Hard to believe, but on 1 June, the most iconic album from the world’s most iconic pop group celebrates its golden anniversary: The Beatles’ incalculably influential Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns 50. And a splendid time is guaranteed for all Fab Four fans, as to celebrate the occasion The Beatles release a suite of lavishly presented Anniversary Edition packages on 26 May.  

Newly mixed by Giles Martin – son of legendary producer George – and audio engineer Sam Okell in stereo and 5.1 surround audio and expanded with early takes from the studio sessions, including 34 previously unreleased recordings, the latest incarnations of Pepper are shaping up to be the near-definitive documents of the sessions that birthed 1967’s most famous album.

As a taster, Record Store Day saw the release of a highly collectable limited edition – just 7,000 copies – 7in single of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane in replica sleeve. These compositions were among the first songs recorded during the Pepper sessions, which began post-Revolver in November 1966, but were ultimately left off the album.

This is the first time Pepper has been remixed and presented with additional session recordings, and is also the first Beatles album to be remixed and expanded since the release of Let It Be… Naked in 2003. To create the new stereo and 5.1 surround audio mixes for Pepper, producer Giles and mix engineer Sam worked with a team of audio restoration specialists at Abbey Road Studios, home of the group’s seminal recordings for EMI. All of the anniversary releases include Martin’s new stereo mix of the album, sourced directly from the original four-track session tapes and guided by the original, Beatles-preferred mono mix produced by his father.

“It’s crazy to think that, 50 years later, we are looking back on this project with such fondness and a little bit of amazement at how four guys, a great producer and his engineers could make such a lasting piece of art,” says Paul McCartney in his new introduction for the anniversary edition. From music to artwork, Sgt. Pepper undeniably raised the bar for pop and emerging rock. Its seismic impact was instantaneous: “Jimi Hendrix performed the title track at a gig just two days after its release,” Paul Hocker, author of Expert Textpert: The Beatles Dictionary, points out. “Clearly, Pepper was not to be sniffed at.”

Pass the pepper
Despite being an extraordinary project, refreshingly, Pepper’s genesis is rooted in the mundane. During a lunchtime chat between McCartney and Mal Evans, The Beatles’ roadie, Mal’s request to pass the salt and pepper was misheard by the bassist as “Sgt. Pepper”. The idea of a parallel Beatles as Edwardian-era military band quickly developed, their alter egos being free to assimilate such diverse influences as The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Victorian circus posters (Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!), TV commercials (Good Morning, Good Morning), children’s artwork (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds), news reports (She’s Leaving Home) and religious teachings (Within You, Without You) to create the Pepper universe.

Using now-primitive four-track tape recording equipment, the group collaborated with their trusted producer to achieve “the impossible”, as they described it; to push the sonic envelope with eclectic arrangements and emerging technology. “We were into another kind of art form where you were putting something down on tape that could only be done on tape,” Martin explained. And to realise this ambitious goal, the five men clocked up over 400 hours in Abbey Road’s Studio 2 to record Sgt. Pepper, finally wrapping the sessions in April 1967.

Top of the pops
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band spent a staggering 148 weeks in the UK chart, including 27 weeks at the top spot. During its first US chart run, the album was number one for 15 weeks. Many contemporaries drew inspiration from its successful template: The Rolling Stones’ psychedelic fantasia Their Satanic Majesties Request, for example, is inconceivable without Pepper’s lead, as are Odessey And Oracle (The Zombies), SF Sorrow (The Pretty Things), Mr Fantasy (Traffic) and In Search of the Lost Chord onwards (The Moody Blues). As the other surviving Beatle, Ringo Starr, puts it: “Sgt. Pepper seemed to capture the mood of that year, and it also allowed a lot of other people to kick off from there and to really go for it”.

History lesson over, let’s reveal what the 21st century-style Lonely Hearts’ Club Band looks and sounds like. The 50th anniversary release of Pepper will be released in four incarnations. The standard edition CD features the new 2017 stereo album mix, complete with the original UK album’s Edit For LP End cacophonous run-out groove. “What’s perhaps just as thrilling as the Abbey Road vault creaking open is being able to hear Giles Martin’s new stereo mix,” says Hocker. “His production on The Beatles’ Love album assured Fab-o-philes that the apple had not fallen far from the tree.”

Next, an expanded double CD and digital package has the new stereo album mix on the first CD and adds a second CD of 18 tracks, including previously unreleased complete takes of the album’s 13 songs, newly mixed in stereo and sequenced in the same order as the original. This companion disc also includes a new stereo mix, a previously unreleased instrumental of Penny Lane and the 2015 stereo mix and two previously unreleased complete takes of Strawberry Fields Forever, reuniting these two songs with their parent album as originally conceived. This digipak is slipcased with a 50-page booklet abridged from the deluxe, six-disc boxset’s book – a feast of Fab facts.

The expanded 180g double album features the new stereo album mix on the first LP and adds a second record with unreleased complete takes of the album’s songs, newly stereo-mixed and sequenced in familiar order. It’s all housed in a faithful reproduction of the album’s original gatefold jacket.

For the hardcore fan, the super-deluxe, six disc (four CDs; two Blu-ray/DVDs) set will prove hardest to resist. The comprehensive boxset kicks off with the new stereo album mix on the first CD. There are 33 additional recordings from the studio sessions, most previously unreleased and mixed for the first time from the four-track session tapes, sequenced in chronological order of their recording dates, and a new stereo mix of Penny Lane and the 2015 stereo mix of Strawberry Fields Forever.

