Saturday, August 6, 2011

Nothing is real ... and nothing to get hung about

The Beatles crafted so many classic songs that it is difficult (or, in my case, impossible) to pick a favorite.

But one track that I never grow tired of is "Strawberry Fields Forever," the 1967 classic that helped bridge the "Revolver" era and the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" era. It's surreal, psychedelic, artistic and cool. It's also a miracle of production work, with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick pulling off enough tricks to blend two different takes/versions together into one potent song.

The track is such an interesting song, and the production and songwriting are so interesting, that I'm gonna go into some depth on this sucker. Buckle up, it's gonna be a ride!

Popular music was undergoing a big upheaval in 1967. Songs about puppy love, fun and teenage situations were now passe. Rock and roll was "growing up" and the musicians were starting to take themselves seriously, and the term "artist" was getting used more and more often.

1964 was the year of Beatlemania, when the Beatles broke in the United States and truly conquered the world. Groups in the U.S. and the UK were influenced by the sound, the vocals, the production and the songwriting. After this, mainstream folk went "folk rock," Bob Dylan went electric and songwriters started to embrace the studio.

In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silenced" was released and established the duo and put them on the path to greatness (their debut album "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM" was released in 1964 and failed to set the world on fire). Later in the year, Simon and Garfunkel would release their first truly great album, "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme." The Rolling Stones released "Aftermath," their first album to be completely composed of Jagger/Richards compositions (and showed off new experimentation in the studio as opposed to the Chicago blues sound they'd cultivated early on). The Beach Boys released "Pet Sounds" after Brian Wilson was inspired by the Beatles' "Rubber Soul." And Brian Wilson would release his most complex single production, "Good Vibrations." Bob Dylan released his epochal "Blonde on Blonde" (the final entry in a trilogy of speed-influenced rock and roll that includes "Bringing it All Back Home" and "Highway 61 Revisited"). The Byrds released "Fifth Dimension" and kicked off mainstream psychedelia. The Association released their first album, "And Then ... Along Comes the Association" and showcased complex vocal arrangements with atypical lyrical approaches like "Along Comes Mary." Donovan released "Sunshine Superman," which embraced the psychedelic sounds and incorporated the image of "Swinging London" and fairy tale orientation. The Who gave listeners "A Quick One," an album focused on pop art and featured the group's first "rock opera." And rock's first "super group" Cream released their debut, "Fresh Cream," offering virtuosic performance, soloing on all instruments (bass, guitar, drums) and true blues rock power. The Beatles themselves released "Revolver," the culmination of their songwriting, performance and production abilities.

Thus, 1966 was a hell of a year and hard to top. But the big artists of the day were inspired by each other and pushed themselves further. Experimentation was key, elaborate production was a must and musicians embraced the role of Artist with a capital A.

As 1966 was coming to an end, the Beatles were at a crossroads. The band had decided not to tour anymore, and none of the members were really sure what that meant for the future of the group. George Harrison famously said, "That's it, I'm not a Beatle anymore" after the last concert. John Lennon accepted a role in Richard Lester's "How I Won the War" and spent a lot of time on the sidelines in Spain. During those lulls, time he spent strumming on his guitar became the genesis of a song that would be released as "Strawberry Fields Forever."

As the song developed, Lennon revised the lyrics, embellishing the words with moody imagery and drugs-inspired color. But he wasn't quite sure how he wanted the final product to sound. He performed it solo on an acoustic guitar for producer George Martin (and Martin wished he'd recorded that performance and released that version as well, as it was apparently very beautiful and vulnerable in its starkness). 

After doing a run through in front of Martin, engineer Geoff Emerick and the other Beatles, Lennon prepared the group for its first take. Its mellow nature and ethereal vocals are entrancing, dreamlike and very much different from the released version. The song starts off going straight into the vocal, bypassing the familiar Mellotron tones and "Let me take you down" intro. Instead, the listener is dropped immediately into the "Living is easy with eyes closed" verse. The arrangement differs, as well, with the first verse and second verse flowing into each other without being broken up by the chorus.

While lovely, Lennon wasn't satisfied. I can only imagine that his vision for the song was to incorporate the dreamlike feel with a dynamic sense of color and vivid motion. That meant more orchestration, adventurous production, snappier drums and a fuller sound. There's a lot going on in dreams, there needed to be some activity.

So the team worked on a new version, a more "rock and roll" version. It was heavier, harder, more insistent. The Mellotron introduced the song, and he had inserted the "take you down" opener. This version had the groove that Lennon wanted, but had lost the dreamlike qualities of his early versions.

So he posed a challenge to Martin and Emerick: He wanted the slower, more dreamlike elements to start the song off. He liked the way the Mellotron introduced the song with provocative tones, and he'd decided to start the song with the chorus. But he also wanted to incorporate the energy and feeling of the second version, too. Basically, he wanted to merge the two versions into one song. To be more like a dream, it would have to move seamlessly between sounds and themes without catching much attention in the process.

Today, that task wouldn't be that difficult (it would pose its own challenges, sure, but digital recordings are much easier to modify). In 1966/1967, that was a daunting challenge indeed. Working with magnetic tape allowed only so much work before fidelity would be harmed, and splices were often far from seamless affairs. Overdubs were far more necessary in those days to cover the joins of the tapes. But even with an overdub, how do you cover up the tempo change and key differences?

Emerick and Martin stumbled upon a fix that was both masterful and fitting, and stayed true to the dreamy influence of the song: They sped up the first version slightly, slowed down the second version slightly and it all melded together. With an orchestral score rising about the same time of the join, the song sounded seamless and perfect. And the speed adjustments added to the moody quality of Lennon's vocals.

