“Let me take you down, cause I´m going to…”
This week´s song of the week is actually my favourite song by my favourite songwriter played by my favourite group. It wasn´t always my favourite Beatles song . Why do I love it so much? I´ll try to express why here, but “I think I know I mean a ´yes´, but it´s all wrong, that is I think I disagree.”
That´s the trouble with expression. It´s difficult to explain what you really mean, especially if you´re expressing feelings. Sometimes music can do that better than words, and sometimes the two together can come close, but even then maybe they won´t quite get there…
It´s attributed to Lennon & McCartney as are the rest of the songs each of them wrote for The Beatles, but this one is all John. Like I´m a loser and Help it´s one of Lennon´s personal records, where he writes from first hand experience.
It took a few years to grow on me, but after hearing the home demos recorded by Lennon, I suddenly got it. The bootleg tape I had at home in Ireland as a teenager was lent to me by a friend, and if I remember correctly, the first two verses were lined up together, maybe it was just the three verses with no chorus. It originally started with the verse “No one I think…” If anyone knows of that demo recording I´d love to hear it again. I´ve just been searching through youtube for rare demoes of the song and it sounds like it may have been one of the Kenwood demoes. It´s a bit messy, because it´s an extract from his tape recordings, and he´s overdubbed a vocal over another demo, but it´s well worth a listen. When I think of Strawberry Fields I don´t just consider song to be the single that was released.
For me the song stretches from the demos in Santa Isabel in Spain, and his home Kenwood, to the early Beatles takes and on towards the finished version.
Actually John was never happy with how it turned out and it was one of a handful of Beatles songs he would have liked to re-record.
Having dinner with his old producer years later he said to Martin that he’d like to re-record every Beatles song!
A shocked Martin asked him, “Even ‘Strawberry Fields’?”
“Especially ‘Strawberry Fields,’” answered Lennon.
Unlike Paul, he wasn´t a fan of layering songs with strings etc, but in this case he was the one who asked their producer George Martin to come up with something for it . McCartney was specific with what he wanted with his songs. He´d hum the melody he wanted the violins or trumpet to play, whereas Lennon famously asked Martin to make a song sound “like an orange”.
“John was never definitive,” he remembers, “he lived in a kind of dreamworld.”
However, it´s not often that an artist does achieve his or her grand ambitions, and Strawberry Fields Forever is for me one of the grandest. You can visualise perfection, as was the garden of John´s youth, but capturing that perfection is a different matter. But we can hint at it. You can point someone in the direction. And the tools we use are imagination and memory, but can you separate the two?
It´s like James Joyce once said echoing Giambattista Vico ,” imagination is memory”.
Imagination “…is nothing but the springing up again of reminiscences, and ingenuity or invention is nothing but the working-over of what is remembered. . . . With reason, then, did the theological poets call Memory the mother of the Muses; that is, of the arts of humanity.”
Vico, Poetic Wisdom (264)
When you listen to how it started out, you realise that he originally had something more gentle, more subtle in mind. Have a listen to the beginnings of the song when it was provisionally entitled: “It´s not too bad”. It´s probably for Beatles fanatics only. 🙂 But then again I think everyone should be a Beatles fanatic.
At first, he had a vague idea of how the verse would go . You can hear even then the seeds what he is trying to express in a kind of disjointed way, like the way a child might express himself. “No one is on my wavelength. I mean it´s either too high or too low, that is you can´t you know tune in, but it´s alright, I mean it´s not too bad.” You can hear it develop as he fills in the spaces and rearranges some lines: “No one I think is in my tree…”
The tree he´s talking about is one that was within the walls of Strawberry Field, the name of a Salvation Army house where John used to go as a kid whenever he was in trouble or just to hang out and play and climb up trees. But it´s also a metaphorical tree. He realised early on that he thought differently from other people, that no one seemed to be on the same wavelength as him. “I was different all my life. ´No one I think is in my tree.´ Well, I was too shy and self-doubting. 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´.”
