Review: Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane

More than fifty years ago, four lads from Liverpool stepped off of a Pan-Am jet liner in New York City to a mad frenzy. Thousands of girls, photographers, and journalists had all come just hoping to catch a glimpse of the group known as the Beatles, who had caused pandemonium in England. Upon arriving, drummer Ringo Starr walked off of the plane and said “So this is America. They must be out of their minds.” His words were an understatement to say the least; the scene is recalled as being nothing but sheer and utter chaos. The mop-topped headed band found themselves surrounded on all sides during their first visit to the States, being followed by massive screaming crowds from their legendary performance to 75 million people on February 9th, 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show, to their first concert in Washington DC two days later, and all the way to Miami where they performed on Sullivan’s show (for the third time) the following week. Nothing like what happened during those few days in February has happened in America since, and most likely, something of that sheer pandemonium will never happen again. Fast forward almost three years later to December, 1966. The Beatles had become more than just a fad – they were now creating music that was considered to be higher art, with each new single and album proving to be more influential than the last. Their last two studio albums each proved to be revolutionary to popular music in their own way, stretching the fab-four’s musical boundaries into many different, and at the time, wild directions. During the course of these two albums, the Beatles freely ventured into folk rock, soul, and baroque pop on Rubber Soul, and then flipped the switch towards acid and garage rock on Revolver. Not only had the band evolved by leaps and bounds musically in those couple of years, the band had decided by this point to abandon their classic “mop-top” image, instead now wearing mustaches, granny glasses, and growing out their once famous heads of hair. It was also during this period in their careers where The Beatles, who by this point were utterly exhausted and burnt out, had made the decision to stop touring and focus on their music in the studio. This choice was based off of their increasingly dangerous concerts (most notably, their near deadly incident in the Philippines) and the deafening audiences that they were playing to night after night. The decision to stop touring was a bold move for the band at the time, and as it turns out, it was probably one of the most important decisions that they made during their entire careers.

The extra time that the band spent in the studio paid off with remarkable dividends judging by their first post-touring release, the double A-side single “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane,” which was released 50 years ago today on February 13th, 1967. Both songs, which had been recorded during the final few months of 1966, were created in anticipation of being on the Beatles’ new album (which eventually turned into Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), but had instead been released as a single in February, 1967 due to mounting pressure from their label for new music. As was customary at the time for the band, the two songs were left off of their next album, a choice that longtime producer George Martin later called “the biggest mistake of my [his] life.” Both songs shared a common theme in that they both touched on the themes of childhood and growing up. “Strawberry Fields,” a song which John Lennon had started to write during the production of the movie “How I Won the War,” takes the listener on what can only be described as a wonderful, hazy, dream-like journey that incorporates mellotron, a perfectly crafted orchestra and horn section, along with various production effects. The song slowly builds in instrumentation, becoming darker and even transforming into something mildly sinister as the song progresses. This creates a vision of a marching band that can be directly attributed to the parades that Lennon saw as a child in Liverpool, and it can only be described as a master-work, and one of the best compositions of Lennon’s entire career. While “Strawberry Fields Forever” is extremely original and influential musically, the production techniques that were used by Lennon and Martin in the studio were also groundbreaking at the time. This included Martin splicing two different takes of the song together using only two tape machines, scissors and a variable-speed control, to compensate for the two different speeds of the takes. While the methods were tedious, the song would later become a standard for what an artist can do with more time in the studio.

Not to be outdone, the flip side of the single features the Paul McCartney composition “Penny Lane.” Similarly to “Strawberry Fields,” it transports the listener to a different, almost dream-like and classically “perfect” place that flourishes with various sounds and textures as McCartney weaves various stories about the little things happening on a particular day. McCartney tells small, obscure tales about barber sharing pictures “of every head he’s had the pleasure to know,” a banker who gets made fun of by the little children behind his back, a fireman who “likes to keep his fire engine clean,” and a nurse who feels “as if she’s in a play/she is anyway.” The images that McCartney presents could be seen as wonderfully innocent memories from a child’s point of view; they are both easy to understand, and yet, at the same time, slightly off and sometimes wildly bizarre. Musically, “Penny Lane” paints an almost contrasting view of the world that Lennon presented in “Strawberry Fields” by using similar instrumentation in a completely different way. McCartney’s composition utilizes joyous horns (especially during the solo in the middle of the song, as well as the choruses), effected pianos (streamed through various amplifiers), and ringing chimes. Paul McCartney would use the same method of telling small, child-like stories in his lyrics on many of his later tracks, including “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

Not only were the songs on either side of the vinyl both wonderfully innovative, catchy, and brilliantly produced, they were also both remarkably influential with regards to the scope of sixties music and psychedelic music in general,  as the release marked the beginning of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s full submersion into the world of psychedelica. Their journey would last only about a year, but would include two of the Beatles’ best works, including Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album that has been rated as the best album of all time by many sources, as well as Magical Mystery Tour, which featured both of these songs and their other singles released during 1967 on its back side. This single release was not only crucial to the development of the Beatles as a band, but it was also wildly influential on popular music in general. According to a legend, Brian Wilson, lead singer and songwriter of the Beach Boys, broke down in tears and said “they beat me to it” when he first heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” on his car radio. At the time of its release, Wilson in the process of creating Smile, an album which he would not finish for nearly forty years. The two songs also had a profound effect on the work of many other British bands, including one of the Beatles’ main rivals, the Kinks, who would later use the same themes of childhood and growing up in their forgotten masterpiece The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society in 1968.

In just three years, the Beatles transformed themselves from America’s new obsession to a studio-based band who were not only innovative in their musical compositions and lyrical prowess, but also as artists of production. Upon their release, many of their compositions quickly became the standard by which every song is now measured up against. Specifically, these two tracks, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” also raised the bar for what it meant to be an original songwriter, and changed the shape of popular music forever. One could also say that the Beatles were also the most prolific band of all time because of the way they easily transferred from one genre to another, helping to bring baroque pop, psychedelic and acid rock, folk rock, soul and blues, and even classical compositions to the mainstream while simultaneously opening the doors for the “British Invasion” in the 1960s. While “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” never hit number one in the United Kingdom (it was held to number two by Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me”), both tracks have played a significant role in the shaping of music. The Beatles have changed the lives of anyone who has ever hit play on an iPod, inserted a shiny metallic disc into a tray, or dropped the needle onto a slowly rotating turntable, because now, instead of just waiting for the music to begin in those brief few moments of aching silence, we are now completely alone with our thoughts, simply waiting for the magic to begin.

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