By this point, the song was almost complete. The Beatles worked with Martin on mixing the recordings, bringing some elements to the front and pushing other elements to the back. Distortion was added throughout, particularly at the end (turning the clear "cranberry sauce" vocals into what sounded like "I buried Paul," fueling the Paul is dead rumor mill for years to come). After these final tweaks, "Strawberry Fields Forever" was ready to be shared with the listening public (and would be issued with Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane" as their first single of 1967).

"Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane" were the first musical offerings from the Beatles since they'd stopped touring. The music was different, and the videos emphasized it. Gone were the moptops. Here were men with mustaches and beards, George Harrison's hair was longer than ever, and the Beatles looked moody and detached. This was Art (notice again the capital A), not pop for the teens.

The songs were initially going to be on the album that became "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," when the album was going to be more oriented toward the Beatles' collective youths. "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" have biographical roots, with both referring to physical locations not far from John's childhood home. The other song cut around this time was "When I'm 64," which Paul had written as a young teen about 16 years old. Its sound reflected the old-time music the Beatles had grown up with as youngsters.

When the single was released, that concept for the album was dropped and the "Sgt. Pepper's" concept was put into play. And history was made with that particular release.

The "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane" single also made history, in a way, for the Beatles. It was the first single the Beatles released that didn't go straight to No. 1 in the UK since "Love Me Do." The single was held off by Engelbert Humperdinck's "Release Me." Maybe the material was just too artsy for radio stations, or maybe the teens were turned off by the new sounds. Or maybe Humperdinck's tune was just that good. In any event, the Beatles weren't bothered by this "blow," and continued to move forward with their new sounds and productions.

As time passed and after the Beatles broke up, Lennon would go on record and dismiss the production and performances of many of the Beatles' greatest songs, including "Strawberry Fields Forever." He'd even told Martin that he wished he could go back and redo all of them, which astonished Martin.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" (and "Penny Lane," too, to a lesser extent) was a new sound. The production race of 1966 (which had seemingly been won by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys with "Pet Sounds" and "Good Vibrations") was accelerated. And the release of this single would prove to be monumental in another way: It shocked Brian Wilson, who had been working on his opus (an album to be called "SMiLE"), into giving up on his newest productions. He figured the Beatles had already captured the sounds he was trying to get on tape and that his work wouldn't set any new standards. He sure didn't want his compositions to be considered imitations, and so he abandoned his most ambitious work. After that, neither he nor the Beach Boys ever rose to the heights of competition or artistic achievement that had led them to being voted the No. 1 vocal group in the world (even over the Beatles!) in the NME music polls. [NOTE: This is a very simplistic summary in Brian Wilson's "SMiLE" situation, and doesn't include other factors he was facing at the time. While the "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane" single was certainly a creative blow, it wasn't the only reason Wilson abandoned work on the "SMiLE" project.]

The Beatles may have stopped working together in 1970, and John Lennon may have died in 1980, and George Harrison may have died in 2001 (OK, that's quite a string of challenges to overcome), but the evolution of the song didn't stop in 1967. In 2006, the Cirque du Soleil and the Beatles came together to do a multimedia special that took the title of "Love." Originating from an idea of George's, the performance developed into a reimagining of the Beatles' classic material. With many Beatles classics taking on remixes that were at times subtle and other times major, "Strawberry Fields Forever" was one of the songs that benefited from adventure.

The "Love" version of "Strawberry Fields Forever" is not an IMPROVEMENT of the original, but is rather a beautiful remix that combines the best qualities of previous released versions from the Anthology project and mixed in elements from other Beatles songs to truly create a dreamlike interweaving of sounds, colors and moods for a vibrant and engaging aural experience.

George Martin and his son, Giles, worked with engineers and musicians on the "Love" project. Martin undoubtedly recalled Lennon's feelings about "Strawberry Fields Forever" and really went into this particular remix with gusto. The "Love" version of the song builds from the acoustic demo and then winds into the single version, while incorporating elements of "Hello Goodbye," "Baby You're a Rich Man," "In My Life," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Penny Lane" and "Piggies." Every element woven through the song amplifies the mood of the song at the times of their appearance. Paul McCartney's "whooo-oooh" from "Hello Goodbye," in particular, thrives on the energy at the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever."

"Strawberry Fields Forever" is a great song. I love to listen to it with headphones. I love to crank it up in my car. I like to listen to it and stare at the ceiling and just let the imagery and mood carry me away. There's something about the song that is both classic and timeless. The energy and creative spark of this song indicated that anything was possible, musically. It stands as a testament to the brilliance of the Beatles and their producer and engineers and as a reminder of what artists can do when they refuse to settle for what they've already achieved. It's progressive, orchestral, heavy, catchy and a total ear grabber. Every version released to date just adds to the legacy, especially since they're all so engaging and enjoyable.

Give the different versions a listen (I've represented them all here with YouTube videos). All of these versions taken together at once might be a little much for casual listeners, and they do get a bit repetitive even for the most ardent of Beatles fans (take it from me), but they're very interesting and they chart the creation of one of the great Beatles songs. The song kicked off 1967 with a bang, and the year would become the most experimental (and eventually overwrought and distracted) for rock music. The lyrical adventurousness of Bob Dylan would make way for the Dionysian hedonism of Jim Morrison and his Doors. The dominance of English, New York and Los Angeles bands would make way for the rise of San Francisco's sound explosion.

What the Sixties would be remembered for would be encapsulated in 1967 during the Summer of Love. And the momentum that music as Art gained up to this point would hit its peak during this year, too. And "Strawberry Fields Forever" points the way ...


  1. I really like this song

  2. It's a great song, isn't it?

    Which version is your favorite, Alun?

    Thanks for leaving a comment! I hope to hear from you again soon.


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