In 1966, The Beatles were living a double life. On tour, they tried to keep up the facade of the lovable moptops, but the strain was showing. If you compare footage of a 1964 press conference to one from two years later, you can see the difference—all that silly Fabness had become bored glumness. As Paul McCartney told biographer Barry Miles, “We were fed up with being Beatles. It was all gone, all that boy shit, all that screaming—we didn’t want any more.”
Meanwhile, their life offstage was vibrant, full of art and experimentation. They were eager to follow the muses of Rubber Soul and Revolver deeper into uncharted territory. After playing their final gig on Aug.29 in San Francisco, it was goodbye matching suits, hello candy stripes and paisley. As songwriters, Lennon and McCartney further abandoned simple boy-girl love songs in favor of character studies and introspective meditations. They embraced avant garde influences, from Dali to Stockhausen. And with a few hallucinogens added to their daily diets, they began to see everything in Technicolor.
On Nov. 24, in Abbey Road Studio, the group started what would eventually become the Sgt. Pepper LP. “Strawberry Fields Forever” was the first song completed.
Lennon had written most of it the previous month in Almeria, Spain, while he was filming How I Won the War. You can hear his guitar-vocal demo on Anthology 2, recorded a few days after he returned to London. Even in this spare setting, there’s a hypnotic power to the song. The title refers to a Salvation Army hostel in Liverpool where John used to play as a boy. Paul would later describe it as a “secret garden, like in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Aside from the tangible detail of the title, the rest of the song is all interior monologue, with Lennon drifting lysergically from thought to thought.
Years later he would reflect, “The awareness apparently trying to be expressed is—let’s say in one way I was always hip. I was hip in kindergarten. I was different from the others. I was different all my life. … ‘No one I think is in my tree.’”
Going through several arrangements in the studio (the finished record is a splice of two versions), the song became The Beatles’ most elaborate production—a relay of cellos, trumpets, backwards cymbals, Mellotron (the flutey–sounding keyboard at the front) and svarmandal (the Indian zither that plays the descending raga scale at the ends of choruses). And as one last unusual touch, over a trick fadeout, Lennon mumbled “cranberry sauce” (later misheard by conspiracy-minded fans as “I buried Paul”). Even today, after hearing it thousands of times, the song has the power to startle. Imagine how it must’ve sounded to listeners experiencing it for the first time in 1967.
Meanwhile, across memory lane, Paul McCartney was a cheerful tour guide leading us through Liverpool’s town square. Penny Lane had made a previous appearance in a scrapped verse for another great nostalgia song, “In My Life,” and now Paul was bringing it back. As he told Barry Miles, “It was childhood reminiscences: There is a bus stop called Penny Lane. There was a barber shop called Bioletti’s with head shots of the haircuts you can have in the window, and I just took it all and arted it up a little bit to make it sound like he was having a picture exhibition in his window. It was all based on real things.”
The finishing flourish on this jaunty song came courtesy of the London Philharmonia’s David Mason on piccolo trumpet. Paul said, “I got the idea of using trumpets in that pizzicato way from seeing a program on television [a performance of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto”]. I didn’t know whether it would work, so I got the arranger for the session into the studio, played the tune on the piano and sang how I wanted the brass to sound. That’s the way I always work with arrangers.”
While all of this magnificence was going on in Abbey Road (105 hours were devoted to the two songs), manager Brian Epstein was fretting over the group’s commercial fate. With them off the touring circuit, some critics and fans were questioning their future. Epstein decided a single was needed to quell the doubts. As producer George Martin recalled in Anthology, “The idea of a double A-side came from me and Brian, really. Brian was desperate to recover popularity, and so we wanted to make sure that we had a marvelous seller. We put the two songs together, and it made a smashing single—but it was also a dreadful mistake. We would have sold far more and got higher up in the charts if we had issued one of those with say ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ on the back.”
In January 1967, the Fabs, sporting new facial hair, shot promotional clips for each song with director Peter Goldmann. As usual, they were ahead of their time, incorporating innovative effects such as backwards film and shots in negative. Rather than lip-synching they just milled around in the winter sunset next to a strange object made of a piano, string and lights. All four looked suitably under the influence of something other than Earl Grey tea.
For all Brian Epstein’s chart hopes, the double A-side of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” was kept out of the No. 1 spot in the U.K. by Englebert Humperdinck’s “Release Me” (it went No. 1 in the U.S.).
The two songs never appeared on a Beatles LP, apart from later hits collections that were made without their active participation. But this fantastic single opened the doors to the wonders of Sgt. Pepper and set the stage for the summer of love.
—by Bill DeMain
From Performing Songwriter Issue 75, January/February 2004
Category: In Case You Haven't Heard