Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Strawberry Fields" /
"Penny Lane"
The Beatles


Okay, Alex, you guessed this one -- though, given my known Beatles addiction, it was an easy call.

It's another John/Paul smackdown, each one delivering his own memory piece about their long-gone Liverpool childhood. But they're as different as chalk and cheese, and listening to the two, I'm struck by how far these former musical soulmates had drifted from each other by 1967.

You can' t ignore the drugginess of "Strawberry Fields," from that woozy mellotron intro all the way through its mysterious coda -- the train whistle, the backwards organ, that ponderous voice intoning "cranberry sauce" (though, really, we all know he was saying "I buried Paul"). The sinuous melody and trippy key changes remind me of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" -- the ultimate LSD song -- only without the surreal imagery. In fact there's very little imagery here, for "nothing is real." He's having a hard time just putting a sentence together; by the third verse, the best he can do is

Always, no sometimes, think it's me,

But you know I know and it's a dream.

I think I know, I mean, ah yes, but it's all wrong.

That is I think I disagree.

Ever tried to have a conversation with a straight person when you were stoned? John absolutely nails that spaced-out dialogue.

Strawberry Fields may have been a real place in Liverpool, but John's turning his back on the world -- "Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see" -- and burrowing into his own weird inner reality. Verse two especially intrigues me after visiting John's boyhood home in Liverpool last spring -- I saw the actual tree where lonely young John used to sit ("No one I think is in my tree") looking over a wall at the playing children from the Strawberry Fields orphanage. His Aunt Mimi scolded him for spying, but he retorted to her that it wasn't a hanging offense -- "nothing to get hung about." He's a lost soul crying to be found, and it's incredibly poignant.

Compared to the phantasmagoric "Strawberry Fields," Paul's "Penny Lane" is much more accessible, a sunny panorama of English suburban life (wonder what Ray Davies thought when he first heard this). Marching along to that time-keeper piano, this song is pure music-hall softshoe, decorated with a panoply of sound effects -- car horns, firetruck bell, thunderclaps, tootling flutes, and that magnificent cornet solo in the middle eight. (Remember, George Martin had produced comedy records as well; there's more than a touch of Goon Show to all this.) As the refrain reminds us, this is all in his head -- "Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes" -- it has all the golden haze of nostalgia, and yet it's so vivid, so present, you can't help but be sucked into it.

Like an Ealing comedy, this cinematic song zooms in on each verse's vignette: barber, banker, fireman, nurse. It's literary, too, as each character is drawn in Dickensian detail -- the barber's picture of "every head he's had the pleasure to know"; the banker with his motorcar and trail of taunting children; the fireman with his hourglass and portrait of the Queen; the nurse selling poppies from a tray. As upbeat as that bouncy melody is, at the end of every verse Paul slides into a diminished chord as he adds a darker brushstroke -- the banker caught in the rain without his mac, the fireman's obsession with his "clean machine," the nurse's out-of-body feeling that she's in a play. And naturally, those lines are the ones that resonate when the song is over.

One thing you've got to say for "Penny Lane": it's an irresistible singalong. We may sing along to "Strawberry Fields" too, but not quite on key, and we always stumble over those incoherent words. John offers to take us down to Strawberry Field, but I'm not totally sure he wants the company. Paul, though -- he's already packed such a lovely picnic hamper (ooh, look, gooseberry tart!). Just ask me whose car I'm jumping in.


Mister Pleasant said...

I was somewhat embarrassed to place this phenomenal single as low as #13 on my top singles list, but given that the Fab Four already had spots #1 and #3 I felt I needed to leave some room for others. When I think of double A sides, this is always the first to pop into my mind.

Ringo deserves some accolades for his amazing drum work on Strawberry Fields Forever. It is the glue that holds it all together.

Holly A Hughes said...

Indeed, props to Ringo. Really, all the haze of psychedelia only works if there's a rock-solid rhythm track. It's also my opinion that McCartney couldn't have developed such melodic, inventive bass lines if Ringo hadn't been doing all the time-keeping. It's like the inverse of the Who, where Entwistle's reliability gave Keith Moon license to run wild.

wwolfe said...

I've read that initially the album that was to become "Sgt. Pepper" was conceived as a set of songs about the band's childhood in Liverpool. Based on these two songs, that would have been some kind of album. (Apparently, EMI's decision to release this single caused the band to re-think the album's concept, since they had a policy of not including singles on their albums.)

Holly A Hughes said...

Intriguing. You can only wonder what that album might have been otherwise. I can see it, though, in bits of "Fixing a Hole" and "Good Morning," where Paul revisits the old school ("the teachers who taught me weren't cool..."). Even "When I'm Sixty-Four" has that gloss of nostalgia.