He would later call the song “psychoanalysis set to music” and “one of the first true songs I ever wrote.”
“Strawberry Fields is a real place.”
After living in Penny Lane, he moved in with his Aunt Mimi in the suburbs…
“…in a nice semi detached place with a small garden and doctors and lawyers and that ilk living around… In the class system it was about half a class higher than Paul, George and Ringo…. Near that home was Strawberry Fields, a house near a boys´reformatory where I used to go to garden parties as a kid with my friends Nigel and Pete. We would go there and hang out and sell lemonade bottles for a penny. We always had fun at Strawberry Fields (sic), so that´s where I got the name, but I used it as an image, Strawberry Fields Forever.”
John´s aunt Mimi was quite strict and didn´t like him going there, as it was basically an orphanage, and she thought the boys would lead him astray. When Mimi argued with him about it he would reply: “They can’t hang you for it.” which inspired the line “Nothing to get hung about”.
He felt a kinship with the lads, after having lost his father (who left home), and later his mother Julia, who he was not allowed to see as a child once he´d moved in with his Aunt, and who later died in his teenage years, after being hit by an off-duty policeman who had been drinking.
John was asked whether he thought he was a genius, and when he first realised he was, in his brutally honest 1970 interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine:
“When I was about twelve. I used to think, ‘I must be a genius, but nobody’s noticed’ [laughs]. Either I’m a genius or I’m mad, which is it? ‘No,’ I said, ‘I can’t be mad, because nobody’s put me away; therefore, I’m a genius.’ Genius is a form of madness and we’re all that way. But I used to be a bit coy about it…”
For Lennon fans, this is essential viewing. He pulls no punches.
In 1966, John took time off from The Beatles hectic scheduling by signing up to act in How I Won the War, a movie by Richard Lester (the director of A Hard Day´s Night) which was being filmed in Almeria in south eastern Spain, with Michael Crawford, with whom he shared a house with, along with their two wives, for that summer in Spain.
They´d sit around the house in the evening and John would play guitar, singing “Strawberry Fields… No, that´s not right”. Michael encouraged him, telling him it was wonderful.
Thanks to Beatlemaniac Maxime for providing a link to this rare photo and others, which you can find the links to below in the comments section.
Incidentally that´s when he started wearing those unmistakeable Lennon glasses (they were given to him as part of his army regalia along with a new haircut) as you can see above, the same style as those that were originally worn by his hero Peter Sellers.
Aside: Actually the reason they chose Lester to direct A Hard Day´s Night in the first place was because they had enjoyed the short film Lester made with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers in 1960 so much. It was called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film.
John´s eyesight was quite poor (he was near-sighted), but he used to go around without his glasses during his youth up to the early years of The Beatles, so it´s quite interesting that this was the time he chose to start wearing his glasses more regularly. When you hear the line “living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see” you realise that he´s really talking about himself again here. It´s a metaphor for an approach to life, but in reality that´s exactly what he was doing, walking around with his eyes closed to those around him, blocking out pain and blocking out people.
His focus was on those nearest to him, like his friends and family, but it was also inward looking…
Larry Kane wrote in Lennon Revealed (2005) about how surprised people were that John Lennon was insecure under all the bravado he liked to show to the world. John said in his later years that he had two sides to his personality, one-half “monk” and one-half performing flea.
“People would be surprised at how insecure John Lennon was, and his lack of self esteem… Throughout his life, even during the height of Beatle mania, he had poor self esteem, even though he exuded confidence.”
During 1966 Lennon´s ego had been battered by a steady dose of LSD, his self medication to deal with that pain, and by the time he got to Spain, he was exhausted from Beatles commitments and the constant mental activity involved with taking the drug. This was his first real break in a long time. It was also a break from the drug for a while, although he did keep smoking the occasional joint while he was over there. During the LSD come-down his mind drifted towards images of childhood alienation, lost innocence and shattered reality.
