50 Years of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the Greatest Pop Song Ever

An examination of what makes the Lennon-penned Beatles track so special

screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-11-52-14-am 
A mellotron, three cellos, four trumpets, a bit of sound engineering mastery, and the inner workings of the mind of John Lennon. These are some of the special ingredients that constitute “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the best pop song ever created, which turns 50 years old today.
 
 
THE LEAD-UP
“It’s getting hard to be someone, but it all works out”

In late 1966, the Beatles were at a crossroads. They had unanimously decided to stop touring, weary of both the slog of the road and the inability to hear their own instruments over the screaming crowd. Lennon had just given an interview where he said the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” a quote that incensed America’s heartland. (Later, he clarified that he meant the Beatles’ popularity had risen to such a level that their influence on youth had eclipsed that of Christianity.)

Regardless of his intention, many fans had already turned on the Beatles. Combined with the unsatisfying chaos of their live concerts, morale in the group was at an all-time low. After what became their final concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966, the band decided to take a much-needed break from the three-year-long whirlwind of Beatlemania. Paul McCartney wrote a film score, George Harrison went to India, and Ringo Starr relaxed with family, while Lennon went to the coast of Spain to act in a film by Richard Lester called How I Won the War.

In November, the Beatles reconvened in the studio to start work on what would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first track they tackled was a pretty little slice of a song Lennon had written and demoed during his time in Spain, called “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Even before it germinated into the full-sounding, multi-instrumental version we know today, you can hear the seed of something special in this demo. Lennon’s lyrics are part nostalgia and part uncertainty. The lyrics are built around memories of playing on the grounds of Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army children’s home close to where he grew up in Liverpool, but it’s full of stops, starts, and stutters — “I think, uh, no, I mean…” and “That is, I think…” Lennon once said, “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.'”
 
 
RECORDING
“I think, uh, no, I mean, uh, yes, but it’s all wrong / That is, I think I disagree”

It took a significant amount of ingenuity and persistence for the final version to come about. George Martin, the group’s producer since the beginning and true “Fifth Beatle”, regularly worked with Lennon and McCartney (and occasionally Harrison) to help them execute their vision for a song.

John Lennon with Beatles producer, George Martin

John Lennon with Beatles producer, George Martin

McCartney was usually relatively specific when relaying to Martin the sounds in his head and how he wanted them represented on the record, often suggesting specific instruments and even helping with the arrangements. Lennon was much more vague, indicating certain feelings or emotions he wanted to convey in the song, and expecting Martin to follow through with the specifics. When recording “Tomorrow Never Knows” earlier that year, Lennon said he wanted it to sound like “a hundred chanting Tibetan monks,” leaving Martin to figure out how to realistically accomplish that.

After recording a few takes, Lennon wasn’t satisfied, frustrated that none of the recordings exactly matched the sounds in his head. This discontent resulted in the most remarkable technical aspect of the song, something that goes largely unnoticed. Indeed, the very fact that it goes unnoticed is what makes it so remarkable. Lennon decided he wanted to use the first part of an early take and combine it with the second part of a later take — the only problem is the two takes were recorded at different tempos and in different keys. Melding the two together appeared to be impossible. When Martin expressed his strong doubts, Lennon nonchalantly told him, “You can fix it, George.”

He was right. Lennon’s naïvety produced brilliance. The group’s sound engineer, Geoff Emerick, sped up the first take and slowed down the second take so that the pitches matched, and somehow the tempos miraculously matched as well. Right at the 1:00 minute mark, the track shifts to a completely different take recorded two weeks later, with seamlessness. The dreamy first part gives way to the busy, more varied second part, contributing to the uniqueness of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
 
 
WHY IT’S THE BEST
“Let me take you down”

My taste has changed and evolved in my quarter century of loving music, but one thing has remained the same since about the age of 10 — “Strawberry Fields Forever” has been my favorite song of all time. Not just my favorite song as a child, or my favorite song by the Beatles, or my favorite song of the Sixties. My favorite song by anyone, ever.

It’s never easy to explain why a particular song is your favorite song. So much of it is tied up in emotions and memories and experiences that only you’ve had. Certainly the technical genius needed to make the final version of the song work contributes to the song’s lore, but that doesn’t fully account for why I love it.

