Thursday, March 2, 2017

Childhood's End: "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane"

A few months ago, director Ron Howard described his documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years, as an adventure story and a tale of survival, and he tells it as if caught up in the tidal drift of its momentum. Retracing the familiar tale of the meteoric rise of Beatlemania, Howard wastes no time in showing both the endurance and the astonishing skill of a young group of musicians who became the pleasure principle in an age of social and political change. Beginning with footage from November 20th, 1963, at Manchester's ABC Cinema where the group performs "She Loves You" and "Twist and Shout" to an ecstatic crowd, Eight Days a Week goes on to chronicle their growing international acclaim as live artists – while also contrasting those shows with the astonishing quality of studio album after studio album despite the band's having to swim daily in a sea of madness.

Howard, whose first documentary was 2013's Made in America, about Jay-Z's music festival of the same name, provides a few choice observations, including The Beatles' stand against racial segregation, while deftly revealing how they always stayed ahead of the cultural curve by making everyone else play catch-up. Although most people who didn't live through that era have today experienced their music in its totality, Eight Days a Week brings you closer to the evolution of their sound so that you hear how remarkably canny they were at resisting being derivative and never repeating themselves. By the end of the film, you can't imagine this feat ever being duplicated again. The footage both familiar and new still carries an explosive charge of adolescent exuberance. Yet Eight Days a Week doesn't shy away from displaying how that adoring adulation would soon turn turtle into the kind of violent fan worship that took the band off the road and later claimed the lives of John Lennon and George Harrison. As Devin McKinney pointed out in his Critics at Large review, however, Eight Days a Week doesn't go far enough into the shadow side of The Beatles' utopian spirit. But it does catch the jet stream of their impact with a full-force gale. Since it only deals with the touring years, though, Eight Days a Week doesn't delve into the radical changes that followed their departure from the road.

While The Beatles were no longer a touring outfit, they still wanted to make records. On November 24, they would begin work on a track they intended to include on their new album. "Strawberry Fields Forever" was a song that Lennon wrote while in Spain working on Richard Lester’s movie, How I Won the War. In the midst of shooting a battlefield scene, Lennon took a break to smoke some Spanish pot and lie on a beach slowly composing this new song. Actor Michael Crawford, who co-starred in the film, shared a beach house with Lennon and heard him play this new tune with the lyrics, ‘‘Living is easy with eyes closed, / Misunderstanding all you see. . .’’ Strawberry Field was actually a Salvation Army orphanage in Woolton, a mere five minutes from Lennon’s childhood home on Menlove Ave. It had acquired its name during an earlier era when it was a farm that produced strawberries. As a child, Lennon would visit the summer fĂȘtes at the orphanage with his Aunt Mimi and sell bottles of lemonade with his friends Ivan Vaughn and Pete Shotten. His aunt remembered John responding excitedly to the sound of the Salvation Army brass band, pushing her to hurry so he wouldn’t miss the music they played. As Albert Goldman points out in The Lives of John Lennon, this was a prescient memory. The Salvation Army brass band suggested the later Sgt. Pepper image The Beatles stepped into a year later. But, as Lennon thought back on the orphan children he watched playing, he knew he couldn’t conceive "Strawberry Fields Forever" as a nostalgic childhood memory. "[Lennon] knew perfectly well that the little girls in blue and white dresses, their straw boaters tied with red ribbons about their chins, were orphans, like himself," Goldman asserted. "Strawberry Field was not simply John Lennon’s playground – it was his spiritual home." In many ways, the song was also his Heartbreak Hotel. If the early Lennon music was an attempt to forge a dream out of the nightmare of growing up in post-war Liverpool, and enduring the tragic death of his mother, in "Strawberry Fields Forever," he finds a nightmare within the dreamy texture of his song. As Devin McKinney observed in his book, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, "Strawberry Fields Forever" is a "clash between an ineffable dream and its countervailing nightmare – life as it is in a dream, versus life as it is."

