Saturday, February 25, 2017

"Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" - Fifty Years

Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles released their first record of 1967, a record that made a complete break with everything they'd released before.  A double-A-side single, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were radical for the times, the former song using backward tapes, variable speeds and liberal editing, and the latter song lyrically inventive with unconventional (for rock and roll) arrangements.  (The single was released on February 13, 1967 in the U.S, and on February 17, 1967 in the U.K.) For those who missed it when I posted the promotional clips of both songs as my Music Videos Of the Week, here are my comments (slightly reworded here), with pictures.

(The front cover of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane" picture sleeve.) 
Both songs had been intended for the LP that the Beatles were recording to follow up Revolver, but both their manager Brian Epstein and their American label Capitol wanted a new single out as soon as possible.  It had been since August 1966 when the Beatles last released any new product, and at the time their manager and Capitol were pressing the group for a new release, four months had passed since the release of Revolver.  In the late sixties, that was a long time to wait for a new record from a recording artiste.  So the first two songs the Beatles finished for their eighth album - they apparently had started it as a theme album about their childhoods, hence "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were both about growing up in Liverpool - were released as a single instead, at a time when British rock acts kept singles and albums apart.  So neither song ever appeared on a Beatles album that the foursome assembled themselves.
John Lennon wrote "Strawberry Fields Forever" while filming the movie How I Won the War in Spain, musing about the Strawberry Field Salvation Army orphanage in Liverpool, the wooded grounds of which he would play in as a boy, and how he found his identity in its haven.  When he presented the song to producer George Martin and the other Beatles, the group taped a magnificent first take in their first session for what became the Sgt. Pepper album (in November 1966).  But John wasn't satisfied with how it turned out, and six more takes were later recorded with an electric-folk arrangement, take 7 being the best of the lot.  John then decided he wanted "Strawberry Fields Forever" classically scored instead, and Martin delivered.  Nineteen takes of the classically scored version - using backward cymbals - were recorded, the last take, called take 26, being labeled "best."
John loved the orchestrated take 26, but he also liked part of the electric-folk take 7.  He then went to Martin and suggested that the first part of  the electric-folk version be joined with the second part of the classical version.  "There are two things wrong with that, John," Martin replied.  "First, they're in different keys, and second, they're in different tempos."
"Well, George,"  John replied, "certainly you can fix it!"
Martin then went over the two versions of "Strawberry Fields Forever" with recording engineer Geoff Emerick and realized that both versions could be joined by slightly speeding up take 7 and dramatically slowing down take 26, radically altering John's voice.  They pulled it off, creating a final master that John gave a hearty thumbs-up to, and song was finished.  (Later, after the Beatles broke up, John would express dissatisfaction with the final master.)  "We gradually decreased the the pitch of the first version at the join to make them weld together," Emerick later explained.
The edit is approximately a quarter of the way into the song and Martin and Emerick joined the two versions so well that, fifty years later, most people still don't know exactly where it is.  (It's exactly one minute into the song, if you want to seek it out; once you do, though, you'll most likely always hear it after that.)
As for the end . . . the reason it fades out and fades back in is because Ringo Starr made a drum mistake when someone was talking to him, and Martin wanted to cover it up.  The group would use the fade-out and fade-back ploy again in "Helter Skelter" on the White Album.  (During a session ten days before Christmas, John uttered the words "cranberry sauce," likely looking forward to his planned holiday dinner or maybe word-playing on "strawberry fields."  He did not, in fact, say "I buried Paul.")

