Friday 20 January 2023

In Praise Of Strawberry Fields Forever


Nothing To Get Hung About - The Day My Beatles Single Almost Caused A Riot

"The Beatles are turning awfully 'funny', aren't they?" - HRH Queen Elizabeth II to EMI chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood, October 1967.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” will be 56 years old in February of 2023.  As we approach the Emerald (+ 1) anniversary of the Beatles’ landmark 14th UK single Stuart Penney remembers buying the record on the day of release and the unexpectedly hostile reception it received from some of his peers.

I heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the radio today.  It came up on one of those set-and-forget oldies stations and, as always, I stopped what I was doing and listened to all 4 minutes and 7 seconds of it from start to finish.  To encounter this most weirdly magnificent Beatles’ track in such a place came as something of a surprise, I don’t mind admitting.  It’s one of those songs I never grow tired of hearing, and yet it seemed somehow inappropriate to find it rubbing shoulders with prosaic “classic rock” staples by the likes of Billy Joel, Meat Loaf and Buckingham-Nicks era Fleetwood Mac.  

They often play Beatles’ records on the radio station in question, of course they do, but rarely does “Strawberry Fields” get an airing.  Even now, over half a century after it was released, it’s a record that demands the listener’s attention from the very first note.  56 years later it still sounds weird, otherworldly and unsettling, yet infuriatingly catchy at the same time.  It’s quite unlike anything else that made it to the top of the charts at that time.  And before you pedants jump in, I’m fully aware that “SFF” was cruelly kept off the UK number one spot by Engelbert Humperdinck’s sappy “Release Me,” thus interrupting the Fabs’ unparalleled run of 11 straight chart toppers.  But that little nugget of trivia only adds to the mystique.  It may make for a great pub quiz factoid, but after this slight blip the Beatles went on to effortlessly score six more UK number ones as if nothing had happened. 

But if “Strawberry Fields” with Paul’s wonky Mellotron intro (played on the “flute” setting, fact fans), John's heavily processed vocals and George Martin's dreamlike string and brass arrangement still seems eerie and captivating now, imagine what it sounded like in February 1967 when it first arrived.  We tend to think of the song as emblematic of the psychedelic era but together with its equally wonderful joint A-side “Penny Lane,” recording actually began in late 1966, making it one of the earliest records of its kind.  As with almost everything else they turned their hands to, the Beatles got there first.

As any fan worthy of the name will tell you, “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” were the first two songs recorded during the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album sessions.  It had been six months since their last single "Yellow Submarine"/"Eleanor Rigby" and in an era when four singles and two LPs a year (plus maybe a couple of EPs as well) was the norm, the Fab Four were starting to look like slackers.  Also, it was the first time since 1963 they hadn’t had the number one Christmas single (Tom Jones claimed it in 1966 with “Green, Green Grass Of Home”).  So, because the album was taking longer than usual to complete, the two songs already in the can were rushed out as a single to keep the public happy.  

There’s something typically British about that.  Two of the finest pop songs of the sixties were hurriedly put out together on the same single, meaning that one of them was, in purely commercial terms at least, effectively wasted.  Until the Beatles came along to turn them into an art form, B-sides were not considered terribly important.  They were traditionally makeweight, disposable songs, often written by the artist (or someone close to them, such as their producer) in order to secure a share of the composer royalties via the back door (the writer of the B-side received the same royalty rate as the A-side composer).  

They could quite easily have made two singles out of “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” with a couple of existing LP tracks as B-sides and both would have been equally huge hits.  But the Beatles didn’t work like that.  They didn’t care to make people pay twice for the same songs so, in Britain at least, their singles generally comprised brand new songs and not recycled album tracks, as routinely happened in America.  This egalitarian approach meant that those two magnificent songs ended up together as possibly the greatest double-sided pop 45 of all time.  As the Ferrero Rocher advert once famously said “Ambassador, you are really spoiling us.” 

News of the single first appeared in Melody Maker on January 14, 1967, barely two weeks after recording was completed.  In a short news item on page one under the headline “Beatles Record” it read (using strangely mangled tense) The Beatles had recorded several tracks of their new LP at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London by the end of last week.  Brian Epstein told the MM: “Any track could be the next single, but it won’t necessarily come from the LP.  The third track would make a great single for anyone else, but the next Beatles single must be supreme.  The record might be released in February.  One rumoured title is “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  The story went on to cover news of a proposed Beatles TV spectacular and a one million dollar offer by American promoter Sid Bernstein for the group to play two shows at Shea Stadium. 

