An article at Ultimate Classic Rock revealed that a master tape for The Beatles‘ 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (which will celebrate its 45th anniversary in 12 days), was sold on eBay for $2,800 U.S. Even after reading the article, I wanted to investigate this a bit further.
There are many different versions of what is called a “master tape”, so for those who might be curious about its authenticity, I shall explain some of the technical information that I know.
In the days of analog tape, when an artist is in post-production and mixes an album for release, it is mixed towards a final “master tape”. It is this “master tape” that becomes the source for a domestic pressing (i.e. the label in the home country of the artist) and all pressings around the world. However, the story doesn’t end there. When a “master tape” is made, that was generally preserved by the record company, a/k/a “the owners” of the intellectual property of the music. From this master tape, a small number of “safety copies” or “safety masters” were produced. In some instances, it is this “safety master” that is sent to various record affiliates around the world. Once again, the story doesn’t quite end there either. Sometimes, the “safety master” became the source to press up tapes that would be sent to label affiliates around the world. Basically, you have a bit of sound degradation with each copy, so by the time a record is pressed in a specific country, you’re hearing a 3rd or 4th generation tape of the original master tape. To add to this, some label affiliates would make a safety copy of their safety copy, or “a dub of a dub”, and keep that in the library for further use. When records are produced, a “mother” plate is created which is used as the source to press up records at the pressing plant. All “mothers” have a shelf life and can wear out with each record pressing, and with the nature of pressing plants, they could easily break. If one is worn out or breaks/cracks, another “mother” has to be made from the master tape they have available. This is why some collectors prefer to buy/have/fine the very first pressing of any specific record, because it usually means the sound is as best it can be. In some circles, this is called a “hot stamper”, which means you are getting some of the very first pressings from the original mother stamping plate, and a few collectors will pay premium. It has been the subject of debate.
One more aspect. In the early 1960’s, when Beatles masters were sent to Capitol Records in the U.S. from Parlophone in the UK, some songs meant for release as 45rpm records were treated/drenched in reverb. This was done by Dave Dexter Jr., a A&R man and producer at Capitol who was in charge of what was and wasn’t released on his label. After initially rejecting the Beatles, the phenomenon was slowly growing into something, and with a number of smaller independent labels having a bit of success with Beatles singles, along with major persuasion from EMI in the UK, Dexter and Capitol were moved to sign them. When he received Beatles songs for release as singles, he would treat them with reverb at Capitol’s mastering studio. It was discovered that the U.S. pressings of these singles sounded quite different from the clean (some would say puritanical) mixes that were on the British pressings of the same songs. Years later, when someone confronted members of the group about these pressings, one of them (I think it was Paul McCartney) said he preferred the U.S. pressings over the British ones, because that American style of production is what they had always wanted to achieve, but never could. Beatles fans have come to love to hate these “Dexter-ized” pressings, but are still sought after by fans and collectors.
I mention this because with Sgt. Pepper, it was a project that The Beatles wanted untouched from start to finish. It was a common practice for Capitol Records to chop up the sequence of British albums and release a few songs as singles and EP’s, of which there is no British counterpart. With Sgt. Pepper, the group made sure that every aspect of the album was as they wanted it from start to finish, including how the public heard it.
What you see in the above photos are a look at a master reel tape and technical information, but with anything Beatles-related, one can ask “is this authentic? How can anyone just obtain a master tape?” In this case, this is a master tape made by Capitol Records in the U.S. for Capitol of Mexico. This means that when Capitol U.S. received their Sgt. Pepper master from Parlophone, they created a tape dub to be sent to the Mexican affiliate. This technically means that sonically, the Mexican pressing is one or two generations down from the American one. I am not sure if Capitol U.S. also made safety masters for Canada or other countries within the Americas (if anyone knows, feel free to reply).
The master tape shown is the mono mix. The top shows the catalog number for the stereo Mexican pressing, which was SLEM-081. LEM-081 is typewritten on the page, and there’s also indication (with a checked box) that this is the mono mix. The sheet tells the pressing plant what the tape is for, so the sheet indicates that the tape is for a 12″ record at 33 1/3 rpm, and to be pressed with a Capitol label. Capitol had a number of subsidiary labels, and on this sheet, there are unchecked boxes for Angel, Seraphim (both Capitol’s classical divisions), Odeon, and Pickwick.
The information also shows how much silence is meant to be heard between each track. For Sgt. Pepper, a number of songs segue into one another without interruption, while others have less than a second of silence before the next song begins. It was normal for albums to have 2 to 4 seconds of silence between tracks. For this album, the length of each break (or lack of them) were intentional and for the most part. The master tapes would have the silence physically attached on the physical tape with “leader tape”, but there was also a command from Parlophone to leave the album “as is”. Mastering engineers around the world could sequence/master the album as they deemed fit, including changing the amount of space between songs. Mastering engineers could also change the dynamics of the album without telling anyone, but also had to deal with the technology and upkeep of their respective pressing plants. All of these technicalities were eliminated with compact disc and more specifically, when every label affiliate around the world would receive the exact digital master from the same source. But in this case, the information on the box shows how much silence is used in between songs that have them, and how some do not. One section of the box reveals that this master was prepared by Capitol Records U.S. for Capitol of Mexico on 5/2/67 (May 2, 1967), or a month before the official release of the album.
What I could not find in these photos was an indication to include the “dog whistle” and “secret ending” at the end of Side 2, what is commonly known as the “Sgt. Pepper Inner Groove”. This surprise could be found on every world pressing of the album except the U.S. version. I do see some handwritten notes on these boxes, but nothing that might suggest “there is audio at the end of the tape that will be used for Side 2” or instructions to keep that audio on the record as it moves towards the center of the record.
After all of this technical information, this master tape would be the source of what you hear on this pressing:
When it comes to anything Beatles-related, if it was indeed the actual master tape The Beatles and producer Sir George Martin created, this auction would have been pulled/stopped immediately. Nonetheless, it is a rare occurrence that even a safety copy or a master tape dub, especially one with “Beatles status”, surfaces in a casual manner. This is very much an authentic tape. Collectors will buy them with no intention of playing it or finding a tape machine to hear it, for it is a piece of Beatles and music history that is worth preserving, even if as a “museum piece”. Not sure what the buyer plans on doing with it, but it’s interesting to know it exists.