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Sgt. Pepper at 50: 10 Highlights from the Beatles' Newly Unearthed Session Outtakes

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Imagine finding one of van Gogh’s early sketches for “Starry Night,” or a rough draft of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. For anyone who loves music, the mammoth 50th anniversary reissue of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is just as good—if not better. The expanded package includes nearly two hours worth of outtakes from the groundbreaking 1967 sessions, offering not only an alternate-universe look at some of the most beloved tracks in the rock canon, but also a fascinating fly-on-the-wall view of four young artists at the height of their power.

Stripped down, occasionally rough and always electrifying, it humanizes the band in a way that’s rarely possible short of being present in their creative laboratory at EMI’s Abbey Road studios half a century ago. “They were just kids. They were the age of One Direction when they made Sgt. Pepper,” Giles Martin, who oversaw the project, tells PEOPLE with a laugh. His father, the legendary Sir George Martin, produced the band’s original recordings. “George was 23, Paul was 24, Ringo and John were 26. It’s not like they were this aged band. They were current and they were vibrant. I think that’s what people can hear.”

The original album was lauded upon release for its dazzling array of studio effects, many of which were pioneered by Sir George and recording engineer Geoff Emerick. The outtakes are more sparse, revealing glimpses of the final product as the Beatles feel their way towards the sounds and textures they hear in their heads. By peeling back the technical pyrotechnics we’re reminded that they really were, as Paul McCartney often says with charming understatement, “ a great little rock and roll band.”

Rebecca Sapp/WireImage

“The magic is in their fingertips and not from some spiritual mountaintop,” says Martin, 47. “The reason good musicians are good musicians is that they can do what we can’t do. That’s the beauty of it. That’s what we react to, I think: people who have the ability to take us somewhere else. That’s not technology you’re reacting to, that’s just human ability.”

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In addition to the outtakes, Martin has given a fresh sound to the Sgt. Pepper you’ve known for all these years. Monophonic (single speaker) recordings were king back in 1967, and the then-new stereo (two speaker) format was effectively the purview of audiophiles and hi-fi fanatics. As such, the Beatles themselves took an active interest in the mono mix of the album, lavishing three weeks on the process, whereas the stereo version was done in just three days, with barely any involvement from the band. Martin has painstakingly assembled a new stereo mix from the original tapes, using the Beatles’ mono version as a guide, as well as his father’s production notes. The result provides a clearer audio picture of what the Fab Four intended you to hear, with a noticeable extra bite leaping out of modern speakers.

“The album was made 50 years ago and mixed for people listening 50 years ago and the dynamics have changed,” Martin explains. “We don’t have to be as safe as we had to be then. People will find that they can hear the drums much better and the dynamics. The Beatles were about pushing the bounds of technology, and we try to do that.”

PEOPLE’ s new collector’s edition The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper at 50! is available now.

The pressure of remixing one of the most influential albums in history could be “humbling” for Martin, who had to contend with the weighty expectations of the several generations worth of fans. Personally, stepping into his father’s role as the Beatles sonic midwife packed an emotional punch. Martin began the project shortly after Sir George’s death in March 2016.

“I went back to work [after his death], and it was the first day we started talking about Sgt. Pepper. We were looking at outtakes and I pressed play, and the first voice I heard was Dad’s. That was kind of strange. Yoko once said to me about John, ‘The problem is he’s just a voice now.’ Of course my dad isn’t just a voice. For me there are two separate people: there’s my father, the legendary record producer, and then there’s the fact that he was just my dad. And the fact that he was just my dad is more important.”

Martin spent years honing the family craft, first serving as his father’s apprentice at age 19, and later working on high-profile projects like The Beatles Anthology and the mashed-up reimagining of the band’s catalogue for the soundtrack to the 2006 Cirque du Soleil show, Love. He’s heard more of the Beatles session tapes than nearly everyone on the planet, but he refuses to let archival minutiae distract from the Beatles’ true gift. “It’s all about music. People talk about the history and the context and who played what and what they wore. It’s actually just the fact that you can put on an album that makes you feel better. This album is one of those ones that you can.”

Below are some of the highlights of the Sgt. Pepper outtakes, available as part of the 50th anniversary reissue, out now.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” (Take 26)

Though it wouldn’t find its way onto the album—it was released as a standalone single with “Penny Lane” in February 1967—the creative bar for Sgt. Pepper was set in November 1966 when the Beatles began work on John Lennon’s nostalgic ode to the rambling grounds behind a Salvation Army Home in his native Liverpool. A favored play area as a boy, the song evoked equally child-like visions. The final recording famously edited together two wildly distinct versions, differing in key, tempo, and instrumentation. The first minute consists of the placid Take 7, cushioned by synthetic flutes and airy electric guitar, before fading into the significantly more forceful Take 26, which rushes by at breakneck speed, powered by furiously pummeled drums, blaring trumpets and chugging cellos (similar to the rhythmic strings employed by the Beatles’ creative rival, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, on his then-recent smash, “Good Vibrations”). The join between the two takes is practically seamless; like a dream, it shifts directions before you even realize what’s happening. Hearing the complete version of the relentless Take 26 makes you realize how vastly different the song would be without the edit, and how skilled George Martin could be with the tape scissors.