In part, “Strawberry Fields Forever” represents the most dramatic turning point of the Beatles’ career. The sheer speed of their transformation has always amazed me. In August 1966, they were playing a Little Richard cover to screaming fans with suits and clean-shaven faces. Three months later, they were sporting mustaches, wearing colorful frills, and blazing a trail for complex psychedelic rock in the recording studio. The Beatles’ innovation and trend-setting were at their peak as 1966 transitioned to 1967, and “Strawberry Fields Forever” was the period’s soundtrack.

screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-12-01-42-pmAs far as the specifics of the song itself, the melody has always transfixed me. Unlike McCartney, whose melodies went up and down and spanned many notes across the scale (just listen to “Yesterday”), John Lennon’s melodies always had a small range of just a few notes. Listen to when he sings “Living is easy with eyes closed” — every syllable of that line is sung on the same note. But it’s cathartic. Like the way he stretches the word “low” into three notes on “I mean, it must be high or lo-o-ow” — I always appreciated the way he sung that.

But what it really comes down to is this: I love every single moment that every single instrument plays. I relish every time a new trumpet line comes in (like when they soar in the second verse as he sings “No one, I think, is in my tree”), or a new cello line (at the end of the third verse, during “That is, I think I disagree”), or when I hear those backwards cymbals, or Ringo’s manic drumming in the chorus. Each individual part is perfect on its own, but they’re also perfect as part of a whole. The interplay between all the instruments and the beauty that springs up from the cohesion always made me feel like anything in music was possible. I remember listening to it as a 12-year-old on my Discman (that was a CD player, kids) and being completely blown away. It’s gorgeous, it’s mind-opening, it’s supremely weird, it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before or since.

Ian MacDonald, the late music critic and Beatles scholar, wrote of the song, “While there are countless contemporary composers qualified to write music hugely more sophisticated in form and technique, few if any are capable of displaying feeling and fantasy so direct, spontaneous, and original.” That directness, spontaneity, and originality is why I consider “Strawberry Fields Forever” to be the greatest pop song of all time.

First 1:23 of the song:

Full song:

 
UPDATE: I would be remiss if I didn’t include this clip that I just watched in an excellent Consequence of Sound post on the Beatles’ stark 1967 reinvention. After playing the promotional video for “Strawberry Fields Forever” live on his show, Dick Clark goes into the audience and asks what people think of the Beatles and their new look/sound. Let’s just say they are NOT fans. Luckily there’s one individual at the end who goes against the wisdom of the crowd, and says, with an awestruck smile: “I thought it was great.”

Advertisements

Our Unique David Bowie Experiences

We can agree on why we all miss him. But we can’t agree on his best work. And that is beautiful.

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 12.46.10 PM

David Bowie passed away two days ago after an 18-month battle with cancer. I have never been so sad and shocked at the death of an entertainer, which took me a bit by surprise. I’ve never considered myself a Bowie expert or anything, but I’m realizing just how strong of a personal connection I had to the man and his music.

Why do we miss him so much? I think we can agree on a few reasons.

Continue reading

Poptimism Won 2015, Who Won ‘1989’?

Ryan Adams, Taylor Swift, and ‘Peak Poptimism’

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 7.59.56 PM

For those who don’t obsessively peruse music blogs, “poptimism” is a strain of music criticism that celebrates top-40 pop music and the mega-stars that bring the hits to life. Music magazines, websites, and publications such as Pitchfork and SPIN rose to prominence through their celebration of punk, indie, underground rap, and other genres far from the mainstream, dissing the vapidity of chart-topping hits along the way. But over time, pop has overcome its stigma. “Poptimism” has thoroughly permeated the ends of the blogosphere, to the point that praise for the likes of Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Carly Rae Jepsen has become the modus operandi of most music criticism (see the links on each name for examples). The fact that Pitchfork bestowed its #1 song of 2013 to “Hold On, We’re Going Home” by Drake, perhaps today’s biggest pop juggernaut, would have been unheard of a few years ago. It’s no longer an embarrassing display of naiveté to love “Call Me Maybe” or “Teenage Dream” — it’s a sign that you’re an impartial judge.

With the release of Ryan Adams’s cover of Taylor Swift’s behemoth of an album, 1989, we have officially reached “peak poptimism.” We are now in a society where there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. If someone like Ryan Adams had covered a Kelly Clarkson album ten years ago, I guarantee it would have been a completely ironic exercise. The culture was just not one where the critically acclaimed underground mixed with the pop stars. But today, in an age where poptimism reigns supreme, Adams can talk about 1989 in an interview and say, with total honesty: “These songs are incredible. You break them down from what they are to this raw element, and they’re just super powerful and they can tear you up.”

Continue reading

The Exhilarating Emotional Heights of Jamie xx’s “Loud Places”

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 9.03.08 AM

“I have never reached such heights / I feel music in your eyes.”

