Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now. This week: The Beatles’ “Penny Lane / “Strawberry Fields” single.
Anniversary Records: The Beatles – “Penny Lane” / “Strawberry Fields Forever”
by Chad Jewett
Billed as a “double A-side” and released into a pop climate that was just beginning to embrace psychedelia, the “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields Forever” single marked the single biggest sonic leap The Beatles would ever make, and thus represents one of popular music’s most salient red-letter moments. The Liverpool quartet had already begun to explore the far corners of rock-and-roll’s avant-garde: the droning, single chord sound collage of “Tomorrow Never Knows”; the Indian music interpolations of “Love You To”; the sleepy, narcotized plushness of “I’m Only Sleeping” and the backwards guitars and tape loops that bubbled up repeatedly throughout 1966’s Revolver. But those songs still mostly maintained the garage rock backbeat of 1965’s Rubber Soul. Indeed, at the skeletal level, they were more traditionally “rock” than Rubber Soul, which was far more interested in replicating a blue-eyed-soul version of Bob Dylan’s 1964-1965 folk rock successes, complete with a billowing fog of pot smoke.
“Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” represented something entirely different. Indeed, the two songs together took as long to record as a full third of the 14-song Revolver, with the band, producer George Martin, and recording engineer Geoff Emerick all ostensibly inventing pop studio techniques on the fly just to make the songs work. In the case of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, which famously moves from a cottony, dream-like intro – delivered in a woozy sigh of synthetic flutes, curling electric guitar, and an especially weary sounding John Lennon – to a more bombastic, surreal second half (which features some of Ringo Starr’s most muscular, punchy drumming), Martin and Emerick had to physically splice together two versions of the song, slowing down one half and speeding up the other until the two portions met in a matching middle. Lennon, famously indecisive in the studio, couldn’t choose between two versions of the song – one light and whimsical, the other heavy and discordant – and thus the solution of welding the two together was pulled out of thin air. The splicing of favorable takes had been done before – indeed, it made the multi-tracked sophistication of Revolver possible – but never had it been used to actually compose a piece of music, turning the initially dreamy and eventually raucous “Strawberry Fields Forever” into a multi-suite opus as opposed to two different, less dynamic versions.
New ground was also tackled in the song’s instrumentation, which found Paul McCartney making use of a mellotron, an analog synthesizer that uses tape loops to produce trumpets, strings, or in the case of “Strawberry Fields”, flutes. The song’s signature intro — a loping, set of reedy chords — was provided by McCartney via the mellotron, a gorgeous and otherworldly sound that sets the song’s gently uncanny mood. That sort of experimentation, wherein the John, Paul, George, Ringo, and the engineers at Abbey Road Studios, would begin to seriously invest in searching out just the right instrumentation, sound, and technological assistance, would come to define Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, the album to which the “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields Forever” proved an early preview. Indeed, the two songs were initially recorded as part of the Pepper sessions – which, in its earliest stages, was imagined as a concept album about the Beatles’ childhoods, hence the two Liverpool locales in both song titles. Going forward, The Beatles would become obsessed with the idea of unexpected instrumentation, and the expansive time taken to record the late-1966 single would carry over to the Pepper album proper, which took over 6 months to record.
If “Strawberry Fields Forever” presaged the kind of cutting-edge craft that made the symphonic “A Day In The Life” or the sound-collage pastiche of “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” possible, then “Penny Lane” anticipated the more general aesthetic of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. Sharp, bouncy, clean, and bright, the DNA of “Penny Lane” — whose sound Paul McCartney said was partly a result of his admiration for the Beach Boys’ innovative mid-60s output — can be found all over Sgt. Pepper: the chirpy, razor-sharp guitars of “Getting Better”; the spotless tuneful perfection of “With A Little Help From My Friends”; the twangy garage-pop of “Good Morning Good Morning”. Pepper was an album split between experimentation and ruthless old-school pop perfectionism (you can literally divide the thing between “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Getting Better” camps) – an underrated way in which The Beatles’ influence still echoes in the work of modern-day pop geniuses like Beyoncé.
And while the clean, superficially traditional surface of “Penny Lane” – all rounded bass and music-hall piano – doesn’t exude the same overt abstractness as “Strawberry Fields Forever”, the song’s lyrics are just as psychedelic and impressionistic, its production just as careful and daring. Guitars turn into jabbing pianos, melting harmonies fill the glassy margins. The inclusion of a piccolo trumpet was a first for a pop song, as were much of the song’s oddball chord structure and the way in which McCartney’s bass guitar serves as lead instrument.
Amazingly, “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields Forever” only reached #2 on the British pop charts, blocked from the top spot by Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me”. The Beatles would go on to characterize the chart spot – their first non-#1 single since “Love Me Do” – as a badge of honor and a relief; proof of their avant-garade bona fides (they were now officially way ahead of the times) and a break from the pressure of having to keep up a still-unprecedented hit streak. But the album that the single presaged, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, would reign at number 1 for months, becoming a soundtrack for its epoch – 1967’s Summer of Love – in a way that few pieces of modern music would. Indeed, only Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Nirvana’s Nevermind could match the way that Pepper, and by extension “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, defined their era.