The Beatles are back - thanks to the compact disc (CD), which has put rock-and-roll's most progressive foursome back on the Billboard charts with no fewer than four releases in the top 20. And now, with all the publicity surrounding the 20th anniversary of ``Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'' and the recently released CD of that album, it looks as if they're here to stay. The ``Sgt. Pepper'' CD is a pleasure indeed, with its detailed liner notes describing the circumstances of each studio take and giving background on the project. Best of all, of course, is the excellent sound. It's a real ear-opener to pop the CD in the player and the vinyl album on the turntable, and switch back and forth between the two. Not only are the vocals 100 percent clearer, but parts of George Martin's arrangements jump out of the background to create a whole new sound.
``It was the most innovative, imaginative, and trend-setting record of its time,'' says Mr. Martin, who was the creative force behind many of the Beatles's albums. In an interview at Capitol Records, when asked how much creative input the Beatles themselves had in ``Sgt. Pepper,'' Martin said, ``Paul and John were the prime movers of Sgt. Pepper. Paul probably more than John, but their inspiration, their creation of the original ideas was absolutely paramount. I was merely serving them in trying to get those ideas down.''
Producer Martin found quite a contrast between doing a complex project like ``Sgt. Pepper'' and the earlier Beatles albums. ``The songs in the early days were very simple and straightforward, and you couldn't play around with them too much. But here we were building song pictures, and my role was to interpret those song pictures.''
Martin recalled how the Beatles loved to experiment with new musical ideas even before ``Sgt. Pepper.'' ``They always wanted to try different things. It was Paul who hit upon the idea of removing the erase head on his tape recorder and then playing, maybe, a guitar phrase into a microphone. And the effect, if he had made a loop of tape that would go around and around, was of saturation until the tape would absorb no more, and he would then have a piece of `musique concr`ete,' if you like. This kind of work, this building up of sounds in a collage was exciting.... That really pointed the way to Pepper, and Pepper became an experiment in itself.''
Word has it that relationships among the Beatles were strained around the time of the recording of ``Sgt. Pepper.'' Martin explains, ``I think the strain of fame and touring had taken its toll, and I think they were going through a period where they secretly wanted not to be famous and to go back to being ordinary people again - which may be a psychological explanation of why `Pepper' existed in the first place, because it was a band they could refer to, like the Beatles - they would often refer to the Beatles as being [a group] quite separate.''
Owners of the ``Sgt. Pepper'' CD will hear some strange sounds at the end of the disc. Martin explained that, when the album was first released, the Beatles thought it would be fun to put something in the ``run-out groove,'' the last groove where the needle used to run around and around on old record players. So Martin got the Beatles into the studio and told them to sing the first thing that came into their heads. ``All four of them sang something quite ridiculous. A silly schoolboy prank, but it was fun to do a thing like that. And later on, I believe, the vinyl discs had that removed. But it has been reinstated on CD....