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Fact #150144


Short story:

The Beatles' single Penny Lane reaches No1 in the Billboard Top 40 Singles Chart in the USA, for just one week.

Full article:


You would imagine the end of 1966 to be another high point in The Beatles' story. They'd given us what many consider their finest LP, Revolver, and retired from touring to craft elaborate studio masterpieces. But that's not how it looked at the time. The country's favourite sons had grown up, grown moustaches, and now showed disquieting signs of turning into – what? Hippies? Hindus? Whatever it was, it wasn't Fab Four any more, and they were losing a section of popular support. As the poet Philip Larkin put it: "Their fans stayed with them, and the nuttier intelligentsia, but they lost the typists in the Cavern."

Meanwhile at Abbey Road, The Beatles themselves weren't worried. As the winter nights drew in, they hunkered down to create the Summer of Love. In private they believed the tracks that would become the Sgt. Pepper album were destined to amaze the world. And of course they were right. But Brian Epstein and George Martin were less confident. Anxious to put something on the market, if only to silence the doubters, they decided on a New Year single to fill the gap until Sgt. Pepper would be ready. By Christmas the group had the basis of three new songs: When I'm Sixty Four was a tune that Paul had kicked around for years, freshly revived in a jokey vaudeville style; Strawberry Fields Forever was a murky tangle of introverted Lennonisms; and Penny Lane was pure McCartney pop, as bright and breezy as the suburban day it celebrated. The latter two were released as a double A-side on 17 February 1967. It's often acclaimed, nowadays, as the greatest single of all time. And the reaction of the British public? They preferred a cabaret balladeer with large sideburns, crooning a re-heated country song…

"It was my mistake," says a penitent George Martin. "It was a time when The Beatles' popularity was on the wane, curiously enough. Brian Epstein was concerned that we were losing the public and he came to me and said, 'We've got to have a really strong single for the next issue.' I said, 'I've got these three tracks around, I'll give you the two great ones.' I put Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane together and that was a terrible mistake, because the airplay was split. And a guy called Engelbert Humperdinck came out with a record called Release Me and he got to Number 1 and we didn't. That was the first time in 10 issues that we hadn't made Number 1. And it was probably the best record they ever did."

The pairing of Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever is, apart from anything else, a poignant demonstration of McCartney and Lennon's respective strengths, and of their contrasting mental states at that time. Shell-shocked by the first four years of Beatlemania, John had withdrawn into a cocoon of private misery, living in Home Counties isolation amid the slow decay of his marriage to Cynthia. Whereas Paul was actually more chipper than ever – Swinging London's most eligible bachelor, fired with a creative energy that placed him for the first time in effective charge of The Beatles' work. February's single was an overture to psychedelia's high summer and, in its perfect balance of light and darkness, a brilliant depiction of the partners' stylistic range.

McCartney now discounts the idea that the two songs were precursors to an abandoned album about The Beatles' childhoods. Instead, he thinks he may have been moved to write a reminiscence of Liverpool after hearing John's draft of Strawberry Fields Forever. As early as November 1965 Paul had fixed on Penny Lane as a potential song title, apparently attracted by its "poetic" sound in an early version of John's composition In My Life, which had taken the form of a travelogue through their home town. Both sites are within a short walk of Lennon and McCartney's old addresses: Penny Lane was known for the Corporation bus terminus at one end, and still has its barber shop, bank buildings and a nearby fire station; Strawberry Field was a Salvation Army children's home (now demolished) with overgrown grounds where John used to play. "It was a rather wild garden," Paul told his biographer Barry Miles. "It wasn't manicured at all, so it was easy to hide in. The bit he went into was a secret garden like in The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe… a little hideaway where he could live in his dreams a little."

Lennon began writing Strawberry Fields Forever while filming in Spain, on the set of a satirical movie, How I Won The War. Returning home, he felt a stifling sense of aimlessness, unrelieved by his experiments with LSD. From these conditions he fashioned the psychedelic melancholy of the song, with its yearning for escape into the pastoral innocence of childhood. Now, as a lost and lonely adult, he made the garden a symbol of psychic retreat. "No-one I think is in my tree: I was hip in kindergarten," he elaborated later, "I was different from all the others. Nobody seems to be as hip as me, is what I was saying. Therefore I must be crazy or a genius: -'I mean it must be high or low.' There was something wrong with me, I thought, because I seemed to see things other people don't see." Acid, for Lennon, was not so much a door to the unknown, as a return to the private trances of his infancy.The lyric's self-conscious stumbling, a painstaking portrayal of inner confusion, was mirrored in the music, toiling forward through a sonic fog. Multiple attempts on the track had left Lennon with two mis-matching versions that he liked, and George Martin was charged with the seemingly impossible task of splicing them together in a seamless whole. (Listen for the transition at 1.00.) The rarely-used Mellotron, Indian instrumentation, vari-speed and backward taping were among the features deployed to arrive at Strawberry Fields Forever's other-worldly atmospherics, culiminating in the definitive psychedelic masterpiece.

Unlike the avalanche of pop-psych imitations which followed, the song drew its power, not from an effort to simulate the alleged insights of hallucinogenics, but from the authentic emotional power of one man's struggle to harness a basic sense of self. Lennon ranked Strawberry Fields Forever among his best songs, chiefly because it expressed his real feelings at that point – post-moptop and pre-Yoko Ono. But its sound would always dissatisfy him. George Martin remembers having dinner with John at the Dakota one night in the 1970s: "He just happened to say to me, 'I'd like to do everything over again… We could do it so much better now. Especially Strawberry Fields.' But you see, John was the kind of person for whom real life was never as good as the imagination." In March 1984, just outside the Dakota Building and three years after Lennon's murder on the New York sidewalk, a section of Central Park was ceremonially re-named Strawberry Fields.

The nostalgia explored by Paul on Penny Lane, of course, was more benign and outward-looking. Just as on Strawberry Fields Forever, though, the team achieved a miraculous configuration of lyrical mood and musical form. Strangely, the single's most distinctive signature, the piccolo trumpet flourish, was practically an afterthought. With its recording almost complete, in January of '67 Paul had a brainwave: "I'd seen the fella who played it, David Mason, playing the Brandenburg Concerto on the telly. I'd say to George [Martin], 'What's the top note on this instrument?' and you should never write an arangement with anything higher than that. But of course they can always go higher. So that way you stretch them, you give them something they didn't do on the other sessions. David cursed me for years afterwards because he was being asked to play this impossible note."

For all their differences, Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever broke more new ground, bypassing the comical banality of English place names in song. In its leader column of 1 April, 1967, The Times showed its approval: "To see that some apparently ordinary place is unlike any other and to express for it a nostalgia unmixed with any chauvinistic notions of its superiority is a pleasant but forgotten art… Penny Lane, indeed, looks back to the days when parochialism was not an attitude to be derided." In a similar Britpop vein, The Kinks' Waterloo Sunset and The Small Faces' Itchycoo Park would both be in the charts before the year was out. Denied the expanse of space, speed and exoticism that American songwriters took for granted, the English minstrels opted for a sense of place, rooted in the past. But on another level, the physical realities of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane were scarcely relevant – they were secondary to the universal states of being that their respective songs evoked in hearts and minds all over the world.
(Source : written by Paul Du Noyer)