“Penny Lane” (Vocal overdubs)

Inspired by Lennon’s surreal look back at their hometown, McCartney countered with the immaculate hyper-reality of “Penny Lane.” Amid the vocal overdubs with George Harrison, left off the final version, the pair can be heard experimenting with wordless melody lines. Together they sing a lost vocal a capella tag for the solo in the middle, later filled by David Mason’s piccolo trumpet. “That could allow the backwards trumpet on it,” says Harrison. “Forward trumpet!” McCartney jokingly corrects.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Take 1)

Even when they’re in full psychedelic mode, the Beatles still know how to rock. Before kicking off the first take of the Lewis Carroll-tinged fantasy, McCartney can be heard playing a soulful lick—not unlike the Spencer Davis Group’s recent hit, “Gimme Some Lovin’”—on a Lowrey DSO Heritage Deluxe keyboard. He keeps it up when the band begins the song; adding funky organ fills that are largely absent (or obscured) on the final version. Later, between takes, McCartney can be heard offering vocal phrasing help to Lennon, who takes a moment to catch on. One attempt disintegrates into laughter as he struggles to cram all the words into a measure.

“Getting Better” (Take 1)

The maiden voyage of “Getting Better” sounds significantly heavier than the finished product, with McCartney out front with a Wurlitzer keyboard, and fuzzed out bass thundering across the verses. Though instrumental at this stage, Lennon can be heard offering his band mate some less-than-technical vocal techniques: “Sing it, you know, ‘I gotta admit’ and all that — properly, if you can sing it.”

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! (Take 4)

Prior to the addition of steam organ tape loops, which transformed the end of Side A into a production tour de force, the tale of “Mr. Kite!” sounds more like a Parisian waltz than a day at the circus. Martin himself mans the pedal harmonium, which he pumped with such vigor that by the end of the session he collapsed on the floor of Studio 2 (“Like a snow angel,” Geoff Emerick writes in his memoir). Lennon can be heard doing his best carnival barker impression, and later makes a joke about the Masked Alberts, a harmonica-playing variety act familiar to the band from their childhood.

“Within You Without You” (Coaching session)

Unable to find professional Indian session musicians in London, George Harrison called upon members of the Asian Music Circle to perform on his contribution to the album. Ordinarily the role of instrumental arranger fell to Martin, but as he was unable to read or notate Indian music, Harrison himself can he heard teaching each member their proper parts by humming and singing the traditional pitch syllables. “Just take it, Geoff, just in case,” he asks engineer Geoff Emerick. The instrumental backing track for “Within You Without You” is actually a full minute longer than the song on the album—the final version was sped up a semi-tone (C to C#).

“When I’m Sixty-Four” (Take 2)

Stripped of its clarinet score, this jaunty Vaudeville number consists of just bass (played by McCartney as he sang), lightly brushed snare courtesy of Starr, Lennon’s gentle electric guitar, and overdubbed piano. Like the preceding song, the final version of “When I’m Sixty-Four” was sped up a semi-tone, giving McCartney’s vocals a teenage quality—fitting, considering he wrote the song when he was just 15 on his father’s piano. This unaltered take displays the more mature tone of McCartney’s voice, and his scat-singing at the end is worth the price of admission.

“Lovely Rita” (Speech and Take 9)

“I did a freak-out on one, then!” Lennon announces just before the band take another pass. “One of those where you don’t know where you’re going.” McCartney chimes in with a freak-out of his own, muttering a string of bogus Latin, like a benediction for the new tune, which they had just started that day, Feb. 23, 1967. As with most outtakes on the reissue, the haze of studio effects has been lifted and the vocals are stunningly clear. “Lovely Rita” lacks its solo at this early juncture—Martin would complete the song by playing a honky-tonk piano riff a month later on March 21—but the earnestly strummed acoustic guitars coupled with McCartney’s minor key piano vamp are present on the outro. “Have ‘em leave it!” Lennon exclaims just before the take breaks down. They do: the freak-out coda, and Lennon’s exclamation, is present on the final version.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” (Take 8)

“Keep the bass drum loud—YEAH!” says McCartney while recording the loosest track on the album. It’s also the simplest, completed over the course of one session on April 1, two days before McCartney was due to fly to the United States and surprise girlfriend Jane Asher for her 21st birthday. His departure signaled the end of the four-month Sgt. Pepper odyssey, which cost 25,000 pounds (Over $55,000, or $400,000 in 2017 dollars), making it among the most expensive albums produced at the time. The “Reprise” provided a raucous finale to a remarkable creative streak.

“A Day in the Life” (Hummed Overdub)”

To create the menacing glissando climax on what would become Sgt. Pepper’s closing track, the Beatles summoned 45 players from the Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony to the cavernous Studio 1 on Feb. 10, 1967. Keen to transform the session into a “happening,” they also invited members of their rock coterie, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithful, Donovan and, bizarrely, Michael Nesmith of the Monkees. A festive vibe pervaded the sessions, aided by gag props— red noses, bald wigs , gorilla paws, novelty glasses—handed out to the stuffy tuxedoed musicians. The party continued even after the orchestra had gone home. In need of a final resolving chord, the Beatles and their friends gathered around a vocal mic and hummed the same note in unison. Not as impressive as they’d hoped, the idea was abandoned in favor of their ultimate concept: an E-chord hammered out by five pairs of hands (Martin, Starr, Lennon, McCartney, and the band’s roadie, Mal Evans).