Fifty years ago today The Beatles went into the studio to create one of the most iconic songs of the sixties. Pat examines the creation of the inspirational Strawberry Fields Forever.
It was 50 years ago today that the birth of a musical masterpiece took place. The time was pre-Swinging Sixties London, the place was that Mecca of all things groovy EMI (later Abbey Road) Studios, the music producer was the visionary George Martin, the writer of this masterpiece was one Mr. John Winston (soon to be Ono) Lennon, the band, The Beatles, and the piece of music, Strawberry Fields Forever.
This date marked a return to work for the band after a three month long hiatus. The break had been the longest they had had since they first started playing. And it had been an intense four years; worldwide gigs, film-making and numerous television and radio appearances, all while managing to fulfil their contractual obligation of two albums and four singles a year.
The main reason for the long break had been The Beatles recent decision to stop touring. There were many reasons for this decision. There had been jelly beans to contend with, as George Harrison had once made an off the cuff remark about liking jelly babies. The band were promptly pelted with them whenever they played. They also had to contend with the screams. As Ringo later observed. “We’d become such bad musicians. The volume of the audience was always greater than volume of the band. I ending up just hanging on to the off beat and watching the other guys bums and trying to lip read to see where we were.”
Perhaps most importantly there were also the death threats, which had been prompted by Johns’ infamous ‘more popular than Jesus’ comment. The final straw however come when the band unintentionally snubbed the Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcus by not attending a function she had arranged. They barely left the country with their lives.
Paul McCartney was the inspiration behind Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that had brought the band back into the studio that evening. “Paul was the worker”, as drummer Ringo Starr later described him. “Me and John would be in the garden and we’d hear the phone ring. We knew it’d be Paul. So we’d start this thing; ‘You answer it’, ‘No, you do’. But we couldn’t put it off”.
The idea for Pepper had come to Paul earlier that November while flying home from a safari in Kenya. As Paul said “It was going to boring to just make another Beatles album. We’d stopped touring, we now had this huge liberated opportunity, we could do anything we wanted. I had this idea on the plane, ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Everything about the album would be imagined from the prospective of these people. So it doesn’t have to be us. It doesn’t have to be the kind of song you want to write, it could be the song they might want to write.” And, of course, there was the thought that releasing an album about a fictional band might be considered an adequate replacement to touring…
Lennon had also been busy, spending six weeks in Almería, Spain playing the part of Private Cripweed in Richard Lesters’ film How I Won The War. It was during filming that John lost one famous trademark; his Beatle haircut, and gained another; Cripweeds round rimmed health service glasses. But not content with sitting on his laurels, Lennon also continued to write music, and Strawberry Fields Forever was the result. “It took me six weeks to write the song.” Lennon later recalled. “I was writing it all the time I was making the film. And as anybody knows about film work, there’s a lot of hanging around.”
Strawberry Field was the name of a Salvation Army Children’s Home just around the corner from Lennon’s childhood home in Woolton, Liverpool. As a child his Aunt Mimi would bring him there to the annual Summer fête. As she later recalled “As soon as we could hear the Salvation Army band starting, John would jump up and down shouting, ‘Mimi, come on. We’re going to be late.’”
John also spent many hours playing in the grounds, and when Mimi would tell him that he was not allowed to spend so much time there he would invariably reply “Why not, Mimi? They can’t hang you for it.” And hence the inspiration for the line from Strawberry Fields, “And nothing to get hung about”.
In fact, despite the fact that the inspiration for up-and-coming album was to be one of the band pretending to be someone else, the entire song was heavily autobiographical. Lennon would later go on to describe it as “psychoanalysis set to music. One of the few true songs I ever wrote… They were the ones I really wrote from experience and not projecting myself into a situation and writing a nice story about it.