Even more rarities are crammed onto the fourth disc, including direct transfers of the album’s original mono mix with Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane singles; Capitol Records’ promotional mono single mix of Penny Lane for the US; and previously unreleased early mono mixes of Sgt. Pepper cornerstones She’s Leaving Home, A Day In The Life and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds – the latter being a mix thought to have been wiped in 1967, but discovered during archive research for the anniversary edition.

From the instantly identifiable Peter Blake and Jann Haworth cover art and innovative promotional videos for companion double-A-side 7in single Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane, Sgt. Pepper-era Fabs were as much about visual stimulation as they were aural excitement. The final two discs of this lavish box leave no stone unturned in this department: fans can now enjoy promo films for the two aforementioned 45 cuts and album closer A Day In The Life in glorious 4K resolution, plus The Making Of Sgt. Pepper. Originally broadcast in 1992 for the silver anniversary of the album, the latter is a previously unreleased documentary film featuring interviews with McCartney, Harrison and Starr, and in-studio footage introduced by producer George Martin.

The Blu-ray/DVDs also include new 5.1 surround sound audio mixes of the album and Penny Lane by Giles Martin and Sam Okell, plus their 2015 5.1 mix of Strawberry Fields Forever, as well as high-resolution audio versions of the new stereo mixes of the album and Penny Lane and of the 2015 stereo mix of Strawberry Fields.

Pepper’s iconic artwork, from its Pop Art cover and sheet of cut-outs, is also integral to these releases. Housed in a 12in box with bonus posters, the six-disc set comes with a 144-page hardback book. With new introductions by Paul McCartney and Giles Martin, and chapters including comprehensive song-by-song details, recording information and the design of the cover, and illustrated with rare photographs, reproductions of handwritten lyrics, Abbey Road Studios’ documentation, and original Pepper print ads, it’s the cherry on the top for Beatles’ historians such as Paul Hocker. 

The incomplete Beatles
“I’ll be buying the super-deluxe edition, no question,” Paul says, “because I really do need seven versions of Strawberry Fields Forever.” For some, the hunger for alt-versions of the Fabs’ work was barely sated by the three Anthology releases of the mid-nineties, which contained many Pepper-era treats. “For fans like me, hearing subtle changes to songs already beyond familiar is a thrill. Humming… false starts… instrumentals… mono mixes… it’s all here. And given that it’s Pepper, I could take more: I’d happily listen to all the tea breaks during the 400 hours of recording sessions with gleeful intensity!” Even for the casual fan, there’s a wealth of Pepper-era goodness to soak up, but our description of the deluxe set as near-definitive still stands, as there are a couple of notable omissions. One is an unheard improvised freak-out, which apparently captures the group at their most out-there, pre-dating the experiment of Revolution 9 on The White Album, which delights and riles fans in equal measure.

“The Beatles online community have been grumbling about the absence of the legendary Carnival Of Light [see box out, previous page],” JR Rathbone, Beatles collector and senior record buyer at Music and Video Exchange’s Notting Hill branch, points out. “This has never surfaced on bootleg record or any other form. The surviving Beatles – and Lennon and Harrison’s widows – have continually refused to sanction its release”.

Missing in action
It’s also a shame that no room could be found for Only A Northern Song. “This was originally scheduled as George Harrison’s contribution to the album and appeared in an early prospective track listing before Within You, Without You was recorded and, quite rightly, superseded it,” he adds. “Although it subsequently popped up in the film and on the soundtrack of Yellow Submarine, it was never mixed in true stereo in the sixties and could have formed part of one of the new boxset’s sessions discs.”

Maybe Beatles archaeologists will emerge blinking into the light with these gems from the dusty EMI vaults one day, but for now, there’s still an overflowing banquet of Peppery goodness to enjoy.

Carnival of light
Hopes were high that the weirdest Beatles’ recording of all – the demented cousin of the Pepper sessions – would finally see the light of day in this anniversary collection, but the mystery track still remains locked in the attic. There’s little in the way of The Beatles’ unreleased material that hasn’t been bootlegged, but one unheard track has Holy Grail status: Carnival Of Light. Recorded the same day as sessions for pre-Pepper 45 Penny Lane, seen below in a Danish picture sleeve, this McCartney composition couldn’t be further from the sophisticated family friendly fare that formed the companion piece to Lennon’s masterpiece Strawberry Fields Forever.

A product of McCartney’s immersion in London’s avant-garde, influenced by composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, Carnival Of Light was recorded by the Fabs for very sixties-sounding The Million Volt Light And Sound Rave, a multimedia event held at the Roundhouse in early 1967. “It’s The Beatles going off-piste,” its creator has said of the legendary piece. “I said: ‘All I want you to do is just wander around all the stuff, bang it, shout, play it, it doesn’t need to make any sense. Hit a drum, then wander onto the piano, hit a few notes and just wander around,” McCartney recalled in a BBC interview in 2008. “It’s very free.”

It certainly sounds further out-there than the group’s most trippy experiments, including the likes of classics such as Rain and Tomorrow Never Knows. Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn is one of the lucky few out of the inner circle to have heard the improvised piece. He listened to the song in 1987 while compiling his book The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and his tantalising glimpse of the track is “distorted, hypnotic drum and organ sounds, a distorted lead guitar, the sound of a church organ, various effects – water gargling was one – and, perhaps most intimidating of all, Lennon and McCartney screaming dementedly and bawling aloud random phrases like ‘Are you alright?’ and ‘Barcelona!’”

The track, which predates Lennon’s own more infamous avant-garde experiments, was put forward for release by McCartney on the Anthology 2 archival compilation in 1996, but was vetoed for inclusion by George Harrison. Its non-appearance on the deluxe Pepper boxset means that this is one audio revolution that, for now, is destined to remain in the imagination of hungry Beatlemaniacs.