Of all the singles in the Beatles catalog, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” (the A- and B-side, respectively) is an outstanding piece of the Beatles collective and individual genius. Intended to be placed on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was instead released on February 13, 1967, much to the regret of producer and fifth Beatle, George Martin. Still, Martin (and most critics) believe it to be the most successful single of the Beatles oeuvre because of how the songs complement each other when played back to back.
After the Jump: music videos, and stories of childhood and sinister sides? In MY Beatles songs? It’s more likely than you think.
Yes, these songs are one of the hundreds of instances of the Beatles’ principle songwriters getting credit for something they didn’t write together, but still meeting half-way in terms of theme. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is written about a garden John Lennon enjoyed as a child, where a Salvation Army Band played annually. “Penny Lane,” meanwhile is Paul McCartney’s tribute to a shopping district of Liverpool. And while they share that initial quality of being of a nostalgic beginning, it is a testament to the two visions the songwriters had for their own music.
In an interview from 1980, Lennon recalled the increasing turmoil he faced personally and in the band: his marriage was in trouble, the band had quit touring and focused on more difficult compositions, and were surrounded in the controversy after the infamous “bigger than Jesus” comment. While filming Richard Lester’s “How I Won the War” in Spain, a time where he was using more drugs, he began to write the lyrics to the song, which he called in that same 1980 interview, ‘psycho-analysis set to music.’ As per his perfectionist personality, Lennon would later say that the song was poorly edited (by George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick?! Me thinks not!), and that he was never happy with the final result.
Then there’s “Penny Lane,” a simple ditty with theatrical elements that almost make it akin to a showtune. Compared to the highly produced quality of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the bright orchestration and relatively little effects used on the song make it seem simpler, even slower-witted, than Lennon’s track. But that’s also a matter of their songwriting style — Lennon is internal, and troubled. McCartney emphasizes the joys in life, recreates it to be theater of the mind, and doesn’t weigh down the song in personal drama.
But what is most fun is how both songs are acclaimed for being tributes of that classic psychedelic pastoral-sense of innocence: open fields, flowers, running around, adults doing adult things and children doing kid stuff. Yet, there is some sinister element at hand in both songs. With Lennon, it’s obvious through the druggy-interference of the music’s special effects, all of which come from Emerick and Martin’s tampering, trying to take two radically different takes and splicing them together. Not to mention the completely-idiosyncratic-yet-typically-John Lennon addition when he says “cranberry sauce” during the song’s intense trippy collage of sound ending. Of course, that lent to the ever-popular “Paul is Dead” rumor/hoax/game that everyone can play it home, as long as you have a turntable and a good amount of intoxicating materials.
But Paul McCartney, never to be outdone, has his own more cerebral take on something being horribly wrong in this scene. For one thing, the lyrics make no god damn sense. When you consider it from the ever-fun game of English-major-style lyric analysis (guaranteed to break the ice at parties), this is a scene that is experiencing simultaneous sunshine and rain. The nurse ‘feels she is in a play,’ (indicating she is clearly NOT), ‘she is anyway’ (indicated that she. . . uh. . . is), and doing so ‘behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout.’ The placement of what is probably a bus stop shelter is not so strange, but any action done ‘behind’ something in a public space is always meant to imply something is being done in a clandestine way, meant to be hidden from a wide audience. But even in straight forward lyrics, it is most troubling that the barber takes pictures of every customer. It’s a testament to a very strange narcissist in town, or a very small town, in which case, why would you need a photograph of everyone in town? And what about the lyrics, ‘four of fish and finger pies in summer?’ ‘Four of fish’ turns out to be a colloquial way to order fish and chips, but ‘finger pies?’ Oh boy — if you’ve got children, ask them to close their ears next time you’re in the car so you don’t have to explain what adults can do with their dirty, dirty hands.
But much like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane” finishes on a sonic element so out of place it jars the listener, even if it is a little more fitting than the babbling collage of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” That stretching, extended note played by the piccolo trumpet, alone and separate from the rest of the instruments, with only Ringo’s high hat taps. If you’re thinking visually, it evokes a wide-angle, bird’s eye view of the city, slowly panning up into the clouds, happy and serene. But there’s something about the note, alone and soaring long after the last ‘Penny Lane!’ that implies some deep, world-shattering change has happened. And then you recall immediately: oh, yes, this is a song written from the present, that this is a song of nostalgic reflection, and all of this is, more likely than not, gone. No more fireman and his clean machine, or the barber, or the nurse handing out poppies. All of it is gone.
(I’ll give you a moment to put your head back together, now that it’s been thoroughly blown).
And yet, for what is so obviously a triumph for the Beatles’ songwriting and innovative production, the single failed to hit number one in both the US and the UK, only to be seen reflectively for it’s genius! It may have been psychedelic pop, but I suppose listeners on both sides of the Atlantic were quite ready to go off the deep end head-first, at least not far enough to make it to the top of the charts, beat out by Englebert Humperdink, and the Turtles.
It’s why the Electric Comic Book has felt the need to pay proper tribute to this milestone single. Here’s the two promotional videos for both sides, which were both selected by the Museum of Modern Art as the most influential music videos of the 1960’s.
Strawberry Fields Forever.