“The second line goes, ‘No one I think is in my tree.’ Well, what I was trying to say in that line is ‘Nobody seems to be as hip as me, therefore I must be crazy or a genius.’ It’s the same problem as I had when I was five: ‘There is something wrong with me because I seem to see things other people don’t see. Am I crazy, or am I a genius?’… What I’m saying, in my insecure way, is ‘Nobody seems to understand where I’m coming from. I seem to see things in a different way from most people.” In fact, “No one, I think, is on my wavelength”.was the opening line for of the song for much of its initial genesis.
Upon returning from Spain John spent a further two weeks honing the song in his Kenwood home before The Beatles reconvened for that first evening of the Pepper recording sessions.
Producer George Martin later described that night when he first heard Strawberry Fields. “Our routine was fairly simple. Whenever a new song come along, if I hadn’t heard it privately, and in this case I hadn’t heard it before he (John) came to the studio, I would sit on a high stool and he would stand in front of me with his guitar and sing me the song. And it was gorgeous, I loved the word imagary, I loved the harmonic changes, I loved the tune. I thought it was terrific.”
It was an exciting time for the band, and everyone felt it that night. They were freed from limitation of recording songs they had to be able to perform, charged by what they had learned about studio techniques over the previous four years, rested from their time off and inspired by the drugs they were all taking in increasing quantities. And it could be heard in the music, with Lennon on acoustic guitar, Harrison sporting a brand new slide guitar, Ringo laying towels over his toms to get that famous dull sound and McCartney on the Mellotron.
The Mellotron was a new instrument in The Beatles repertoire, and was essentially a precursor to the modern sampler. Inside the keyboard were racks of tape loops; pressing one of the keys would play the corresponding tape. Engineer Jerry Boys was suitably impressed; “I remember when The Beatles first brought in the Mellotron. It was made mostly for producing sound effects but it also had flutes, brass and string sounds on it. The Beatles used it in a way nobody had ever thought of.”
By the end of that night the band had a finished one take, but one which bore little resemblance to the final product: the song started with the verse instead of the chorus, featuring a gorgeous three part “ooh”, Georges slide guitar, and a stunning vocal by John. There was no Mellotron flute intro and, although The Beatles had rehearsed the song all evening, the end was a meandering, though charming, improvisation.
As George Martin later observed; “The way it (Strawberry Fields) was done that Thursday night was virtually complete, we actually virtually made a master (a completed song). And it was the way I had heard it originally when John sang it to me, and it was a sweet, gentle simple song. I think that version is very charming. A very simple version of a very simple song.” In fact that version was destined to be unheard by the public until its release on The Beatles Anthology 2 in 1999.
With the recording The Beatles Christmas fan club message taking precedence the next day, work on Strawberry Fields was suspended until Monday, by which stage John had had a chance to listen to the acetates (technically more accurately referred to as ‘lacquers’ – temporary vinyl discs that could be cut on a lathe and played immediately on a standard record player) and had decided to scrap this first version of Strawberry Fields.
The next two days saw The Beatles re-record a series of increasingly more frantic versions of the song. As Martin later remembered; “John had decided he wanted it in a lower key. It had an introduction for the first time, which was played on that weird instrument, the Mellotron, and became a really key feature, and started with the chorus instead of the verse.” This version consisted variously of drums, maracas and small overdubs, such as George Harrisons “morse code” beeps from a Mellotron guitar preset. A “best” mix was made and everyone left happy. Everyone, that is, except for Lennon.
George Martin was later to recall; “A week later he (John) came back and said: ‘I’ve been thinking about it, George. Maybe what we did was wrong. I think we ought to have another go at doing it.’ Up to that time we had never remade anything, let alone twice. We reckoned that if it didn’t work out first time, we shouldn’t do it again. But this time we did. ‘Maybe we should do it differently,’ said John. ‘I’d like you to score something for it. Maybe we should have a bit of strings, or brass or something.’”
