There's something magical about hearing Sgt. Pepper outtakes in Studio Two of Abbey Road — the same room where the Beatles made the album. The studio looks the same as it did in 1967 — even the same baffles hang on the wall. "Abbey Road is a bit like a salad bowl or a teapot," producer Giles Martin, son and heir to George Martin, tells Rolling Stone. "The walls absorb music."
There's no better place for Rolling Stone to experience an exclusive tour of the Pepper vaults, as Martin spends a hard day's afternoon giving us a one-on-one preview: the previously unheard and unreleased treasures on the new 50th anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The box has alternate takes of each song — in some cases drastically different and all offering revelatory insights into the most legendary of rock masterpieces. It's the first time the Beatles have opened their vaults and released new recordings since Anthology.
The new remix has long been craved by hardcore Beatle heads, who have always complained about the diffuse stereo mix. The mono version was the one George Martin, engineer Geoff Emerick and the band spent weeks mixing — but the stereo version was rushed out without the Beatles even there in the room. "They were trying to create this immersive world that the stereo didn't have," Giles Martin says now. "Nobody paid much attention to the stereo mix. What we did was work out what they were doing in the mono mix and apply it to stereo."
No matter how well you know the album, this remix is full of nuances any fan will notice, especially the bottom end —Ringo’s kick drum really reveals new dimensions. It's a tribute to the band and their producer. "My dad, especially on Pepper, was almost like a satellite dish that managed to capture all their ideas and mash them down to this little black piece of plastic that changed the way people listen to music."
But the real treasures are the 34 bonus tracks, which will dazzle hardcore Beatlemaniacs — "the socks and sandals brigade," as Giles Martin fondly calls them. No new songs, no sign of the mythical lost psychedelic jam "Carnival of Light" ("It's not really part of Pepper"), but the alternate takes are full of discoveries; hours of new Beatle music that gives a taste of how many treasures remain in the vault. It's not just historic value — it's an astounding listening experience. Here are just 10 of the most revelatory moments.
1. "A Day in the Life": the "hum" session
The original ending, with the Beatles humming the famous final chord before they decided to do it with pianos instead. As Martin says, "They recorded 'A Day in the Life' without the ending — they knew they were going to resolve on the E chord, but their first plan was to have a choir humming." The Beatles gather on the microphone to hum that final chord together, as John tells everyone, "Have you got the note? Stop freaking out!" They overdub the voices into a full choir humming the chord — but as Martin says, "They realized it wasn't a very good ending."
2. "A Day in the Life": the piano takes
The epic final piano crash required a number of takes, with the Beatles and their mate Mal Evans manning every piano at Abbey Road. Paul calls out, "Have you got your pedal down, Mal? The righthand one?" They try to crash all the pianos together as Paul counts in the 1-2-3 ("I won't say four — just imagine it"). It takes a few attempts — until they nail the instantly recognizable chord that ends the album.
3. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
The theme song begins as a long, raw guitar jam, stretching out at the end as Paul rants, "I feel it, I feel it, oh baby I feel it, I feel freeeee now, gotta get freeee now."
4. "Penny Lane"
"Penny Lane," of course, was the second song recorded for the Pepper sessions in November 1966, but got dropped from the final album after it appeared as a February 1967 single along with "Strawberry Fields Forever." The new versions include a lavish Pet Sounds-style version led by Paul's piano and harmonium, but the best is a backing vocal track that's all Paul and George doing handclaps and harmonies that didn't make the final version. The duo offer commentary on the music as it builds, with George making his suggestions. ("Should I do that harmony?") At one point, George quips, "That'll have a backwards drumbeat on that there." Paul replies, "Forwards drum beat."
5. "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," Take One
In the first take, John leads the song on acoustic guitar — "a diiie-rect injection," as he calls it — while Paul follows on the electric keyboard. John's raw-power vocal is a world away from the ethereal dreaminess of the final version.
6. "Within You Without You"
An early version where George gives verbal instructions to the Indian musicians about how he wants them to play ("OK, the main thing is the timing") and they give him their feedback. Says Giles Martin, "My dad said George was like watching someone make a carpet, thread by thread, thinking about each bit."
7. "Getting Better"
The first take is a totally different approach to the song — Paul leads on Wurtlitzer keyboard for a more aggressive attack. John gives him some suggestions on the lead vocal: "Sing it, you know, 'I gotta admit' and all that — properly, if you can sing it."
8. "With a Little Help From My Friends"
An early take with Paul leading on piano, backed by John on guitar and George on cowbell. The famous bass line is yet to come; halfway through, Paul really begins freestyling on piano. "You can tell when Paul gets bored with the take," Giles Martin says. "When he gets to the point where he realizes it's not the final take, that's when he starts trying out ideas for the next take."
9. "Fixing a Hole"
Much more rocking than the album version, with Paul trying an R&B approach to the harpsichord and Ringo cutting loose on drums. As on so many of these alternate versions, Ringo's inventive drumming is a revelation. (And people thought this was just the album where Ringo spent the sessions learning to play chess.) The band vamps until Paul announces, "And that's it."
10. "Sgt Pepper (Reprise)"
They recorded this at Studio One, instead of their usual Studio Two, one of the reasons it was always the Pepper track with the most spontaneous live-band feel. Paul marvels at the new surroundings — "all the shapes around the studio, and all those bubbles there and bumps there" — as you can hear all four musicians jump into the by-then-rare challenge of jamming together. "It's just boys in a room making noise," as Giles Martin quips — but like all these Pepper outtakes, it's a landmark of how innovative and inspirational that noise could be.
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