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Sunday, 5 November 2017

Great Popular Songs (4): Strawberry Fields Forever

This article is as much about a recording as it is about a truly great popular song. I know a lot about Strawberry Fields Forever because I wrote a dissertation comparing the psychology of this song with Penny Lane as a part of my Bachelor of Arts degree and did lots of research on the subject.
Strawberry Field, Liverpool, England
First, some background details. In 1966  the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, was pressing George Martin for a new single release. They had just begun work on a new ‘concept’ album that became Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The idea behind the album was initially that they would create a retrospective biographical look back to their home city of Liverpool. The first contributions were John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields and Paul McCartney’s Penny Lane. It was decided to release the songs as a double A-sided single and they never appeared on the final album. George Martin later claimed that "it was the biggest mistake of my career". Strawberry Field was a Salvation Army children’s home near to where John Lennon lived with his Auntie Mimi.
Lyrically the song is an emblem of Lennon’s indecision and uncertainty at the timer of writing it:
“Always, no sometimes, think it’s me,
But you know I know when it’s a dream.
I think er no, but I mean er yes but it’s all wrong.
That is I think I disagree.”

Further remarkable evidence of indecision is shown by a really innovative event in the recording studio. Many versions of the song were recorded over several months. After Take 7 on 29th November 1966, everyone thought that Strawberry Fields Forever was finished. Except John Lennon. After Take 26 on 21st December 1966, everyone thought that Strawberry Fields Forever was finished. Except John Lennon. John told George Martin “I like both versions. Why don’t we join them together?” However, there were two MAJOR problems; the two versions were in different keys and in very different tempos. These days that would be no problem but in the sixties the digital technology that could achieve this was decades away.
John Lennon. 1940-1980
The first version was in B-flat Major at 90 beats per minute and the second, a whole tone above, in C-major and at 108 beats per minutes. In those days 'splicing' literally meant using a pair of scissors and splicing tape!  What to do?
John Lennon, never a realist and not technically minded, left the problem to George Martin and recording engineer Geoff Emerick.
I don’t believe in miracles but what happened next was, well I would say, sensational. They had variable speed tape-recorders at the Abbey Road studios and they found that by speeding-up one recording and slowing down the other one they could get an exact match. They had very fine control over the speed (and therefore the pitch) but by the most amazing luck and ingenuity they achieved Lennon’s wish. It turned out that the differences in pitch were exactly compensated for by slowing one and speeding up the other.
When you listen to the recording (click here) you can hear the change, just about, after 59 seconds. Listening to the drumbeat is the easiest way to pick it out. The purpose of an edit, of course, is that it shouldn't be heard and a marvellous job had been done.
A by-product of this work was that it gave Lennon’s voice a smokey, other-worldly sound which really suits the song. It also left the recording in an in-between pitch not exactly in any recognised key. Although Lennon had composed it in C using a guitar the published version is written as being in B-flat. The song has an unusual structure in that it starts with a chorus followed by alternate verses and choruses and ending with a chorus which gives it a musically palindromic structure. The introduction is played on a Mellotron, a keyboard instrument that used electronic recording tape so that many different sounds could be used by pre-recording them. Some sources claimed that it was played by Lennon and others by McCartney.
FOOTNOTE: It turned out that Strawberry Field wasn't forever. The Salvation Army closed the children's home in 2005 and it was demolished in 2007. Lennon Hall now stands in it's place.


Parnassus said...

Hello Bazza, Interesting how technologies change. I used to collect the early 78's, which were recorded through an acoustic horn (i.e., no microphone), and were all recorded direct to disc. That is, there was no "post-processing" possible at all. If a record was not perfect either it was re-recorded from start to finish, not published, or sometimes oddly, published with flaws intact.

bazza said...

Jim: They can even make out-of-tune singers become in key now with new technologies. It's a pity the music is such rubbish! I think this post illustrates that creativity is more important than technology.
I think I have seen a wax cylinder recording device actually working in the the Science Museum in London.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - what a great post ... and I'll be back to read - excellent and what a fun dissertation to decide to write ... sorry I can't do it more justice ... there's a lot going on here - cheers I'll be back to read properly though - Hilary

David said...

Hi bazza,
Interesting post once again. I recently saw a Howard Goodall documentary on the making of Sgt. Pepper's and it was similarly revealing. I understand that The Beatles became very much a studio, rather than a live, band after realising that their live sets were often drowned out by the cacophonous screaming of the fans, and both your post and the documentary show just how important George Martin was in making the studio work. The fifth Beatle indeed!
Best Wishes,

bazza said...

Hilary: Thanks, I look forward to hearing your considered comments.

bazza said...

David: I think I saw that when it was recently repeated. That's the kind of thing that often sows a seed for new post but this time it's part of a series of course. The Beatles had just announced their withdrawal from touring before concentrating on recording so we are the lucky beneficiaries of that choice!

Hels said...

I loved 1966, The Beatles (especially John Lennon), Epstein, Strawberry Fields, my gap year abroad, Labour Politics and pubs. It was just a wee bit too early for anti-Vietnam protest marches.

bazza said...

Hels: I loved the whole of the sixties! I started off as a spotty schoolboy and ended up as a married man.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - it will be a while ... and perhaps may vanish in the mists of time ... but I'll try and remember to get back sometime ... cheers Hilary

bazza said...

Hilary, it's always nice that you have visited. Don't feel obligated!

Sherry Ellis said...

I didn't know Strawberry Fields was a children's home. Interesting bit of history!

bazza said...

Hi Sherry. Although the song was ostensibly about his Liverpool childhood and memories of going to play at Strawberry Field, it wasn't really about that. It was more of an introspective look at at his own state of mind. To me it really is one of the great popular songs.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

What a terrific post! It's safe to assume that a lot of work and trial-and-error went into creating some of the music we enjoy, but it's interesting to get some of the background on just how MUCH went into this song. Thank you, dear sir!

bazza said...

Susan: Thank you too! It is a subject that really interests me; this song has an especially complex history. Possibly only Good Vibrations and Bohemian Rhapsody are similar in that way.