This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #234: Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane by The Beatles.
You are getting a two-fer today.
On the Rolling Stone list, the entry for today is actually just “Penny Lane” but, as you will soon see, it is impossible to talk about one song without talking about the other. These two songs are the conjoined twins of the Music business; they came into the world together, they changed much about how Pop music was perceived and how The Beatles were perceived, they ushered in a new era of musical expression that inspired the likes of those who later formed Pink Floyd and, finally, these two songs also were two of the very first songs ever released that used a special promotional tool that, while quite common today, was revolutionary at the time. My plan for this post is to talk about how the songs are connected, how they came to appear together in the public eye and why they were significant additions to the musical landscape as a pair. After that, I will give each song its own special paragraph so we can get to appreciate the unique brilliance that each song possesses. So, without further delay, here we go………
The evolution of The Beatles from the creators of perfect Pop ditties, to musical innovators, who pushed the boundaries of what a Pop song could be, took firm root with the album, “Revolver”. Musically, the boys in the band were beginning to exhibit a growing confidence in their ability to experiment with newer instruments and recording techniques. This resulted in songs such as “Eleanor Rigby”, “She said She said”, “Taxman”, “Yellow Submarine”, “Got To Get You Into My Life” and so on. Although they didn’t know it quite yet, when they embarked on the US Tour in support of “Revolver”, it would be the final appearance of the band in “Mop-top” form. The boys were ready to grow up. Furthermore, The Beatles were also growing tired with playing the media game that went along with their early success. So many reporters asking the same inane questions. The Beatles had developed a greater sense of how the world worked and had begun to form some mature opinions about it. One of those opinions caused a storm of controversy that threatened to derail their careers. It was when John Lennon’s words were taken out of context and the whole, “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus” controversy erupted. After all of the stress of that tour, The Beatles returned to England and announced that they were giving up touring for good. For the first time since they had burst onto the music scene, The Beatles appeared disenchanted with their lives as rock stars. The public, in turn, had appeared to be souring on their heroes. Pressure was mounting; both, from within the band and from without, from the public and from The Beatles record company. It was in this pressure-cooker of an environment that The Beatles began writing the songs that would go on to form the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. The first two songs completed were “Penny Lane” (which was written by Paul McCartney) and “Strawberry Fields Forever” (which was written by John Lennon). Because the record company was feeling extremely nervous about the public’s perception of The Beatles, it put pressure on the band to release these two songs as a “double A-side, non-album single”. This meant that “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were taken off of the “Sgt. Pepper” album and rushed into release. Eventually, they found their way as add-ons to “The Magical Mystery Tour” album. But, releasing the songs together, on one 45″ single, had dramatic effects on the songs, themselves, on The Beatles and on the music industry, as a whole.
One thing about a band and their fans is that, in most cases, the fans like their heroes to stay the course. They like what they like and often recoil in the face of a stylistic change by their favourite band. Thus, when “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” came out, one of the most common reactions was one of bewilderment. The music was so different, so creatively advanced, that many music critics and fans, alike, did not know what to make of it. A direct consequence of this confusion was that “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” failed to reach #1 on the charts thus, breaking a streak of well over a dozen consecutive #1s. Secondly, while the songs for “Sgt. Pepper” were being written, George Harrison made his famous pilgrimage to India. What he learned and the manner in which it influenced the other members of the band caused them to change their image to better reflect the new direction their lives were taking. So, they grew moustaches and beards, John Lennon started wearing his famous “Granny glasses” and, most shocking of all for their fans, all four Beatles started wearing shiny, colourful, psychedelic clothes. So, not only did the music sound unlike anything the “old Beatles” had produced, now, these young men no longer looked like the “old Beatles”, either. At that very same moment, in America, a Beatles copycat group was formed that became known as The Monkees. In the eyes of original Beatles fans, these Monkees looked and sounded more like what they were used to hearing and seeing and, as a result, The Beatles, new double A-side single made it only as far as slot #2.
In order to help promote the new songs, along with The Beatles new look, a marketing tool was employed that had rarely been used before. Two short films were made that ran as each song was being played. In each film, innovative techniques such as slow dissolves, double-images, etc., were used to great effect. These short films helped the general public come to terms with the new musical and lifestyle direction that the members of The Beatles were heading and laid the groundwork for a generally warmer reception for the album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” once it was released months later. Viewed with a modern lens, those short films were actually the pre-cursor to today’s music videos that we expect all artists to employ. But, back in the mid-1960s, putting music to film was a daring endeavour. In fact, the short musical films that accompanied the release of “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” were so influential over time that they were the subject of a special Art exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (the M.O.M.A.) in New York in the 1990s.
