence. Your brain, wired for years to expect one thing, gets something else entirely, triggering the “whoa” response.

Fast forward a decade, and the younger Martin is now responsible for the remixed and remastered Sgt. Pepper. (George Martin died last year at 90.) Timed with the 50th anniversary of its original release, it would be easy to ignore this as yet another attempt to milk the boomer nostalgia for the late 60s. But if you’re at all familiar with the original, listening to the new record with a decent set of headphones is one “whoa” moment after another.

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paul and john, with george martin. swiped from beatles.com

The 1967 Sgt. Pepper was mixed down to mono, so this remix isn’t in the category of “you can finally hear it the way they wanted you to hear it.” Instead, think of it this way: now you can simply, finally, hear it. And it’s mind-blowing. Here’s Chris Morris in Variety:

The detail is astonishing. Accorded their own space, Paul McCartney’s bass playing and Ringo Starr’s drumming leap out anew; in particular, Starr’s work on “Good Morning Good Morning,” which at its climax attains almost a free-form quality, reveals his mastery. George Harrison’s ability to speak volumes in a one-chorus solo has never been more apparent (cf. “Fixing a Hole”).

The record has me reaching for Jeff Hawkins’ On Intelligence again. It’s a book I recommend all the time to people who design and build products; Hawkins was the founder of Palm and Handspring. Here’s a bit from Wikipedia about his memory-prediction framework that, for me, explains what’s happening when I listen to the new Pepper.

The central concept of the memory-prediction framework is that bottom-up inputs are matched in a hierarchy of recognition, and evoke a series of top-down expectations encoded as potentiations. These expectations interact with the bottom-up signals to both analyse those inputs and generate predictions of subsequent expected inputs. … However, when a mismatch between input and memorized/predicted sequences occurs, a more complete representation propagates upwards. This causes alternative ‘interpretations’ to be activated at higher levels, which in turn generates other predictions at lower levels.

(Can we get back to music? Please.)

The second half of the reissue — outtakes from the studio sessions, rehearsals, snippets — is just as revelatory as the remix. The recordings capture the band in the act, in a radically different way than concert footage does. They’re not performing, they’re working. Here’s Jon Pareles in the Times yesterday:

After three years of hectic touring and recording, and of jaw-droppingly rapid development as songwriters amid the tempest, the Beatles decided to get off the road, where they couldn’t hear themselves play, and to focus on making studio albums. They took five months — an eternity at the time, now barely a pause for a new wardrobe and sponsorship deal — to record the “Sgt. Pepper” album, “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane.” With “Revolver,” they had embraced studio surrealism and partly jettisoned love songs, and for its successor they would have more time to think and tinker. Yet they still worked amazingly fast, harnessing the era’s primitive technology to pack wild ideas onto four-track tape.

In 2008 musician Andrew Bird wrote an incredible blog post about what it’s like to be in the studio, where “the audience has disappeared and you are given the attractive, but dangerous option to control everything.” Great music makes it easy to forget that everything you hear on every record you enjoy is the result of thousands…hundreds of thousands…of individual decisions. The Sgt. Pepper remix/reissue is a glorious way to witness that decision making by artists at the top of their game. Especially if you think you know every note by heart.

Go listen. It’s guaranteed to raise a smile.

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