It’s not clear what song Epstein was referring to when he said “the third track” but, according to Mark Lewisohn’s book The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions (Hamlyn 1988), “When I’m Sixty-Four” was recorded concurrently with “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” during December 1966, so it could have been this. 

On January 28 the Melody Maker front page headline announced, in giant 54-point typeface, New Beatles Record – You Can Buy It On Feb. 17.  The story went on: The Beatles new single is “Strawberry Fields Forever” – as exclusively named in the MM two weeks ago.  The other side (there is no A or B side) is “Penny Lane.”  The Single will be released on February 17.  Both are Lennon-McCartney compositions.  

The first 250,000 copies of the single will be sold in a colour presentation sleeve specially prepared by EMI.  This is the first Beatles single since “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine” was released on August 5 last year. 

Just the first quarter million copies came in a picture sleeve, then?  In this age of downloads and streaming, 250,000 physical copies of any record is an undreamed-of amount, but such were the Beatles’ sales figures in 1967 when each new release filled warehouses across Britain.  And after the picture cover copies were sold out, the record probably went on to sell a similar amount in a generic Parlophone company sleeve.

With scant regard for factual accuracy, plus a certain amount of guesswork, the story continued “Strawberry Fields Forever” is about a Liverpool reform school for girls.  “Penny Lane” is the name of a road in the northern part of Liverpool – near the areas where John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison lived.  

“Strawberry Fields Forever” is very much a John Lennon composition.  It has none of the lyrical McCartneys (sic) qualities.  It’s a medium tempo number and doesn’t tell a connected story in the way that “Eleanor Rigby” does.  The words are rather bleak.

The group are continuing to work on their next LP and may do a TV spectacular based on the tracks on the album when it is released.  No release date has been set.

In reality Strawberry Field (there is no "s" at the end) was a Gothic Revival style mansion set in extensive grounds just a few hundred yards from John Lennon’s childhood home "Mendips" in Menlove Avenue, Woolton.  Built circa 1870 as a private residence, it was acquired in 1934 by the Salvation Army and converted to an orphanage (for both boys and girls).  The house itself was demolished in 1973, after which the children’s home continued until 2005 in new buildings constructed within the grounds.  The original wrought iron gates at the entrance were stolen in 2000 and sold to an antiques dealer who later returned them after he realised where they had come from. Strawberry Field was opened to the public in September 2019.

On his death in 1980 Lennon left a donation in his will to the children’s home and a few years later Yoko Ono gifted £50,000 towards the upkeep of the orphanage.  As for Penny Lane, the street lies well to the southeast of Liverpool city centre, not the north as the Melody Maker story reported.  

I was in my second year at college in Chesterfield when “Strawberry Fields” was released on Friday, February 17, 1967.  As with virtually every Beatles single since “She Loves You” four years earlier, I bought the record on the day of release.  Whether by accident or design (I never discovered which) for several years during the 60s British 7” singles sold for six shillings and eight pence each (that’s 33p in new money).  It sounds like an odd amount today, but thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the pre-decimal monetary system, it meant you could get three 45s for exactly one pound, something that has always struck me as a wonderfully neat and symmetrical thing.  But I digress.  

I handed over my 6s/8d at Hudsons record shop in the Chesterfield Market Hall during my lunch break and hurriedly took the single (Parlophone R5570) back to the college common room where we had a standard issue Dansette mono record player.  

As Melody Maker had predicted, the record came in an attractive picture sleeve, which was most unusual for UK singles at that time.  Countries in mainland Europe had been issuing their 45s in picture covers for years, but this didn’t become standard practice in post-austerity Britain until the late 60s/early 70s.  One side of the sleeve showed the Beatles in their new psychedelic garb set within an elegant picture frame, while the other featured childhood photos of the four.  We’ve seen those pictures reproduced many times since in books and the like, but in early 1967 they were a revelation, especially the modern photo showing their brand-new image. 

No longer the cuddly mop tops, all four now had moustaches and George was sporting a goatee beard.  John’s National Health wire spectacles were in evidence for the first time while George was wearing a long jacket seemingly of Indian design.  Paul and Ringo, meanwhile, simply looked cool in dark suits, double-breasted jackets and scarves or cravats. Spotlights were positioned alongside each band member and aimed directly at the camera.