As songs themselves, both featured nostalgic looks back at the childhood years of the young men who wrote them. In a way, these songs ushered in a period of classical “Romanticism” in Pop Music, which helped elevate the whole genre and changed the nature of the depth a Pop song could have. The combination of “Romanticism” of the lyrics and the “psychedelic” nature of the band, helped to inspire the launch of an entirely new sub-genre of music which was “Psychedelic Rock”. Bands such as Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, Genesis and many more, all took their initial cues from The Beatles and the transformative nature of these two songs, along with what was started on “Revolver” and what came next on “Sgt. Pepper”.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” was written by John Lennon. Lennon grew up in several locations, in and around Liverpool, England, during his childhood. One of those places was with his Aunt Mimi, who lived beside an orphanage run by The Salvation Army called, “Strawberry Fields”. At this orphanage, there was a band that used to practise each day. There were, also, tea parties that Lennon and his buddies would crash. All in all, although he wasn’t an orphan, he enjoyed hanging out in the environment of the orphanage. His auntie would scold him about getting caught on the grounds, to which he famously replied, it was “nothing to get hung about”…which meant, if he got caught, they weren’t going to hang him or anything. Many of the lyrics in this song revolve around the question of whether the experiences/memories you have in life are real or merely a dream-like illusion. The entire musical composition of the song is noted for the dream-like, drug-influenced feel that it has. This emotive feeling is in line with the philosophical life changes Lennon was experiencing as he progressed through his twenties and became more aware of the differences between what he hoped the world would be like and what it actually was turning out to be. Many music critics claim that “Strawberry Fields Forever” was Art that was created for the creator and not for his fans. It incorporated the use of new instruments and new recording techniques that, initially, alienated many long-time fans. Lennon, upon reflection, stated that “Strawberry Fields Forever” was his finest work as a Beatle.
“Penny Lane” was written by Paul McCartney. It concerns a specific neighbourhood near where he grew up. As Paul describes it, “Penny Lane” was an area of Liverpool that he and John Lennon often met up at as teenagers. He said that in the middle of “Penny Lane” is a round-about that served as a bus terminus and, as such, it was a great place to meet up with friends but, also, a great place to people-watch. The song, “Penny Lane” reads as a trip down Memory Lane and, as a result, it is often referred to as the more approachable of the two paired songs. Like’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Penny Lane” is a Romantic look back at a simpler time in the lives of both men. However, one of the enduring characteristics of “Penny Lane” that raises it up in status as more than a mere Pop song is the complexity fo the ideas being put forth in the lyrics. At first blush, “Penny Lane” comes off as a person simply watching life unfolding and offering his commentary on what he sees. But, a closer look at the lyrics reveals a more nuanced and philosophical viewpoint being expressed. In the song, McCartney writes of it being rainy and sunny, of it being set in the present and in the future and dozens of other contradictions as well. When asked for comment, McCartney stated that what we see with our eyes often is more complex that we think. Life is multi-hued and varied yet, far too often, we simply look with tired eyes and settle for simple observations. From a musical point of view, “Penny Lane” is well known for the trumpet solo near the end. That solo was performed by a well-known musician named Dave Mason. The inclusion of the trumpet solo has been lauded as one of the first times ever that elements of Classical music have been melded with a Pop song. Yet, just one more example of the attention to detail that went into the thinking that McCartney and Lennon were now bringing to their music.
Even though “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” failed to reach #1 on the music charts at the time of their release, both songs have gone on to be recognized for the impactful nature of their lyrical composition and their musical structure. Both songs are always included on Greatest Hits albums and in lists of the all-time greatest Beatles songs and, as well, lists of the all-time greatest Pop songs. Both songs have been inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame for their cultural significance and, needless to say, The Beatles were first-ballot inductees when the Rock Hall first opened. These songs came into the world together and today, they will be remembered by us, together, too. Of course, I will play both videos for you
Enjoy them both.
The link to the video for the song, “Strawberry Fields” by The Beatles, an be found here.
The link to the song, “Penny Lane” by The Beatles, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Beatles, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.