When John finally brought the song to the studio and played it for George Martin, who said he felt the song conjured up a “hazy impressionistic dreamworld.” I imagine it sounded something like these recordings.
Martin had recognised immediately that Lennon was entering unchartered territory. He remembered “a starry echoing line” and quickly asked him how he wanted to record it. Lennon laughed and reminded him that that was surely the producer´s problem and not his.
“Before the very first recording of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ John stood opposite me in the studio and played me the song on his acoustic guitar. It was absolutely lovely,” recalled George Martin. “Then when we actually taped it with the usual instruments, it began to get heavy. John didn’t say anything, but I knew it wasn’t what he had originally wanted.”
“He’d wanted it as a gentle dreaming song, but he said it had come out too raucous.”
A week after that, John came back to the studio and told Martin: “I’ve been thinking about it, too, George. Maybe what we did was wrong. I think we ought to have another go at doing it…”
That was the first time they´d ever re-remade a song, they´d generally abandon a song if it wasn´t working out.
“… I´d like you to score something for it. Maybe we should have a bit of strings or brass or something.”
Between them they worked out that it should be three cellos and four trumpets, along with the group, maracas, tambourine, bongos, acoustic guitar and piano. When Martin had finished scoring the part and bringing in the musicians, they recorded it again, and Martin was happier with the end result. John went off again.
A few days later he rang up George Martin again and said: “I like that one, I really do, but you know, the other one´s got something too.”
Martin informed him that he couldn´t do that as the two takes were in different keys (the first, take 7 in A major, and the second, take 26 in B major) and played with different tempos. John´s reply was:
“Yeah, but you can do something about it, I know. You can fix it, George.”
Working with Engineer Geoff Emerick with only a pair of editing scissors, two tape machines and a varispeed control, they sped up the first and slowed down the second changing them both to Bb, and to Martin´s surprise, the splice worked! The tempos matched. The first half actually starts off a little flat and then speeds up a little to bring it exactly to Bb just before the splice happens.
Lennon loved the end result at the time, and Martin was very happy with it too, but being perfectionists, there were still little things that bothered them. When we hear the song now it sounds like one take, but George as their producer still cringes when he hears the splice, which is at the 1.00 mark just as the second refrain starts with the phrase “I´m going to”. When you´re recording a song, there comes a time when you have to finish it. That´s the trouble with seeking perfection. It´s rare that a producer or musician is completely happy with a recording. As for the rest of us, the listeners, if you didn´t know it was there, you probably wouldn´t spot it.
Here´s George talking you through some of the production details and you get to hear the magnificient string and brass sections (scored by Martin) on their own with only the drums underneath.
Given the freedom by Lennon to do what he liked on this song, Martin really came into his own, and rose to the creative challenge John had set down.
Paul came up with the famous mellotron part you can hear on the first few takes. The mellotron was a new instrument that was lying around in Abbey Road. When you pressed down the keys the instrument would play short pieces of tape with the sound of a recorded flute. This was before the age of synthesizers.
As well as playing the lead guitar part, George Harrison played one of his newly discovered instruments, a swarmandal, which is the Indian version of the zither. It also featured a piano and a backwards-recording of Ringo´s cymbals.
The orchestral score starts in the middle of the second chorus. The pitch-shifting in the joining of the two versions gives Lennon´s vocals a swimming quality.
You can hear the song in progress in the first four takes here, as Paul and George Harrison try out and develop their accompanying parts and Ringo´s drum style starts to form. An early idea for a block harmony is ditched early on.
The song was originally intended for Sgt Peppers, and was really the start of the new Beatles sound, but instead it was released as a double-A side with the very different sounding McCartney composition Penny Lane. Both of the songs titles are places in Liverpool (about a mile and a half apart in the Allerton area) that The Beatles had known as kids.
