BEATLES RUNDOWN: “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967)
I doubt if it’s common practice today, but back in that Beatles era, bands were expected to release a single every few months to stay in the public eye. There was no YouTube or Hulu or anything, just crummy AM-radio with its static and its uneven reception.
That was where everyone heard new music. Even the Beatles were pressured to come out with a hit single every three months. So 1967, “Strawberry Fields Forever” came out with “Penny Lane” as a 45 with two “A” sides (usually the “B” side was hasty filler). As I recall (here we go again) these two songs had been intended for what was to be SGT PEPPER but had to be sacrificed for AM exposure.
So, as much as I like SGT PEPPER, imagine how much better it would have turned out if “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” were on it instead of weaker songs like “For the Benefit of Mr Kite” or “Good Morning Good Morning.”
Even more of a classic. Anyway, “Penny Lane” was clearly a Paul song, all bright and chipper and optimistic. “Strawberry Fields Forever” though is John Lennon straight through, thoughtful and reflective. “Let me take you down” as the first line struck me as appropriate for John (rather than the more nostalgic “Let me take you back” as you might expect). This is a song about childhood too, but Strawberry Fields was a Salvation Army orphanage and it’s ironic that such a depressing place became a phrase associated with Peace and Love and blissful Sixties.
Instead of wistfully reminiscing about the sights or sounds, John goes for introspection. “Living is easy with eyes closed/Misunderstanding all you see” lets us know right away what the mood is. “Nothing is real/And nothing to get hung about.” Technically, this is an astonishing song in its complexity and layers of sound. Lennon had the innovative, experimental spirit, all right. Like “I Am the Walrus,” it keeps revealing new details each time in a near-subliminal way. Remembering how primitive the tools were that were available in this pre-digital pre-computerized era, I’m so impressed by how ingenuity and hard work could produce such sounds and how genius could blend them together.
In a few interviews, I’ve seen John mention how badly produced and shoddy songs like this sounded to him then (but 1980 had more tools available than 1966 did) and how much better it would be if he could rework it. He also said a few times that he felt Paul did not work quite as hard to get a John song perfect in every detail the way he labored over his own. Very likely. I’m not sure that it was sabotage either conscious or subconscious, though… It seems more that Paul was increasingly pushy and fussy and wanted every tiny bit just right for his songs, but John might not have been quite that demanding with his own material, less inclined to ask for Take# 19 when it was late at night and everyone was getting cranky.
It’s a great song. Yet, to be honest, I’m not that fond of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and hardly ever listen to it if I’m skipping around tracks. It has the slow heavy texture of maple syrup out of the refrigerator, a certain negative vibe to it that reminds me of coming down from hallucinogenic experiences to mundane reality (or so I’ve been told, ahem).
"Let me take you down," the song says and it does that for me. What I found funny back in the day was how befuddled the narrator seems to become at one point. "Always, no sometimes, think it’s me/ But you know I know when it’s a dream/ I think I know I mean a "Yes" but it’s all wrongThat is I think I disagree" Man, I thought, that dude is HIGH. And of course, of all the songs featuring the swordmandel, this is my favorite. When in Manhattan, take time to visit the Strawberry Fields Memorial in Central Park.