The following few days therefore saw The Beatles attempt to record their third backing track for the song, this time featuring heavy percussion, backwards cymbals (made by scoring cymbals so that when recorded on a reversed tape, they would play correctly with the tape the right way around, a laborious process) and the appearance of an Indian instrument that Harrison had brought home with him from India, the zither-like swarmandal. A final track was spliced together from two different takes, the distinct strident cellos and horns were then recorded and finally, two takes of Johns vocals completed the song.
It was during the end of one of these overdubs that John was captured repeating the words ‘cranberry sauce, cranberry sauce’, as it was a handful of days before Christmas. The Lennon-ism can still be heard on the final track, fuelling “Paul is dead” speculation for years to come when some misinterpreted the phrase as “I buried Paul”. Also captured at the end of the song was Lennon saying “calm down, Ringo, calm down” in a hammy Scouse accent. Thankfully this phrase was faded out on the single, and so remained mercifully beyond the misinterpretation of the general public…
After all this hard work The Beatles recording engineer Geoff Emerick later recalled how Lennon casually told the recording team how he liked the beginning of version 2 and the end of version 3, and that he now wanted the two versions joined together: “My jaw dropped. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see George Martin blinking slowly. I could almost detect his blood pressure rising.”
Martin patiently explained that it simply wasn’t possible: they had been played in different keys, at different tempos and the arrangements were radically different. “John appeared nonplussed,” writes Emerick. “I’m not sure he even understood why that presented a problem.” Or as John was to succinctly put it, “You can fix it, George, can’t you?”
But the gods smiled upon Emerick. The engineer discovered that by speeding up the playback of the first take and slowing down that of the second, he could match them in both pitch and tempo. As December of 1966 drew to a close Emerick, Lennon and McCartney worked late one evening, skilfully editing the two different versions together.
Such close collaboration, says Emerick, was unusual. “In general, Paul and John didn’t watch over my shoulder; they trusted George Martin and me to translate their ideas into reality. For the most part, they stayed in the studio working on the music and we stayed up in the control room working on the sounds.”
The transition between the band-oriented version 2 featuring the Mellotron intro and the frenetic version 3 featuring swarmandal, heavy percussion, cellos and horns can still be plainly heard precisely one minute into the song. But be warned, once you hear it you’ll never hear the song the same way again.
The song was finalised with a fake fade towards the end, much to the chagrin of many a radio DJ, the first time this had been done on a record in history. And the profound reason for the use of this ingenious device? Simply to hide a particularly poor piece of drumming…
And so after one month, and 45 hours studio time, Strawberry Fields Forever was finally completed.
It was not the most technically challenging recording by The Beatles – tracks such as Revolution 9, Tomorrow Never Knows and I Want You (She’s So Heavy) all provided greater technical challenges. However, the song was genuinely innovative in so many ways for its time; in the remaking of tracks (never normally done), the length of time taken to record it (nowadays the norm), the use of various studio techniques such as vari-speed and close mic-ing as musical effects in their own right, the use of unusual instruments, the use of normal instruments in new and exciting ways, artists being involved in the mixing process (again the norm today), the faux fade and the ingenious splicing together of radically different takes of the same song.
But all of the above does not even begin to reference the marvel of the song itself; its unique structure (like the way that it almost imperceptibly slips between 4/4 time and 6/8 time), the songs content, the stunning melody and the musicianship. All in all a truly unique moment in recording history.
By the end of 1966 EMI had come to realise that the band had yet to provide the record company with their fourth contractual single of the year. Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane were therefore released as a double ‘A’ side single and, so as not to short change the public, the songs were removed for consideration from the Pepper album.
George Martin still bemoans that decision to this day, describing it as “the greatest mistake of my career, letting a lesser song like Good Morning appear on one of the greatest albums of all time, in the place of one of the greatest songs of all time”. The single went on to be the first by The Beatles not to make it to number one in the U.K. charts, held off the top spot by a surprise hit by a young artist with the unlikely name of Engelbert Humperdinck.