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Monday, 15 October 2012

Strawberry Fields / Penny Lane

In 1966 The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, widely praised as one of the most influential and innovative popular recordings of all time. Meanwhile  in England, The Beatles were entering the most creative period in an outstandingly productive career  They listened to Pet Sounds and were inspired in the same way that Dylan had influenced them a few years earlier. They had decided to try to produce something in a similar vain and were sensationally successful as the result was the Sergeant Pepper album. 
Photo: Linda McCartney
They began by each of them returning to their roots and writing a song each about their up-bringing in Liverpool. John came up with Strawberry Fields and Paul composed Penny Lane; both titles being taken from locations in that city. Their UK record label, EMI, were pushing for a new single so they released a double A-sided disc using those two songs which never made it on to Sergeant Pepper after all.
The songs are interesting because, for me, they epitomise the character and song-writing style of each of the two Beatles.
Penny Lane is strongly melodic and actually fairly complex musically. The lyrics are very interesting and must seem mysterious to non-British listeners. They contain several ambiguities 
The 'shelter in the middle of the roundabout'
such as being "there beneath the blue suburban skies" while the fireman "rushes in from the pouring rain - very strange". Very strange indeed. So the images are being presented as a kaleidoscopic view of Liverpool. It is rumoured that McCartney was using LSD at that time....."She feels as if she's in a play. She is anyway"
"Four of fish and finger pie" is a very clever piece of writing and worth explaining. "Four of fish" referred to fourpence worth of Fish and Chips and "finger pie" is a sexual reference to the fumblings that went on the the bus shelter (solo or joint!). Also it's a lovely pun on 'fish fingers' which is how fish sticks are known in the UK.  
One of the most interesting things about the recording is the piccolo trumpet solo played by  the late David Mason of the London Symphony Orchestra. Paul heard a recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and asked George Martin what the instrument was playing the high notes. It is an exceedingly difficult instrument to play because it does not keep properly in tune with itself! The player has to 'pitch' the notes him or herself. Very strange. Paul told David Mason exactly which notes he wanted to be played. Paul McCartney was a great inventor of melody and an original lyricist. Listen to it here.
By complete contrast Strawberry Fields Forever really represents the state of John Lennon's mind at that time and I am going to talk about this song from a psychological point of view. Strawberry Field is the site of a Salvation Army Children's Home in Liverpool near where Lennon grew up. Lyrically the song is very introspective with each verse descending deeper into a kind of mire of indecision:
 "No one I think is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low.
That is you can't you know tune in but it's all right, that is I think it's not too bad.

"Always, no sometimes, think it's me, but you know I know when it's a dream.
I think I know I mean a 'Yes' but it's all wrong, that is I think I disagree."
Strawberry Field, Liverpool
But the most amazing thing about this record is the way that the very recording of the song reflects John Lennon's indecision. Did you know that the record is made from two completely different takes spliced together? If you listen carefully here at about the one minute point you can clearly hear the miraculous job that engineer Geoff Emmerick and producer George Martin have done. They had two recordings at different speeds and in different keys which they achieved by slightly slowing one down and speeding the other one up. This matched the speed and altered the pitch and it was all done with a pair of scissors and two tape machines!
Postscript: Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was in the middle of producing their album Smile when he heard the Sergeant Pepper album being played on the radio in his car. He pulled up at the side of the road and listened to the whole of the record. He immediately stopped work on Smile and did not go back to it for decades. I wonder what he thought.
Also, years later, George Martin said that it was an awful mistake not including Strawberry Fields and Penny lane on the album because they were the foundation of the concept that generated it. However, the Beatles had a policy of not including single releases on albums.


Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

Bazza, you are a man of all the arts. Your posts are fascinating and I always learn something new.

bazza said...

SO,AC: Now I'm blushing! This is a subject that fascinates me and I find it such a pleasure to research.

klahanie said...

Hey bazza,

I'm rather familiar with much of what you have alluded to. However, you have added a lot of extra information that is truly fascinating.
Strawberry fields forever...and yes, you got my attention with 'Penny' Lane.
Cheers old chap.


John said...

Hi Bazza,
I will probably be shot down in flames by what I am about to say, but I am not a big fan of The Beatles, never really 'got' what all the fuss is about! Much prefer The Rolling Stones, to be honest. Having said that, an interesting and informative post, as always.

bazza said...

Gary: I guess the Beatles story is very well known but some of what I found really interested me. Their music will last for a long time after we have all gone!

bazza said...

John: My dear fellow, it's not compulsory to enjoy this music! I enjoy the (occasional!) dissenting voice. It would be a dull world if we all the same; but I do feel sad for you that this phenomenon has passed you by! :)

David said...

Dear bazza,
A very informative post. Unlike John, I do like The Beatles, but I like the Stones equally.
Incidentally, we were discussing Sgt. Pepper's at the group I attend this week. One of our members is a big Frank Zappa fan, and he mentioned that Frank had made an album called, I think, "We're in it for the Money", which had a cover resembling the famous Peter Blake one produced for Sgt. Pepper's. I wonder what Frank and the Mothers of Invention were implying!
Very Best Wishes,

bazza said...

David: Yes, I know that Mothers of Invention record. Of course anyone who is successful is an easy target but I liked Frank Zappa.
I do also like the music of the Stones but the Beatles were extremely creative and more interesting.
Thanks for your visit!

Dixie said...

My older brother was the huge Beatles fan. I was motown, downtown, and beach boogie. Hollies, DC Five, Pet Clarke, Moody Blues, Iron Butterfly, Uriah Heap, Jimi, The Doors, Eric Burden and the Animals. (!)

Enjoyed George Harrison's Bangladesh, Norwegian Wood... finally into Beatles later on. Creative - oh yes.

Great to hear explanations of stuff! Thanks so much Bazza!!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Just a little note to let you know that Lenny is indeed a kiddo. I talk to him at least once a month, usually after he has a bone marrow test or when he is feeling bad.

bazza said...

Hi Sharon. Wow, he really is remarkable. I genuinely thought it was someone's online persona. Thanks for the info and for visiting!

bazza said...

Hi Dixie: I can't see the reply I posted the other day! Never mind!
I remember all of those acts and liked most of them. The music of the sixties seems destined to go on forever....

Kelly said...

I remember listening and loving both songs, growing up. My Aunt was a huge Beatles fan she would sing along with the words and involve. I had no idea what they were talking about at that early age (I was likely about 8 or 9 years old) but slowly but surely I took a liking for them.

when I got older, I started to listen to the lyrics and even though I could understand some or a lot of what they were talking about, since I've never lived in the UK and I'm American, most of it was lost on me but I knew they had a deeper meaning.

Thanks for clearing up some of the mysteries revolving around these songs. I appreciate their complexity even more so. They had amazing talent, of course.

Good writing on this one, Bazza.

bazza said...

Kezza: Thank you sir! Nice to hear from you again and I'm pleased you like this music.