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"Strawberry Fields Forever"

Categories: Beatles songs

Beatles "Strawberry Fields Forever" picture sleeve from Spain
"Strawberry Fields" may have been started in Spain, but Odeon España didn't seem to be too worried about finding an up-to-date photo for the single. Or maybe the Franco regime simply considered Los Beatles' recent lack of haircuts as too much of a threat to its authority...

Let me take you down,
'Cos I'm going to Strawberry Fields:


But first, a stop-off in the south of Spain during the autumn of 1966...

John had mainly got involved in How I Won The War (directed by Richard Lester, who'd made the first two Beatle movies) in order to fill the 'now what?' void of no more touring, though the opportunity to take time-out from his farce of a marriage must also have been a factor. During one of those interminable gaps in the shooting schedule, sat on a beach with Neil Aspinall — equally out on a limb with no roadying to be done — he started strumming a new song on his acoustic guitar, which he gradually refined over the six weeks of filming.

He was evidently feeling a little homesick: Strawberry Fields was a children's home in Liverpool, a stone's throw from his Aunty Mimi's house in Menlove Avenue where he'd grown up. In fact, on early versions, the invitation was to "Let me take you back..." The jumbled self-contradictions of the lyric are 'a conversation with myself...without understanding a single word', as Oscar Wilde (one of his literary heroes) had put it. In spite of — or, more likely, because of — his superstar status, Lennon was still just as lost and screwed up as he'd ever been:

It's getting hard to be someone,
But it all works out:
It doesn't matter much to me!

"Psychoanalysis set to music", he later defined it. "No one I think is in my tree", 'cos even I'm completely out of it. Looking at the world "with eyes closed", or through strawberry-tinted spectacles must've been infinitely easier than facing the uncertainties of reality. "You know I know when it's a dream" — but you never quite know when it's gonna turn into a nightmare... To be continued: not least on his first post-split LP, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

Returning to London in November, he played a cassette demo in the studio. "Magic," said George Martin, "It was absolutely lovely".

John Lennon playing a Mellotron ca. early 1967

Lennon with a mellotron, c.1967
The forty-five hour recording process took the song light-years from its bittersweet acoustic origins, picking up directly from where Revolver had left off: 'The Day After "Tomorrow Never Knows"'. Its progress is well-charted: on Anthology, and online.

Those spacey flute loops were achieved by Paul playing with a new-fangled gadget called the mellotron, a kind of forerunner to a sampler/sequencer keyboard. They were all actually quite worried about getting hassle from the Musicians' Union for employing technology ahead of players; but, as it turned out, there was "nothing to get hung about".

JL was never happy with his voice, and always pushed GM to play with it; though the latter rarely thought it necessary. Here, however, slowing it down to give it that fragile, swimmy "always — no — sometimes think it's me" sound, he (with Geoff Emerick) captured the sentiments of the song to perfection. The loose 'n' lazy bass 'n' drum interplay, and George's dreamy jangles are equally evocative in getting the trip underway.

As the waves of pseudo-symphonic instrumentation roll in, it's actually the backward cymbal schwoops which really "tune you in, but it's all right", and the increasingly hypnotic drumming that sucks you further in. The trumpets and cellos, although authentic enough to begin with, were mercilessly modulated and manipulated by Messrs M and E; changing the tape speed to mix two separate takes, thus realizing an instrumentally impossible key-shift ("It must be high or low").

Nothing is real...

George's slinky slide definitely got some kind of tone-tampering treatment; and, however they went about recording his intricate picking, flash-fills and shimmery Indian zither, "it doesn't matter much to me" — it all still sounds absolutely immaculate 40-odd years on. Pretty much anyone who was hanging round the studio threw in whatever extra percussion was knocking around to be channel-panned: Mr Starr was too busy working out his drum-patterns in reverse.

And so to the final, chaotic afterthought (tagged on just in order to push it past the four-minute mark, I reckon, as much as to simply play with yer head). John joins Macca to go mad on the mellotron, George clanging along on guitar, and everyone else — especially Ringo — gets madder on just about everything else, and that's just about it.*

The decision to issue it as a 45, double-A'd with Paul's "Penny Lane", was largely due to Brian Epstein's concerns over the band's apparent decline in popularity (based on the evidence that they hadn't sold out all of the '66 US concerts). He must've been even more rattled to see Engelbert Humperdinck hold it off the Number One spot in the UK... It was actually released on my fourth birthday ("Release Me!"). George Martin has always regretted not including them both on Sgt Pepper — though it's difficult to imagine which seven minutes he'd've replaced — or issuing them as separate singles.

Whilst very much 'of it's time', anticipating the most talked-about summer since records began, its ethereal sound and eclectic lyric and the wonderfully out-of-their-trees promo-clip; then the title giving name to John's memorial garden in Central Park, have assured its status one of the most timeless of all The Beatles' classics:

Strawberry Fields Forever

And Ever,

*Cranberry Sauce...
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