Scott Alexander

Part 2 Happy Birthday Sgt. Pepper

Part two of a series on Sgt. Pepper's 50th Anniversary

June 1, 2017
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Sgt. Pepper’s missing tracks.

 

In what George Martin later referred to as a “terrible mistake”, he stood by and  allowed Magical Mystery Tour to steal  two songs from Sgt. Pepper.

 

So  why am I writing about Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever in a tribute to Sgt. Pepper when they were on the Magical Mystery Tour album? Let me explain…. these songs were originally slated for the Sgt. Pepper album. They were two of the first songs recorded during the Pepper sessions, and, according to the people who were present in the EMI studios at the time, these two tracks set the tone for the wild creativity and experimentation that gave birth to the Sgt. Pepper period. In other words, it is not reaching too far to say that without  the artistic adventures these two songs provided, we would not have the Sgt. Pepper we know and love today.

 

We can, in some ways, blame Lennon for why these songs were misplaced. Remember-- Sgt. Pepper was recorded over the winter months of 66-67 during a time when John had not been completely  forgiven for his “more popular than Jesus” comment. With the band no longer touring, they were less visible and had nothing press-worthy they could use to dilute the negative sentiments. The British press even began to speculate on the death of the Beatles. Of course none of this made their manager, Brian Epstein, or their record label happy.  So urged by Capitol-EMI to release Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields as a single, in February, 1967--three months before Pepper was released and over a year before Magical Mystery Tour-- George Martin and the Beatles agreed to scratch the songs from the Sgt. Pepper line-up, releasing one of the best 45s of all time.

 

Two Trips Taken Down Memory Lane

 

John went first. In 1965 he wrote In My Life, a sentimental song about past and present loves. The first draft of the song was a stream of consciousness reflection of his childhood, much like Penny Lane would later become. In fact, the original lyrics mentioned Penny Lane. A year later, still processing his early memories, he wrote Strawberry Fields while filming “How I Won the War” in Spain.

 

Strawberry Fields referred to an orphanage near John’s Aunt Mimi’s house where he grew up. Though his aunt didn’t like him climbing over the walls that surrounded the property, he often did so and explored the grounds and gardens.

 

Lennon said that only two Beatle songs were “true” and really about him. The first was Help and the other was Strawberry Fields, which he referred to as “psychoanalysis set to music”.  He remembered knowing he was unusual at a very early age, realizing that he saw and interacted with the world differently than those around him. “No one I think is in my tree”. Knowing he was unconventional made him wonder if he was intellectually underdeveloped or overdeveloped; crazy or genius. “I mean it must be high or low”. The Strawberry Fields of his childhood , much like the song, was a place of adventure and reflection; a place he could think his thoughts.

 

Perhaps because the song held so many layers of emotion, Lennon had the band try several distinct incarnations, ranging from ethereal to harder-edged. John told producer George Martin the couldn’t decide between two versions and that George should just mix them together. The producer pointed out that the two versions were in different tempos and different keys…. Lennon told him he could fix it. Martin set to work, slowing-down one version, while speeding-up the other and then splicing the two together. Because the pitch of the combined pieces was still a bit off in places, and because some of the vocals were intentionally recorded with the tape running too fast, John’s vocal has a watery sound. The happy accidents and brilliant bold choices christened the Sgt. Pepper sessions and set the tone for what was to come.


 

Paul said once that he and John often “answered each other’s songs”-- and soon after the recording of Strawberry Fields began, Paul sat down at a psychedelic, colorful piano and came up with his own childhood recollections in Penny Lane. The song title commemorates an area of Liverpool and, specifically, a city bus terminal, “shelter in the middle of the roundabout”, a central location where the Beatles would meet in the early years. Since the songs release, Liverpool stopped making street signs with the iconic name because too many were stolen by fans. The city now paints “Penny Lane” on the sides of buildings.

 

The song paints an idyllic scene “beneath the blue suburban skies”, introducing us to characters who all play their part, giving us a sense of an idealized time and place in McCartney’s memory. Midway through writing the song, Paul invited John to join him. They finished it together, reliving childhood memories.

 

Recording Penny Lane broke some norms in more ways than one. Until that time, the Beatles typically initiated recordings by laying down the rhythm tracks together. But Paul wanted something different. Trying to avoid the “bleed” occurring when studio mics pick-up unintended sounds, he insisted on recording each instrument separately. The original track was his piano and the rest were  overdubbed and layered individually. When the recording was nearly complete, Paul saw a “tiny little trumpet” on television and was intent on somehow including the instrument in Penny Lane. George Martin had good news for Paul. He not only identified the instrument as a piccolo trumpet, but he happened to know the man Paul had seen on TV. George hired his friend and transcribed Paul’s melody, which became one of the most distinctive and memorable parts of the song.

 

Penny Lane is Paul-pop at it’s best-- a sugar high without the crash--a bright, dreamy, joyful singalong. However, in typical McCartney style, the melody and arrangement are not as simple as they might sound. With sophisticated major-minor key changes and densely layered instrumentation, it quickly became a critically-acclaimed classic.

 

So in this single we have the Lennon-McCartney magic at its best. Both songwriters invited us into their personal memories like never before. Both songs are musically challenging yet accessible. Both are artistically forward. Both are honest. And though they are similar in so many ways, they are in stark contrast to one another--Paul’s brightness and John’s shadow.

 

Though they launched the Sgt. Pepper sessions, the final destination for Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever was ultimately the Magical Mystery Tour album These two songs opened new doors for the rest of the Sgt Pepper tracks and started a new era for the best and most influential rock band in history.

 

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