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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Weekly Top Five

Beatles Edition!

3. "Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever"
Single; released 17 February, 1967
Secondary release on album "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" 1 June, 1967
Double A-Side

Either one of these songs would deserve a spot on this list on their own but when The Beatles decided to release them as a Double A-Side single in February of 1967 the two songs were inextricably linked in the minds of Beatlephiles across the globe. The choice to release them as co-headliners though is not as bizarre as it first appears since the two songs are almost like different sides of one coin. The subject matters for both were taken from very real places in John and Paul’s native Liverpool (the Strawberry Field Salvation Army orphanage and the commercial district Penny Lane) but in both cases the songwriters used these iconic places from their youths as springboards for their new-found drug-fueled surreal explorations.

Arguably the most celebrated of the two, John Lennon’s contribution “Strawberry Fields Forever” was actually the least commercially successful Beatles single up to that point, only reaching #8 on the US singles chart*. But what it lacked in initial commercial support it more than made up for in critical success.

From the moment of its release “Strawberry Fields Forever” was a polarizing song, instantly alienating much of The Beatles younger fan base with it’s oblique, Post-Modern lyrics**, trippy, slow-mo vocalization, and diffracted orchestration, while grabbing the older, college crowd with exactly the same qualities. The Beatles had been hovering on the fringes of drug-culture cool since “Rubber Soul” but it was this song that really blew the doors wide open and revealed The Beatles as the head of the new guard of pop musician.

“Strawberry Field Forever” is the penultimate psychedelic pop song and it immediately became the de facto template for all psychedelia that followed. Created from the combining of two disparate recordings, which George Martin combined by speeding one up and slowing down the other, “Strawberry Fields Forever” displays brilliantly the sort of Alice-in-Wonderland diffraction that would become a hallmark of 1960s psychedelia. Seemingly incongruent elements float in and out of the song in dream-like repose, and yet the over-all feel is not necessarily calming, rather there is a bit at the edges that is at once refreshing and discomforting. This bite gets free reign in the last few seconds of the song when the fade out morphs into a dissonant cacophony that smashes the dreaminess into a million bits.

The supposed sugar that makes the psychedelic medicine of “Strawberry Fields” go down is “Penny Lane”, a jaunty, infinitely infectious tune which, due in large part to it’s catchiness, is often denigrated unfairly as the more disposable of the two songs****. This is a common complaint with Paul McCartney-penned songs, that he was too interested in melody than creating interesting soundscapes or dealing with difficult subject matter, but in the case of “Penny Lane” this assessment would be a bit shortsighted. There is far more going on here than meets the eye.

For one, the orchestration of the song shows McCartney’s increased interest in creating songs that could not necessarily be reproduced on stage—an interest that would yield impressive results six months later on “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” but was only getting tested here. Unlike 98% of the previous Beatles catalog, guitars are relegated to the background in lieu of pounding pianos, various bells, and a horn section that is just as recognizable as the mellotron at the beginning of “Strawberry Fields”, combining to create a song that is at once fresh-sounding and yet quintessentially Beatlesque.

Secondly, “Penny Lane” proves a significant step forward in McCartney’s evolution as a lyricist. While John chose Post-Modern obfuscation and irony to express loss of innocence, Paul delved further into the surrealism he’d started experimenting with on “Revolver” in order to highlight the joys of white-washed joys of childhood. It is the subtlety of Paul’s experimentation that makes his songs so easy to downplay, but with lines like “Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout / a pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray / and though she feels as though she’s in a play / she is anyway” highlight a complexity of thought and a penchant for phrase-turning that has been a hallmark of McCartney-esque surrealism ever since.

In February of 1967 The Beatles released on an unsuspecting public one of the most iconic and revolutionary singles of all time, one that was at once nostalgic and progressive, and which has held the fascination of music lovers for over 40 years. “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” is one of the greatest musical achievements of the 20th century, and certainly is the most impressive display of psych-pop sensibilities that will ever be displayed.

5. "Paperback Writer"
4. "All You Need is Love"
3. "Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever"

*"Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" despite being on the same single were "released" seperately to radio stations and so the town songs had different chart positions in the US. "Penny Lane" reached #1.
**To my mind "Strawberry Fields" might be one of the first cases of Post-Modernism, which was pretty new at the time, in pop music lyrics. The whole song is ironic in that the music and vocals are dream-like and evocative of childhood, yet the lyrical content itself is fraught with self-doubt and loss, even sadness. Lines like "Always, no, sometimes, think it's me / but you know I know when it's a dream / I think I know I mean er yes but it's all wrong / that is I think I disagree" show a great deal of confusion as well as utilize the idioms of actual speech which had been heretofore unheard-of in pop music.
***despite the fact that "Penny Lane" was the higher charting of the two, it is today the less talked about.