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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever

It had been almost six months since Revolver, the last release of new material by the Beatles, when Capitol Records in the US told manager Brian Epstein that they needed something new for the American market.  The group had been back in the studio since November 24th, 1966 recording tracks for a new album with the loosely-based concept of childhood - specifically, their childhood in Liverpool.  When Epstein approached producer George Martin to see what they had, Martin admitted that they had only three songs so far, but two of them were the best they had ever recorded.  It was decided that these two songs would be released as another double A-sided single, with the result that the Beatles abandoned the childhood concept for the upcoming album.  A totally new concept would soon emerge.

Penny Lane - This wonderful McCartney composition is pure pop perfection.  In the book Tell Me Why, Tim Riley praises the song's boundless musical invention from moment to moment.  And that doesn't even take into account the actual recording, which is a marvel of invention in and of itself.  To this date, people in the music industry are astonished at how many levels of sound Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick were able to compress onto only four tracks of tape and still come away with such a pristine result.  The recording took place over several days spanning a few weeks between December 29th, 1966 and January 17th, 1967.  On the first night alone, multiple piano tracks were recorded and more were added in the days to come.  By the time the song was complete, there had been three separate sessions involving outside musicians, including parts for piccolo, flugelhorn, trumpet, cor anglais, oboe and double bass.  But most famous of all is the piccolo trumpet part played by soloist David Mason.  On Anthology 2, you can hear all of these parts brought to the forefront, some of which were later eliminated, including Mason's final flourish, which had been left in on early promotional copies played on the radio in the US.

In the lyrics, McCartney paints a vivid picture of the area of Liverpool which he frequently passed through on his way to visit John's house.  Several characters, each with a distinctive quirk, populate the neighborhood in his mind's eye.  The melody and the mood are upbeat, and once again, Paul uses a modulation before the final repeat of the refrain, taking the song out on an even sunnier note.

Strawberry Fields Forever - Lennon began composing this song in Spain in the fall of 1966 as he whiled away the hours on the set of Richard Lester's film How I Won the War.  The refrain refers back to Strawberry Fields, an idyllic place from Lennon's childhood memory, but the verses are about his troubled search for identity, and the conversational, almost stream-of-consciousness style were the result of long hours of work.  A bootleg tape given to me years ago has John alone on acoustic guitar playing the song numerous times, and it evolves and takes shape at an extremely slow pace.

The recording is legendary for its complexity.  On Anthology 2, the brilliant take one is miles from the finished product, but easily could have stood in for it.  After days of recording, John was briefly satisfied with take seven, but a few days later, the Beatles began a remake which included an orchestration by George Martin.  Again, John was momentarily satisfied with take twenty-six, but then asked Martin to use the first part of take seven and the latter part of take twenty-six for the master.  Because the two takes were in different tempos and different keys, Martin and Emerick had to play with vari-speed - slowing down one and speeding up the other - to make John's request a reality.  The splice occurs exactly one minute into the recording.

The song opens with Paul playing the Mellotron, an eerie-sounding early synthesizer.  Other than that, the first section features the Beatles on their usual instruments.  The second section is decidedly heavier, with Martin's cellos and trumpets adding to the sound.  The ending features an additional wild drumming track by Ringo and the bizarre effect of a fadeout, a fade-in and a second fadeout, which proved to be quite problematic for AM radio.

Ultimately, the decision to make it a double A-sided single probably kept it from hitting number one in the UK.  Martin admitted as much in later years.  As great a song as Strawberry Fields Forever is, it simply was not radio-friendly in 1967.  Penny Lane should have been the obvious choice for the A-side, and without competition from the flip side, it would have easily vaulted into the top position.  As it turned out, it stalled at number two, unable to dislodge Release Me by Englebert Humperdinck.

In the US, Penny Lane did hit number one and Strawberry Fields Forever was a remarkable number eight.  Both songs were later featured on the Capitol version of Magical Mystery Tour.

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