Quite recently, like most fans of The Beatles, I was surprised to hear how Paul McCartney secretly played an impromptu performance in a pub in Liverpool. And if that wasn’t mind-blowing enough, he appeared alongside James Corden in a special edition of Carpool Karaoke driving in and around Liverpool. It made me think about two of my favourite Beatles songs – Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. Here are some of my random thoughts about them.
The genius behind so much of John Lennon’s songs came from memories and places from his childhood. The place Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army orphanage near his home, became a springboard for one of his most ambitious and creative songs. The story goes that John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the mid sixities had talked about writing some songs about Liverpool, and while John was away making the film How I Won the War in 1966 in Spain, during a short hiatus, an idea came to him and he wrote Strawberry Fields Forever. The opening line “Let me take you down…” tumbles into a drum roll by Ringo and begins what can only be described as an experimental psychedelic journey into a world that John describes where “nothing is real”. In short, Strawberry Fields Forever is not only a perfect pop song with a perfect melody, it also in part evokes John’s own childhood memories of growing up in Liverpool.
Paul’s version of Liverpool is very different to John’s pessimistic and occasionally lonely look at the place where he grew up. His song Penny Lane is an extremely bubbly and optimistic song where we are introduced to some of Liverpool’s most lively characters. It is also surprisingly nostalgic, compared to John’s rambling metaphoric declarations on Strawberry Fields Forever, as Paul repeats in the chorus “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my heart” all the while nicely rounded out with the pleasing sounds of a piccolo trumpet. Interestingly, George Martin, The Beatles producer, once said that Paul had recorded Penny Lane as a kind of “I can do just as well as you can, John, because we’d just recorded ‘Strawberry Fields’. It was such a knockout, I think Paul went back to perfect his idea. And they were both about their childhood.”
I think it’s probably hopeless to pick one song over the other as to which is my favourite Liverpool song. I could probably listen to them both every single day and still say confidently I admire them both equally. That said, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane are almost like the obverse and reverse of the same coin and it explains a lot about the two different kinds of people that John and Paul had become as songwriters.
The ‘Liverpool’ songs – Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane would be released together —as double A side singles from the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band sessions in February 1967.
Photo credit: The header movie still image of John Lennon in Penny Lane is presumably owned by Apple Corps, Ltd. I make use of it here under the rationale of ‘fair use’. It also enables me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone. I am not the uploader of the You Tube clips embedded here.