The "Sgt. Pepper" boxed set that never was
By Terry Ott
|EMI sent out a photocopy of this image along with an announcement of a November release date for the Sgt. Pepper mono boxed set, but it was never released. (Photos courtesy of Terry Ott.)|
(Our thanks to Terry Ott for allowing us to use this story, which originally ran in the National Post on Jan. 13, 1999. Reprinted by permission of the author.)
As reported recently in the National Post, the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is the worst album of all time. According to a poll in British weekly Melody Maker that is, and in direct contradiction to general opinion. For years, the 1967 LP has been regarded as the summit of serious pop music.
Many hard-core Beatles fans were put out in 1997 when Capitol EMI failed to commemorate the 30th anniversary of "Sgt. Pepper's" original issue. The omission is especially surprising in the light of recent news that -- a few months late -- Capitol is bringing out a limited-edition 30th anniversary CD package of the less celebrated White Album from 1968.
Fans may be even more perturbed to learn that a unique re-release set of "Pepper" was all set for publication, but had the plug pulled at the 11th hour. The reasons are as yet unclear -- and the record company seems surprisingly unwilling to discuss the matter.
The news report of the damning verdict by Melody Maker pundits reminded me of the project and sent me searching for evidence. An EMI information letter sent two years ago to some journalists, myself among them, confirms that I had not been dreaming. In fact it lists Nov. 25, 1997, as the release date for an elaborate "Sgt. Pepper" box set: A one-off "for the world" manufacture, available for a limited time only. The package featured a hinged box design containing a remastered disc (bearing the original Parlophone label), a double wallet, postcard, psychedelic inner sleeve, an enamel badge, and an amended 36-page booklet with "extensive notes."
Most remarkable of all, however, would have been the sound of the disc itself. Four decades after stereophonic recording became the norm, EMI was planning to re-release "Sgt. Pepper" in mono. Surprisingly, this is something many Beatles fans have clamoured for.
Shortly before the abrupt cancellation of the project, an enthusiastic EMI-Canada representative told me that the remastered one-channel sound was "unbelievable" and evidently so pristine, one "could hear a chair being slid across the studio floor." Now, he angrily refuses even to discuss the failed release.
So why was so much attention lavished on remastering in an antiquated format, why was the project axed, and why won't the company talk about it?
First, the mono question: As most Beatles fans are aware, George Harrison, producer Sir George Martin, and recording engineer Geoff Emerick have all said that the original album was intended as a monaural experience and, consequently, much more time, care and effort went into the mono mixing than the stereo version. Although established as the standard for classical recording, at the time stereo was considered more of a fad in the area of pop music.
Whether by accident or design, initial printings of the LP sleeve contained the words "This is a mono recording" on both stereo and mono versions. The evidence suggests that the mono "Pepper" is the definitive "Pepper", yet it is currently unavailable, as it has been since EMI switched its production to stereo only, long before the arrival of CD.
According to Mark Lewisohn, author of "The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions" (1988), 700 hours of studio work went into the making of "Sgt. Pepper", yet only around 10 hours were spent mixing it in stereo. In the words of Lewisohn's exhaustive chronicle, "during the production of "Sgt. Pepper", the Beatles are said to have taken a hands-on approach with the mono mixing yet left the task of the stereo mixing entirely to others."
Session logs confirm that, in almost every case, the final mono mix was completed soon after a finished recording was attained, and with all, or most, of the Beatles present.
While most of the differences between the mono and stereo mixes are subtle matters of tone and balance, some are obvious. The most noticeable would be the mono version of "She's Leaving Home," which clocks in eight seconds faster than the stereo version, giving the song a less dirge-like quality.
The crossfade between "Good Morning, Good Morning" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Reprise," on the mono version has an extra four drum taps, laughter, some words spoken by John Lennon, a less resonant, squawking, guitar lick and clearly audible ad-libbing by Paul McCartney near the end of the track, as compared to the stereo mix.
It therefore seems fair to ask why a project of this magnitude and significance would suddenly be spiked -- yet the answers seem buried under a blanket of denials, secrecy and threats.
Shan Kelly, vice-president of strategic marketing for Capitol-EMI Canada, offered little help in placing pieces into the intriguing puzzle. "I don't know much more than you do. We take what comes across the pond," he said, referring to EMI head office in Britain, which is responsible for all Beatles projects. "I don't know why it was cancelled. I'm being completely candid with you."
Despite the company's "We are pleased to announce" release date and a colour photocopy of what looks like a photograph of the complete package, Kelly insisted the photo was a "mock-up" and that not even test CDs had been manufactured. He suggested "for the good of the paper" that the Post contact Mike Heatley, who oversees the Beatles releases world-wide for EMI in England; Heatley did not return several phone calls.
Someone who did was Tim Neely, an author and research director for Goldmine magazine in the United States, who has extensive contacts in the recording industry and has previously been approached by EMI America to work on another Beatles related project.
"Wow! I never heard anything about it," Neely exclaimed. "Personally, I think it would be a wonderful thing because the mono 'Pepper' has a better flow."
The album, which producer Martin has called a "tone poem," suffers in the present stereo format in the ears of many Beatles fans, Neely said. He speculated that the box set was axed for political/business reasons.
"I suspect that someone within the Beatles' own management group said no," he explained, referring to the so-called "committee" that presides over every Beatles release. One nay vote scuttles any release, Neely said.
"The record company concocts plans and does things, and if they don't get approval, the thing unravels," ventured Neely, who believes that EMI has not excelled in the marketing or reproducing of the Beatles on CD. Indeed, in some quarters the company has been soundly raked over the coals for its handling of the Beatles catalogue. "Apart from the Anthology series, they just won't do what the fans want," charged Neely.
Perhaps this is what has led EMI to be so defensive. Approached on the subject of the "Pepper" CD, one EMI marketer was so upset that he barked over the phone: "You want to talk to EMI in the future, you got to pull out of the story."
However, before hanging up, the official did say: "This [CD] may or may not happen in the future. I don't have a crystal ball." So despite the threat of excommunication, this article is offered in a spirit of encouragement and support for a worthy enterprise. Maybe the EMI executives will reconsider -- with a little help from their friends.(You can contact Terry Ott at firstname.lastname@example.org.) Back to the What's New and Improved page