Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Beatles, "Penny Lane" & "Strawberry Fields Forever"

Y'know, it's funny. One day you're a rebellious youth in a rock n' roll band singing Elvis and Little Richard covers for dancing teens in a basement club, or drunk businessmen in Germany, basically doing whatever you can to escape your dingy backwater hometown. Suddenly you're a success, wearing matching suits and bobbing your head and having to turn your guitars way way up to be heard over the legions of screaming, breathless girls who don't even care what your music sounds like because they just want to be near you.

Then suddenly that gets old; real old. You don't want to tour for the screaming girls anymore, and instead of playing loud guitar music, you're writing jaunty tunes on a piano and filling them with wistful flutes and little trumpets. And instead of singing about getting up the nerve to ask a girl to dance, or wishing she could be near you when you're away, you're singing about barbers and firemen in that backwater hometown you worked so hard to escape.

Starting with Revolver, the Beatles weren't playing for crowds anymore, which meant not only an open invitation to workshop and tinker in the studio, but carte blanche to create music they had no intention of ever performing again. I don't know if there was any pop artist in history prior to that, who had that luxury. The record could now be the thing, cobbled together on tape from endless takes and tracks (well not endless -- there were some technical and practical limitations) for the artist to put out into the world and forget. Indeed, the premise of the forthcoming Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was to create an album that would "tour" for them -- how that was meant and whether it was possible let alone accomplished who knows, but it was a damn good record. The Beatles now only existed in photographs on a record sleeve, and maybe a promotional video, the prototypical "music video." And of course, as sound: a now increasingly experimental, loosely defined sound.

"Penny Lane" doesn't sound horribly out of step with a lot of previous Paul McCartney songs, like "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby" or "For No One" with its fantastic French Horn solo. But unlike those somber affairs, the orchestration here brings a happy time: pleasant, carefree memories of a time and place. The way John Lennon describes his original take on the earlier song "In My Life" sounds very much like what "Penny Lane" ended up as: a series of value-neutral descriptions of activities, places, and people in Liverpool (indeed, "Penny Lane" appears on that lyric sheet, so they say.) The final version was a meditation on love and loss, an amazing song. But is that to say the song Paul McCartney ended up writing was inferior too?

Nope. Paul had a knack, when he tried, for the understatement. The implication. It appears in its rawest form in "Yesterday" but he refined his sense for the loaded detail in "Eleanor Rigby" and "For No One," which are purely descriptions left to the listener's imagination, which add up to something very full. In the words and music of "Penny Lane," the listener is transported away from their own time and place and into the 1950s Liverpool suburbs.

There is a hidden dimension to this song that is not literally stated: it's not a description of a day on Penny Lane, it's a description of all the days in Penny Lane. The chorus makes reference to "The blue suburban skies" but also in the lyrics is "The pouring rain." My own personal take on this is that the memories all sort of blur together: you see all these people on different days, the memories blend together when you try to call them back up together, the past becomes this weird, blended, changing thing. The details stated create the place, and then the way they are related shows your removal from it. This could be Paul's intention, it could be my overreading, but it's at least in there, and enhances my enjoyment of the song whether it means to or not.

Lennon, meanwhile, couldn't just write something and not wring his version of the truth out of it. The lyrics to "Strawberry Fields Forever" are like absurdist poetry: what does the title phrase mean, why does it seem infused with such deep implications? Why does the singer keep doubling back and stammering over his statements? I could try very, very hard to catalogue all the different lyrical tricks Lennon plays in this song in an attempt to tease out the meaning, but even that would be far from authoritative. In the big picture, it's another mystical broadcast from the Lennonverse, the ongoing process of learning to scoop out his own brain and put it down on record for the people, to create music that was authentically not just his, but him. This song contains one of my all-time favourite lyrics, "No one, I think, is in my tree / I mean it must be high or low." He later explained it was a statement that he didn't know anyone who was like him, so he must be either crazy or a genius. Not only a great thought, but a terrific way of putting it.

Because the song is sutured together from two separate takes with wildly different instrumentations, it's hard to tell exactly what's in the song: melted down horns, tense strings, bellicose drums. It's like "Penny Lane"'s acid trip. It's like that video where you're too busy watching the basketball being passed around to see the dancing bear mascot. Revolver inaugurated the "anything goes" post-touring Beatles incarnation, and "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," together each in their own way, showed exactly how far they could stretch out.

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