On 1st June (or 26th May, depending on your source) 1967, The Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a groundbreaking recording and one of the most famous and discussed albums ever. It is said that one in five of British households owns a vinyl copy of it – though, presumably, if true, that figure will be steadily decreasing.
Two tracks originally intended for it, but missing, were John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever and Paul McCartney’s Penny Lane. They were among the first tracks recorded for the album in November 1966, but there was pressure to release a new single and both tracks were pulled. Producer George Martin later suggested that this was the biggest mistake of his professional life and that the single would have sold more if, say, When I’m Sixty-Four, had been on it. For the double A-side of Strawberry Fields with Penny Lane, released in February 1967, was the first Beatles’ single since Please Please Me in 1963 not to reach No 1 in the UK – famously kept off the coveted top-slot by Engelbert Humperdinck’s saccharine ballad, Please Release Me.
John Lennon was often a more introspective writer than Paul McCartney. Strawberry Field (no ‘s’) was a Salvation Army children’s home close to where he grew up in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George. One of his childhood treats was the annual summer garden party that took place in the grounds. Aunt Mimi remembered that as soon as they heard the Salvation Army band strike up, John would jump up and down shouting “Mimi, come on. We’re going to be late.” It was also a place of childhood adventure behind a wall that could be illicitly climbed with his friends Pete Shotton, Ivan Vaughan and Nigel Whalley. Paul McCartney described Strawberry Field as a rather wild place, “a secret garden, like in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” It was John’s get-away, an escape.
So Strawberry Fields Forever was a piece of nostalgia – as was Penny Lane, though the former was more whimsical, a dreamier, almost ethereal, meander – what author Philip Norman called “a stream of semi-consciousness”.
I think I know I mean, ah yes, but it’s all wrong…
John Lennon was apparently both amused and appalled when he heard about people trying to analyse his work. The irony of academics dissecting the words of someone who largely couldn’t be bothered with formal education cannot have escaped him. At the end of the day, if a piece of art doesn’t grab you, no amount of pretentious probing and theorising is going to make it better, is it?
Though the song was obviously conceived earlier, Strawberry Fields Forever began life in Almeria, Spain, where John was filming How I Won the War with Richard Lester. The melody is quite simple but, according to pop lore, at least two versions were recorded, one hard and edgy, the other softer with trumpets and cellos. Because John couldn’t decide which he preferred, the genius that was George Martin found a way of splicing the beginning of one version onto the end of the other. Strawberry Fields Forever features all sorts of other innovations, including backward cymbals, and multiple instruments including the Mellotron – apparently introduced to John and Paul by Mike Pinder of The Moody Blues.
Penny Lane was a bus stop where Paul and John would often meet. In Paul’s words: “There was a barber shop called Bioletti’s with head shots of the haircuts you can have in the window and I just took it all and arted it up a little bit to make it sound like he was having a picture exhibition in his window. It was all based on real things; there was a bank on the corner so I imagined the banker, it was not a real person, and his slightly dubious habits and the little children laughing at him, and the pouring rain. The fire station was a bit of poetic licence; there’s a fire station about half a mile down the road, not actually in Penny Lane, but we needed a third verse so we took that and I was very pleased with the line, ‘It’s a clean machine’.”
Penny Lane is a brilliant and vivid piece of McCartney word painting, a cheerful semi-factual sensory tour through childhood with its blue suburban skies and cast of characters, including a pretty nurse (perhaps like Paul’s mother) selling poppies from a tray. In a four of fish and finger pies there’s a pun for his Liverpool mates and a nod to days before fame, when a ‘four of fish’ meant four-pennyworth from the chippie and ‘finger pie’ was a euphemism for adolescent sexual fumblings – possibly even behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout, who knows?! Well, Paul McCartney, obviously.
Both Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane broke new ground, involved more studio time and expense than most LPs (albums) to that point and are arguably among the best popular songs ever written. Alongside the songs came a pair of contrived promotional films. Strawberry Fields Forever’s was filmed, not in Liverpool, but in Knole Park, near Sevenoaks in Kent; Penny Lane’s was filmed in London’s East End with footage from the real Penny Lane cutting in. And so, some believe, the pop video was born (even if domestic videos weren’t available until the 1970s).
The shelter in the middle of a roundabout, where Church Road, Allerton Road, Smithdown Road and Penny Lane converge in Liverpool 18 is still there. These days it’s a themed bistro with, from what I can make out, an ongoing programme of promise and refurbishment. Opposite is the bank from the song, now a TSB, in the 1950s a branch of Martins Bank (which merged into Barclays in 1969). On the corner of Smithdown and Church Street was another bank, now the Penny Lane Hotel – which was on the market for £950k in January 2017. It doesn’t look very appealing to me. The barber was on Smithdown Road and is now Tony Slavin hairdressers – though I notice there was another one on Penny Lane itself with the tagline, ‘above us only hair’. At the end of Penny Lane is St Barnabas church, where Paul was a choirboy. It was a neighbourhood he knew well; no wonder it was in his ears and eyes.
Indeed, Penny Lane struck me, an outsider, as a familiar kind of place. Fans used to steal the street signs, apparently, resulting in the need to paint them onto walls, but they all seemed to be in situ, if a little battered, when A Bit About Britain took its whistle-stop DIY Beatle Tour. And of course, it is very ordinary-looking; that’s the point. It wouldn’t take much to peel away the uneven veneer of the 21st century from the whole area, to reveal the 1950s underneath; or perhaps even further, to when the houses were built in the late-Victorian-Edwardian era.
Just down the road is Dovedale Primary School and, a little further, Calderstones School (which used to be Quarry Bank High), both of which John Lennon attended. It was John Lennon’s band, The Quarrymen, that Paul McCartney went to see one July day in 1957 and which morphed into The Beatles (more about that in due course). Just across the road from Calderstones Park is Beaconsfield Road, where the entrance to Strawberry Field can be found and just beyond that is Mendips, where John Lennon lived as a boy, and St Peter’s Church Hall, where John and Paul first met. If you’re feeling really fit, you could hike on to Paul’s old house in Forthlin Road, Allerton. Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever really were about childhood memories.
Strawberry Field closed in 2005 and, for their own protection, the 100-year old gates were replaced with replicas in 2011. We watched the cars, buses and taxis pull up as we approached. People took their photographs, some without bothering to get out, and moved on. Nothing to get hung about. We stood outside, for a short while the only people there. Behind the gates was a tangle of overgrown vegetation – Lennon’s secret place. Then a car pulled up opposite. The driver got out and patiently waited while we finished our photos. I offered to take one of him in front of the gates with his camera – “No, that’s OK, mate, he chuckled in broad Scouse. “I’m takin’ these for a friend in the car who can’t get out.” Then a taxi-load pulled up and the circus began again.
As of 1st June 2017, the original gates from Strawberry Field will be displayed at The Beatles Story museum in Liverpool’s Albert Dock, on loan from the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army also plans to develop Strawberry Field as a hub for young people with learning difficulties and, inevitably, include an exhibition about the place and the song.
And, surely not finally, the tracks Strawberry Fields Forever along with Penny Lane are included in the deluxe re-release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, issued to mark its 50th anniversary on 1st June 2017.
Alas, the Strawberry Fields clip is only part of the song. But the only other versions I could find were either at the wrong speed or did not show the original film.