The Dansette sat on the floor at the far end of the common room and a group of students gathered round in expectation as I placed the single on the turntable.  As “Strawberry Fields” began to play, we listened in silence, trying to make sense of this curious record.  Then, as it reached the end, we began to hear the first rumblings of dissent. 

Chesterfield College of Technology, as it was then called (it became simply Chesterfield College in 1984), housed a range of students.  Some, like me, were full-time scholars who fancied themselves as wannabe bohemian university types, but there was also an intake of part-time day-release students, many of whom came in from the nearby rural areas of Derbyshire a couple of days a week to study for apprenticeships in engineering, building work, animal husbandry and the like.  There was an uneasy dynamic between the two disparate groups and as Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1892, never the twain shall meet.  But on the rare occasions when they did cross paths, it sometimes ended badly.

It was one such red-faced farm boy who initially complained about the music.  Just as the strange backwards ending of “Strawberry Fields” began to drift back in, he came striding purposefully across the room and, elbowing his way through the gaggle of students around the Dansette he demanded, in his flat North Derbyshire vowels, “Turn that bloody rubbish off!”  Thus emboldened, some of his mates then joined in.  “I’ve never heard owt like it”, spluttered one, shaking his head.  Eventually one of the day-release boys reached down and unceremoniously ripped the tone arm from the record, causing a dreadful screeching sound as the stylus raked across the vinyl.  It’s the one sound every record buff has learned to fear above all others. 

From there the situation escalated into an unseemly slanging match with insults flying and both sides getting heated.  There was even some pushing and shoving amid the verbal abuse, but it thankfully never developed into real fisticuffs.  Just as well, really.  We were the ineffectual, long-haired students and they were, for the most part, brawny farm boys and factory workers.  Had violence eventuated, it would have been a one-sided contest, I fear.  We had by far the better vocabulary, though, and batted away their crude expletives with what we fondly imagined to be witty, Wildean rejoinders.

One of my college classmates at the time was none other than John Tams, soon to become properly famous in the world of folk music and acting.  He recorded with the Albion Band in the late 70s and appeared in the 90s TV series Sharpe where he played rifleman Daniel Hagman alongside Sean Bean as the eponymous star of the show.  It was Tams who introduced me to acoustic folk music and blues with records by Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Tom Paxton, Lightning Hopkins, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and others.  In May 1966, together with some other student friends, Tams and I went to see Bob Dylan at the Gaumont cinema in Sheffield.  I wrote about that momentous day here: LINK

Always the level-headed one, it was John Tams who eventually calmed things down that February lunchtime, and both sides drifted away amid muttered threats and insults.  But the fact that a humble pop record (albeit an extraordinarily good one) could provoke such intense feelings and conflicting emotions among what were, after all, a bunch of teenagers seems quite astonishing today.  It really was a textbook case of two very different worlds colliding.

Every Beatles’ single was a huge deal, of course, but “Strawberry Fields” was a massive leap forward even for them.  They had been re-writing the pop music rule book with each new release since 1963 and this record took things to levels undreamed-of, setting the scene for the Sgt Pepper album which arrived a few months later in May 1967.  If they weren’t already unassailable, from this point on they had surely staked their claim for music immortality.

As for me, I was left feeling disgruntled with bruised pride and a nasty scratch across my brand-new copy of “Strawberry Fields.”  It was years before I managed to replace it with another and the clicks and pops on the original forever reminded me of that memorable ruckus in the student common room at Chesterfield College of Technology. 

Hudson's record store sadly closed its doors in 2012 after trading in Chesterfield for an incredible 105 years. I'm told it was the oldest family run record store in the world.

 Seven Interesting Facts About Strawberry Fields Forever

  1. Recording began on November 24, 1966 and was completed on December 29.  The finished version stitched together two different recordings of the song (takes 7 and 26), one slowed down and the other speeded up, so they exactly matched each other in pitch and tempo.  Take a bow George Martin.  The edit comes at exactly 60 seconds into the released single after the line “Let me take you down ‘cause I’m going to…”  Spot it if you can. 

  2. In February 1967 “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” peaked at #2 in the UK singles chart but barely made the top ten in America.  It reached number one in Australia and several countries across Europe, however.

