Does the CD version of "Sgt. Pepper" make it any less, or any more, of a cultural artifact? Not really. But it does sound mighty good. Like the CD reissues of "Help!" and "Rubber Soul," it features a digital stereo remix by George Martin, who says he has made no significant changes. As a result the sound is rich and immediate, the separation and definition crystal clear (considering the primitive recording conditions of the day). Unfortunately, that bodes ill for songs like "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!," on which both the instrumentation and the vocals seem unduly harsh. The light pop tunes, like "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "A Little Help From My Friends," fare much better. And "A Day in the Life" sounds even more immediate and foreboding, particularly in the orchestral rushes.
The cover, shrunk to accommodate the CD jewel case, loses its evocative power; on the other hand, there are some interesting notes from producer Martin and designer Peter Blake in a booklet that, in the spirit of the original back cover, reprints the lyrics.
By the time of "Sgt. Pepper," the British and American releases were in alignment, but several Beatles jokes that disappeared in American pressings are reinstated on the CD. One is Paul McCartney's high-frequency note at the end of "A Day in the Life." Don't listen for it, though; at 15 kHz, it's audible only to dogs (McCartney did it as a treat for his pup, Martha).
Making its first appearance on the album it was intended for is "Sgt. Pepper's Inner Groove," a two-second sound collage originally put on as a run-out groove; if your turntable didn't have an automatic changer, the needle would be stuck in the groove, playing the snippet until it was manually removed. Of course, CDs don't have run-out grooves, so EMI has put it on there as a separate entity (it's also included on the Beatles' "Rarities" album).
Ultimately, though, the difference between "Sgt. Pepper" in 1967 and in 1987 is the difference between a work of art and high-tech packaging. The CD doesn't revive the ambiance, spirit or energy of the past. It just reinforces the fact that 20 years is a long time -- unless you can cherish the memories.