(The back cover of the "Strawberry Fields Forever" / Penny Lane" single, showing the Beatles' childhood photos.)
"Penny Lane" was a much more direct recording, done in nine takes with a piano and wind-instrument arrangement.  Paul McCartney had been inspired to write a song by that title because he liked the poetry of it.  Penny Lane is, of course, the name of not just a Liverpool street but also the neighborhood around it. Paul's song introduces us to the colorful characters that populate the district - a barber who keeps his shop along the street, the local banker who doesn't wear a raincoat when it pours, and a patriotic fireman, along with a nurse selling poppies for Remembrance Day (Veterans Day in America) at a bus shelter in the middle of what the Brits call a "roundabout" and what folks in New Jersey call a "traffic circle."  The three men eventually end up together in the barbershop in the middle of yet another rainstorm.
"Penny Lane" was a stately, tasteful piece of pop lyricism, but Paul managed to work in a couple of naughty slang lyrics as well; he later admitted that he had more than fire engines in mind when he sang about the fireman keeping his "machine" clean, while the term "finger pie" is Liverpool slang for something you don't find at a local bakery next to the petit-four cakes.  (Think about it.)
There was also some clean slang in the lyrics.  A "four of fish" refers to four pence worth of fish and chips, while a raincoat is referred to as a "mac."
The song was recorded in nine takes, and Paul was pleased with how it turned out, but it still lacked a special touch.  Paul figured out what it was when he was at home one night and watched a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's second Brandenburg Concerto on BBC Television.  Paul, who'd taken up the trumpet as a boy, recognized a high-pitched trumpet sound.  The next day, Paul spoke to George Martin at EMI Studios at Abbey Road.
"Great sound I heard last night on the telly," he said to Martin, "a high-pitched trumpet."
Martin immediately knew what Paul meant.  "Yes," he said, "a piccolo trumpet."
"Well," Paul said, "do you think we could get the chap who played it in the Bach concerto last night to play it on 'Penny Lane'?"   
Martin thought that was a splendid idea, and so they got that chap, trumpeter David Mason (not to be confused with the guy who co-founded Traffic) to play on "Penny Lane."  Mason played solos in the middle eight and toward the end of the song; a coda solo got mixed out, but not before it was included in a mix for a promotional single sent to American radio stations.  It's one of the most collectible Beatles records ever.
Both songs were so good that the Beatles decided to release them as a double-A-side, which meant that either song could be recognized as an A-side; this was the third such single the group put out.  "Both songs are brilliant and brimful with confidence and high ability," Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn wrote in 1988.  "And each is a perfect counterpoint to the other even though they share a similar theme."
Martin later regretted not choosing one song as the A-side, leaving the other for what became Sgt. Pepper, and making "When I'm Sixty-Four," the only other song during the Sgt. Pepper sessions that the Beatles recorded up to that point in the sessions, the B-side.  Had he done so, Martin believed, the Beatles would have had another number-one hit in the United Kingdom.  Instead, the single only got up to number two there.  It had actually sold as many copies as their previous singles but simply could not outsell Englebert Humperdinck's "Release Me," which stubbornly held the top spot on the British singles chart (until Frank and Nancy Sinatra's appropriately titled "Somethin' Stupid" displaced it).  In America, though, "Penny Lane" topped the Billboard singles chart for the week ending March 18, 1967 while "Strawberry Fields Forever" made it to number five.
John Lennon took the single's relatively disappointing chart action in the U.K. in stride, saying there was room for all sorts of pop music on the charts.  "I don't mind Humperbert Engledinck," he said. ;-)

(A scene from the "Strawberry Fields Forever" promotional video.)
The Beatles made two videos for the record.  The video for "Strawberry Fields Forever," filmed in the English county of Kent outside London, is a surreal interpretation of the song, as cosmically edited and as laden with special effects as the song itself, while the video for "Penny Lane" shows the Beatles supposedly walking on that very street in Liverpool and having a formal picnic on the outskirts of the city.  In fact, the street scenes showing the Beatles were filmed in the Chelsea section of London, while the picnic scenes were filmed in Kent.  These scenes, along with clips of the Beatles on horseback, were then interspersed with footage of the real Penny Lane in Liverpool.  Both clips emphasize their facial hair (George Harrison has a goatee) to make it clear that they were no longer boys.  Now they were men.


(A scene from the "Penny Lane" promotional video.)
"Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," because of their reminiscences of childhood, were considered the first concept 45-rpm record.  The musical innovation and the lyrical inventiveness of both songs make this one of the greatest singles of all time and certainly the greatest double-A-side single ever.

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