"Let me take you down," Lennon states mournfully after the soft opening notes of the mellotron begin the song. Once again, he says, "there’s a place." Only this time, it’s not necessarily in his mind and it's not the mystical void offered up in "Tomorrow Never Knows." He’s found a new place to dwell in another version of Lonely Street. "When Lennon sings 'Strawberry Fields' he sounds like Robert Johnson or something," Elvis Costello commented to Mojo Magazine in 1996. "You can tell it’s all in his head. He’s so focused on what he’s doing it’s scary." It’s not surprising that Costello heard Robert Johnson since the song was originally conceived as a talking blues. In that original version, Lennon declared the paradox of who he truly was, different from all others, forever burdened by the knowledge that he was alone both as a boy and a creative man. As critic Steve Turner explained, "[His visits] were . . . like Alice’s escapades down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass. He felt that he was entering another world, a world that more closely corresponded with his inner world, and as an adult he would associate these moments of bliss with his lost childhood and also with a feeling of drug-free psychedelia." For that reason, the song would evolve from a talking blues into an elliptical, dreamy psychedelic ballad. The looking-glass aspect of the song similarly unnerved Martin Carr, of The Boo Radleys. "It’s hard to imagine this being tied down to something as tangible as vinyl – it’s more of a dream than a song," Carr explained. "It transports me to half-remembered places and times." As eerily memorable and evocative as the song is, The Beatles created what Albert Goldman accurately described as "a stoned descent into the maelstrom of the unconscious mind." It took 45 hours of work to make this surreal masterpiece work.

Since Lennon wrote a labyrinthine study of his childhood, McCartney wished to contribute his own more nostalgic view. "Penny Lane" was McCartney’s own version of Lennon’s "In My Life." He recollects the places of his youth though, ironically, none of the things he lists is even found on Penny Lane. Curiously, it was Lennon who once lived on the street with his mother and father. (John had originally included Penny Lane as part of "In My Life," but ultimately dropped it.) The street was named for James Penny, an eighteenth-century slave-ship owner, back when Liverpool was the hub of the slave trade. McCartney mentions Bioletti’s barbershop, which had a collection of photos in the window of various haircut styles, plus the St. Barnabus Church where he was once a choirboy. Like "Strawberry Fields," the song revisits the past, only McCartney is less opaque than Lennon. Childhood is seen as a comfort zone of happy memories, as opposed to John’s picture of confusion and sorrow. In 2006, there was considerable debate over whether the street should be renamed because of its dubious heritage. After all, a number of other streets named for slave traders were being renamed after abolitionists, or for Anthony Walker, a black teenager who was murdered in 2005 in a racial attack. Penny Lane, however, retains its name, perhaps due to the Beatles’ lovely rendering in this song. Over the years, it has even become a tourist attraction. The imposed isolation of fame had brought the two writing partners a need to revisit the real life of their youth. "Penny Lane," like "Strawberry Fields Forever," is an impressionistic view of the lingering memories of the past. 

But where Lennon’s is a riveting dirge, McCartney’s is a brightly colored piece of baroque pop. As if to make that association more explicit, McCartney sought out trumpeter David Mason to provide the solo in the bridge. Paul had heard him on the BBC performing Bach’s Second Brandenberg Concerto from Guildford Cathedral. McCartney asked George Martin if they could get him to come and record on "Penny Lane," and Mason agreed. McCartney directed Mason in the studio, while Martin did the musical notations. Three hours later, they had the solo. While "Strawberry Fields Forever" comes across as the more avant-garde of the two songs, it was McCartney who was the Beatles’ avant-gardist. But Paul was also a born entertainer. When he looked to the past, he wanted to present it the way he wished it could be. He sings with great delight, whether remembering a banker with a motorcar or having a go making out with his girl and doing "finger pies." While George Martin was eager for "Penny Lane," backed with "Strawberry Fields Forever," to become part of the group’s next album, Brian Epstein thought it was important to have a new single out for the New Year. It would come out in February 1967, over fifty years ago – and AM radio never sounded the same again.

If The Beatles had become what literary critic Leslie Fiedler once described as imaginary Americans, perhaps they could now imagine themselves as anything. In that world, they could also create an imaginary audience to hear their radical new work. The first step in that process actually began with a promotional film they made earlier in 1966 for "Paperback Writer" and "Rain." While the film did little more than capture them in a garden lip-syncing their songs, it did show The Beatles singing and playing without the accompaniment of their screaming fans. For the first time, we could see them performing their music without the hysteria of the crowd surrounding them. When they issued the conceptual single "Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever," they went even further by accompanying it with a conceptual film. Director Peter Goldmann, along with Beatles aide Tony Bramwell, created two very distinct portraits of the band to promote the songs. For "Penny Lane," the imagery is pretty basic. Lennon waltzes through the busy streets of east London, eventually meeting up with the group for some horseback riding and a picnic in the park. Curiously, as they make their way through the grounds to a huge table with flowers and candelabras, they pass – and then quickly abandon – a makeshift stage with their guitars and Ringo’s familiar drum set on it. If the movie for "Penny Lane" was adorned with quaint psychedelia, the surreal "Strawberry Fields Forever" featured the boldly experimental tinge of the avant-garde. 