  3. Although “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” weren’t heard in the Magical Mystery Tour film, their first appearance on album came when both were included on the US version of the MMT LP released at the end of November 1967.   

  4. On January 30 and 31, 1967 the Beatles shot a promo film clip for “Strawberry Fields Forever” at Knole Park in Sevenoaks, Kent.  A week later they filmed part of the promo for “Penny Lane” at the same location.  

  5. In March 1976 “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” re-entered the UK singles chart, reaching #32 as part of EMI’s Beatles reissue programme.  Then, between 1982-1990 all 22 of the Beatles’ UK singles were reissued once again on the 20th anniversary of their original release.  “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” reached #65 in February 1987.  All their UK Parlophone and Apple singles were also made available as 7” picture discs during this time.  

  6. In the backwards coda section of the record, John is heard to say "cranberry sauce." In America this was misheard as "I buried Paul" providing an early so-called "clue" in the risible "Paul is dead" rumour of 1967.

  7. Many unreleased versions and remixes of “SFF”, from John’s home demo to the finished released version and all points in between, have appeared on the Beatles’ albums Anthology 2 (1996), Love (2007) and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Box Set (2017).

    Hudsons record shop, Chesterfield, pictured circa 1969


  1. Wasn't George's Northern Song recorded as a (potential) Sgt. Pepper track? I seem to remember reading it was one of the first. George Martin said (relatively recently) that "leaving the single off the album was the worst professional mistake of my life" (from memory). I bolted all three tracks into a Compleat Pepper, and the album now seems empty without them. This track order sounds seamless, and doesn't break anything up, if you want to try it: Pepper/Help/Fixing/Lucy/Penny/Better/Home/Kite/Strawberry/Within/Sixty/Rita/Northern/Morning/Pepper/Day.

    I put Pepper - released just that week - on at a party, and a girl got so enraged she scratched it taking it off. I'm pretty sure she put on some Tamla - David Ruffin? - instead. This is the only vinyl record I still possess. I can also remember my Mum - until then a big Beatles fan - disliking Strawberry Fields a lot.

    1. Always good to see you here Mr. T. According to Lewisohn's book, "Only A Northern Song" was started on February 13, 1967

    2. Extensive research (two minutes on google) tells me sessions for the album began November '66, and the album was released May '67. This places Northern Song right in the timeline. It's my theory (and probably many others') that it was rejected because it was too long, and they already had one long George track, and who did he think he was, anyway? Sonically, it and the missing (!) single are absolutely of a piece with the album, which now sounds bare to me without them. It's the best context - really the only context - to hear them in.

    3. Late '66 seems early for psych until you remember that Donovan recorded Sunshine Superman in December 1965

    4. I understand Donovan invented everything, but the Kinks got in before him with See My Friends from July of that year, which is absolutely textbook psych, incorporating sitar sounds inspired by a trip to Bombay. Norwegian Wood (real sitar, which wasn't available for the lower budget Kinks), also nosed ahead of the Donster in October. But yes, in terms of lyric and sound, Sunshine Superman (which Shawn Phillips co-wrote and played on without credit or royalties, along with other Donovan songs), stands as one of the first fully-realised psych singles. And no, Telstar doesn't count.

    5. I'll give you the Kinks. I'm sure we've had the "first use of a sitar" discussion in another place. I remember you are a big Shawn Phillips fan.

    6. If George had imitated a sitar sound, in the absence of the real thing, back in the summer of '65, he'd get enormous fan credit for being both inventive and ahead (a head) of his time. Because it's only the Kinks, though, it's rarely mentioned. Shawn Phillips cut a couple of early psych singles, Stargazer and Woman Mind, which are gold dust if you're into that sort of thing.

    7. Let’s not forget the Yardbirds "Heart Full of Soul" recorded in early 1965. A real Indian sitar player was hired for the session, but he couldn’t get to grips with the 4/4 rock beat. Up stepped the late lamented Jeff Beck with his Fender Esquire and fuzzbox and nailed the sitar part in a couple of takes. If it had been a real sitar, it would beaten Norwegian Wood by some months.

    8. Thank you. Incidentally, I've stolen one of your gags for my next blog piece (about Dylan). Stay tuned.

  2. Good stuff! BTW in the stereo version of the US MMT album "Penny Lane" and the other non-LP singles were in that dreaded fake stereo.

    1. The MMT album was one of several marketing exercises put together by the label involving no Beatles input other than signing a contract.