The idea that Paul and John had been toying with for a couple of years by that stage was to write an album about Liverpool and their childhood experiences growing up there. An earlier example of them trying to do this is the collaboration In My Life. Lennon started out by listing places he knew from his youth to no avail, until he got inspired and the lyric came to him. Paul is thought to have composed the melody for that one.
As they had previously done, The Beatles philosophy at the time meant not including singles on their albums. It was originally intended as the centrepiece of Sgt Peppers, but the Beatles needed a single as they had been out of the public eye for a while. Martin expressed regret years later that he didn´t include the two songs on the Sgt Peppers album, calling that a “dreadful mistake”.
For the first time since Love Me Do, A Beatles single not reach number 1 in the British charts, where it peaked at number 2, which is quite ironic, as for many, (me included) it is their masterpiece. It was kept off the top by Engelbert Humperdinck´s Release Me.
For The Beatles it was actually a relief, as it “took the pressure off”. They had been under pressure to keep getting to the number 1 spot. However they weren`t upset because, as McCartney said, Humperdinck´s song was a “completely different type of thing.”
In America, the two were released separately and the more accessible Penny Lane hit number 1, while Strawberry Fields Forever reached number 8. The two songs were also included in the Magical Mystery Tour LP released exclusively in the U.S. in December 1967, while in the U.K. Magical Mystery Tour was released as a six-track EP featuring only songs from the movie.
Although it was released as a double A-side the BBC counted it as two individual singles, even though the record had outsold “Release Me” by almost two to one.
The song was regarded by critics as the best thing The Beatles had done yet. A young Brian Wilson, the man The Beatles had considered their biggest rival after hearing the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, was working on the ambitious follow up concept album, provisionally entitled Smile. He had already been beset by numerous problems making the follow up album, record company pressure and pressure from inside the group to produce surfing hits like he used to, as well as his own troubled psychological state, which was exacerbated by his experiments with drugs, particularly LSD. When he heard the single on his car radio for the first time he stopped his car and sat there dumfounded, awestruck and waited for the song finish.
Michael Vosse describes being in the car with Brian at that moment.
“He just shook his head and he said, ‘They did it already’. And I said, ‘They did what?’ And he said, ‘What I wanted to do with Smile – maybe it’s too late?'”
Brian resolved to shelve the Smile album in the coming months, believing it would take too long to sequence it, and he wouldn´t be allowed the time to do that by his record company. It would remain unfinished and locked away in studio vaults for 40 years until he recorded his own version of it. I´ll return to Brian Wilson and Smile another day…
A little more from George Martin before we finish:
“I think that Strawberry Fields did represent the major change in the boys´ lives. It was the beginning of the Pepper episode and of the highly imaginative and some people say psychedelic way of writing. I prefer to think of it of being complete tone poem imagery… I think it´s more like a modern Debussy or Ravel. I think their ideas there had developed enormously in a very flowery way, but in a very sensible way, and I regard Strawberry Fields as being really a very great song, and I think it was one of the best records ever made.”
And if you haven´t got it already, you should check out Ian MacDonald´s Revolution in the Head, where he goes through each Beatles song and analyses and appraises the songwriting, recording, writes about the background, and the considers the impact the songs had on society. It´s a must for Beatles fans.
The promotional film for the song was an early example of what would later become known as a music video, and was filmed on the 30th and 31st of January 1967. It was directed by a Swedish film director named Peter Goldmann, recommended to them by their old friend from Hamburg, Klaus Voorman. The shooting took place in Knole Park, which is located in the Sevenoaks district of Kent, near London.
So there you go. I hope you enjoy. I mean “I think it´s not to bad.”
Nothing is real and nothing to get hungabout.
Strawberry Fields forever.
It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out, it doesn’t matter much to me.
That is you can’t you know tune in but it’s all right, that is I think it’s not too bad.
I think I know I mean a ‘Yes’ but it’s all wrong, that is I think I disagree.
Nothing is real and nothing to get hungabout.
Strawberry Fields forever.
Strawberry Fields forever.