I still remember the first time I heard it. It was June 1967. My friend Alan bought the LP at the local Times Square Store, a department store in Queens. He saw me on the street and invited me and my friend Jimmy over for a listen. Alan hadn't even taken off the shrink wrap.
Opening it up, staring at the cover, seeing the stickers and reading the lyrics while the record played was a new experience. Lyrics on records just didn't happen before this.
Some quick perspective: There were no 45s from Sgt. Pepper's, so it didn't get much play on AM radio. A little bit, but not a lot. FM was just getting started and radio was mono.
The Beatles were different from most bands in that regard those days. They did singles and they did albums. They were different art forms.
I remembered being thrilled and bewildered by the record. "Weird" was probably the best word we could all muster when it was over. But I got my own copy, and I listened to it every day for three years or so.
The hard copies of the newly remastered Beatles recordings aren't out until next week, but we were able to download uncompressed digital copies today. So All Songs Considered producer Robin Hilton and I met at one of NPR's best listening studios, sat down and listened to the new version of Sgt. Pepper's all the way through. It was like hearing it for the first time.
Robin: Any last words before your life is changed forever?
Bob: I've waited. I've waited and waited for this!
Robin: When did the thought first occur to you that these recordings could really sound a whole lot better? Of course, when they came out, you would have thought it was the best they could possibly sound.
Robin: With CDs?
Bob: No, in the early 1970s, I would always go to New York record stores and search for the Japanese or British pressings, because they were always the best. So I got a French pressing, I got the British pressing, I got the mono, the stereos. The mixes are all different. I'd go to Beatles conventions. There was a time after the Beatles broke up where I wanted to know everything that I could, because I just loved them and there wasn't going to be any more. So I was always searching for a better version, and figured that somewhere out there was the master tapes, and that those would be the best.
Bob: And the CDs were good, because they didn't have the pops and clicks that my records always had.
Robin: Okay. Well, strap yourself in! I have to confess, I cheated a little bit. I was just checking to make sure the CD burned okay, and I heard the opening seconds of the crowd ambience that starts the album. I thought, "Whoa!" It really, really sounds amazing.
(We start the CD.)
Bob: Stereo was such a novelty then, you know? It was so cool. Everyone was just getting stereos. There wasn't really stereo radio yet.
Robin: Well, I was actually hoping they'd remix the albums as well as remastering them, because I've never been a fan of the harsh panning, hard left and hard right. And when they did the Love remixes, that was the thing I loved most. But purists would probably just have a fit if they remixed these.
Bob: It's part of the cool thing about it. But it does date it.
("Get By With a Little Help From My Friends")
Robin: The snare sounds really nice.
Bob: I'd never heard that kettle drum before.
Robin: Listen to how smooth that bass sounds. Nice imaging.
Robin: When I was a kid, I'd pan everything to the right or left channel so that all I could really hear was the music, and I'd sing along like karaoke. I remember doing that with this song.
("Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds")
Robin: This is one I really wanted to hear.
Bob: I was admiring the guitar there.
Robin: God, the bass sounds amazing.
Bob: George is following the voice. The melody. I never noticed that before.
(We back up the song.)
Bob: There. The guitar is mimicking the voice. (In the right channel)
Robin: Wow, I never noticed that, either.
Bob: I always thought it was just a voice effect.
Bob: For about three or four years of my life, I listened to this album every day. Without fail.
Robin: There's some nice phase shifting going on here. I just can't believe how present everything is. Every individual element stands out on its own. I never noticed how Paul goes high on the neck of his bass there and hits those 16th notes.
Bob: What a great-sounding guitar. It always was.
Robin: I was thinking the drums sound really good. They have a nice ring to them. The sound really lingers, like it doesn't just disappear after every hit.
Bob: I love the very end of this song. The drums and the bass.
Robin: This is actually my favorite part here.
(The sitar comes in.)
Robin: Listen to the bongos and the claps.
Bob: Yeah. Must be a tabla. Too deep for a bongo, I think.
("Fixing a Hole")
Bob: George is good!
Robin: Yeah! Listen to those harmonies.
("She's Leaving Home")
Robin: You can hear the fingertips on the harp. This is a little like watching HDTV.
Bob: I was thinking that, too. Like plasma TV.
Robin: Listen to the falsetto harmonies. It reminds me a little of HD television in that HD reveals the flaws in people's faces. I feel like it's doing that a bit with this music, particularly in the vocals. It's not that they sound flawed. They just sound so naked. Those harmonies on this song have always sounded perfectly clear to me. But hearing it now, it's so clearly a group of guys singing in falsettos. The voices seem very naked. They sound human for the first time.
Bob: Interesting. You know, bless George Martin.
Robin: I was thinking the same thing. He made this song. I love the "amen" at the end.
("Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite")
Robin: Amazing. I feel like I'm flying.
Robin: What was that? There's all this backwards stuff going on that I've never heard before.
("Within You Without You")
Robin: Wait for it.
Bob: This is when you flip the record over.
Robin: Do you remember what you thought when you first heard the sitar trickle in there, years ago?
Bob: I think the operative word was "weird."
Robin: You probably had no idea you were hearing history.
Bob: Yeah, it was just so different, because it wasn't guitar, bass and drums. It was like, "What is this?" It was completely new.
Robin: I'm picturing a look of bemused astonishment.
Bob: We were just 15 years old and trying to figure out what the lyrics meant. It's a brilliant line: "Life goes on within you and without you."
("When I'm Sixty-Four")
Bob: This is the sound I've been waiting my whole life for.
Robin: I can't believe it. Paul sounds great. This was always a favorite song of mine as a kid. But as I've gotten older it feels a little out of place on the album.
Robin: Wait. What is that? You hear that little round-house piano bit?
Robin: Never heard that before.
Robin: Hit it! Wow. You hear that slide guitar?
Robin: What is that sound in the right? Is that sandpaper?
Bob: I think it's just someone using their voice.
("Good Morning Good Morning")
Robin: They're doing a lot of interesting processing with the voices I hadn't noticed before.
Bob: Yeah. Nice.
Robin: What was that? It sounded like little horse clops.
Bob: Yeah, I don't know. I heard it, too! There are a lot of barnyard animals on this cut.
Robin: That's what it sounded like. Didn't they get a hold of the BBC sound-effects library and just have some fun?
Robin: Sounds like Ringo's playing a suitcase or something.
("Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Reprise")
Bob: You hear John say, "Bye?"
Robin: No! Go back.
Robin: I've never heard that! Had you?
Robin: That's awesome.
("A Day in the Life")
Bob: You can hear them counting here.
Bob: Counting up. I just got chills.
Robin: How did they do this?
Bob falls out of his chair as the last piano chord fades.
Robin: Is that a synth in with the piano?
Bob: I don't think so. At least it's always sounded like a piano.
Robin: It comes in and out. There it is again. A buzzing. Doesn't sound like the ringing strings of a piano to me.
Bob: I think it's just something resonating.
(We sit back in awe.)
Bob: Damn. I have no idea what to say.
Robin: It's a really hard job. I'm glad we managed to get through that.