Klaus Voorman had first suggested that "Strawberry Fields Forever" sounded like it was played on a strange instrument, so Tony Bramwell decided to invent one for his film. Bramwell first went to Knole Park in Kent, where he found an old tree that he dressed up with long rows of strings. Later he attached those strands to a piano and harp. The Beatles, who look like posh gravediggers, hunch over this strange piano/harp hybrid, as Lennon mournfully sings his psychedelic Gothic memoir. Bramwell created the effect of the Beatles leaping back and forth from the tree to the ground by shooting it forward and backward in the camera. But the jumping about here doesn’t resemble the bounding leaps of freedom we saw in their great escape from the TV studio in A Hard Day’s Night. No longer youthful mop-tops defying age and custom, the group here appears burdened by age, by the weight of their dreams, and more individually distinct with different cuts of hair and mustaches. Adorned with mutton chops, Lennon could have easily stepped out of an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery. Ringo appears in an unaccustomed red military tunic, while Harrison is buried in his thick balaclava. 

The picture sleeve for the single itself was a bold departure from the group shots projected in previous covers. Earlier, whether bright-eyed and enthusiastic (Please Please Me), exhausted (Beatles for Sale), or reflective (Rubber Soul), The Beatles were always a recognizable band, the progenitors of a radically new pop sound. But on the front of this new single, the formally posed photo of the group, set in a gold embroidered picture frame, made them appear like arcane artifacts from the nineteenth century. If not for the presence of spotlights and the bright color of the picture, this photo could be a relic from the period of their grandparents. On the back sleeve are featured four separate baby photos placed in different angles to each other. The Beatles are no longer pictured as four parts of one whole, but instead as four discrete individuals. The question for many who heard this new single, saw the cover sleeve, and watched the promotional films on television was: Are they still even The Beatles? 

The first test of that question came when Bramwell’s two films premiered on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand television show in early 1967. Clark’s popular long-running variety show had been a lifeline throughout the Sixties for teenagers falling in love with rock ’n’ roll. Before showing the clips, Clark asked some of those in his live audience if they thought The Beatles were through. One teenage girl told him that she’d never pay to see them again while another compared them to The Monkees; one other guy told Clark that The Beatles had gone out with the Twist. Consigning the group to fad status was apparently the easiest way for the audience to rationalize their hurt and sense of abandonment. Clark then cued the "Strawberry Fields Forever" clip. As the audience watched this dreamy pastiche being screened before them, dismissal turned to disillusionment. One viewer expressed shock at their longer hair and thick mustaches. Another kid could only summon up the comment that the group was deliberately becoming weird. Once united behind The Beatles, the audience was now becoming as fragmented as the group itself appeared to be. 

The single represents one of the last samples of Beatle alchemy. For Lennon, in "Strawberry Fields" he takes you to a forlorn past where he’s anxious to find relief, and ultimately his true self. His voice, which has the beautiful grain of worn sandpaper, reveals a performer who sings with a hungry desire to be released from the pain he can’t seem to escape from. For McCartney, in "Penny Lane," his visionary spirit is heard in his effortless ability to counter pain and remorse with an ache for the beauty of life. When The Beatles began their quest for fame, they sought out their American musical roots in order to find their own identity as The Beatles. But now removed from the road, from that original quest, the group returned to their own British roots in these two songs. When the single was released, the song became a #1 hit in America. But it stalled at #2 in Britain, when it was ousted by Engelbert Humperdinck’s highly conventional "Release Me." But that was okay. The charts no longer held the same allure as they did in 1964 when "I Want to Hold Your Hand" shot to #1 worldwide. What started as a love affair between a band and its eager, expectant audience had now turned to ritual, routine, and retribution. They began their 1962 Please Please Me album session with the anticipatory "There’s a Place." They would then start the Revolver album with the final surrender of  "Tomorrow Never Knows." That title, "Tomorrow Never Knows," was yet another malapropism from Ringo, and it also turned out to be prophetic. After "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," tomorrow truly didn’t know. All The Beatles really knew was that they were no longer facing and confronting their live audience. For the first time, they were about to truly face each other.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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