The ultimate power of music lies in its ability to channel feelings, memories, and emotions. You can be transported back to places you cherish, alongside people you love, at the click of a “play” button. You’re back in the stands at that high school football game, back at that party where you made your crush laugh, back on that road trip you took with your college friends.

Jamie xx knows music has this power. In fact, he knows it so well that his songs don’t just invoke memories — the music is literally about the concept of music invoking these memories. The production on his latest album, In Colour, was inspired by underground London raves in the ’90s, but it’s not meant to actually sound like the trip hop blaring on those club dance floors. In Colour is meant to encapsulate the feelings and emotions associated with going to a late-night rave in the city. The highs and lows, the excitement and the loneliness, the boundless elation and the quiet disappointment associated with a night full of adrenaline and expectations. These aren’t the songs that were playing at that high school football game, or the party, or the college road trip — these are songs that remind you of what you were feeling during those events.

 
Right in the heart of In Colour lies the musical and emotional climax, “Loud Places.” Jamie xx, who rose to prominence as the backbone of The xx, employs his bandmate Romy Madley-Croft to sing about “[going] to loud places to search for someone to be quiet with, who will take me home.” She also reflects painfully on her ex, who “[goes] to loud places to find someone who will take you higher than I took you.” The subject matter is melancholy, to be sure, but the music itself is uplifting in its wide-eyed wonder. A nostalgic haze hangs over the song, as the various electronic and instrumental elements fade in and out of focus — the rhythmic bells and whistles, the handclaps, the single guitar lick. The bass hums so deeply that it feels like it’s coming from inside your chest, with the thumps of the drum machine as the heartbeat. That build-up of thumps eventually leads to the most perfect, pure element of the song: a gospel chorus breaking through the surface and releasing the tension.

The chorus is a sample of Idris Muhammad’s 1977 song “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This.” The lyric goes, “I have never reached such heights / I feel music in your eyes.” It’s a beautiful couplet that furthers Jamie xx’s meta intentions of paying tribute to music. The chorus is not bombastic or attention-grabbing. In fact, you may not find it special or distinctive at all. But it’s the context that Jamie xx gives the chorus that make it truly special — the combination of crescendoing drums and Madley-Croft’s dramatic “didn’t I take you to higher places you can’t reach without me?” line preceding it, along with the bass, piano, and handclaps that accompany it. These sophisticated surrounding touches are what Jamie xx does best.

That chorus appears three times throughout the song (at 1:01, 2:38, and 3:30). In the first two instances, the piano and percussion are also prominent, competing for space right along with the voices. The third time, the piano and additional sound effects are buried in the mix, leaving room for that beautiful chorus to dominate. Combined with the deep and permeating drum beat, the final chorus provides an enduring moment of musical catharsis. You anticipate it coming, but it’s more subtle than, say, a drop in a Skrillex song. It’s gorgeous and blissful in its subtlety. It’s exhilarating.

Jamie xx feels music in your eyes, and he just wants to celebrate it.

Sufjan Stevens and Our Parallel Memories of Eugene, Oregon

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 5.00.57 PMPhoto: Mike Shaw

Sufjan Stevens and I share something in common: we both grew up spending summers in Eugene, Oregon. I used to go with my family to visit my grandparents, uncle, aunt, and cousins, often for weeks or months at a time. Stevens went to stay with his mother and stepfather for a few years, from the ages of 5 to 8.

The instant I heard that Stevens’ new forthcoming album, Carrie & Lowell, would center around Oregon, a rush of excitement flooded me (there was even a track specifically called “Eugene!”). Stevens obviously has a history of paying tribute to different states, and so I looked forward to putting the album on and letting Stevens’ always-exquisite songwriting take me on a trip back to a place that I hold dear. I knew that the album would also deal with the death of Stevens’ mother, but I subconsciously pushed that to the back of my mind. I wanted to focus on Oregon.

Continue reading

The Major Rise and Minor Fall of Danger Mouse

How my favorite producer’s impeccable musical taste and respect for history has been both his biggest strength and biggest weakness.

danger mousePhoto: Dave Lichterman, KEXP

“It was not my intent to break copyright laws. It was my intent to make an art project.”

If the Beatles had The White Album and Jay Z had The Black Album, that’s just asking for a Grey Album, right? Brian Burton thought so. Now, over twenty albums and three Grammys later, Burton, otherwise known as Danger Mouse, has been proclaimed not just “Producer of the Decade,” but one of the most influential people of the 21st century so far. Hyperbole? Yeah, probably. But he has certainly been one of the most influential people to me. He has created both chart-topping hits and critically-acclaimed masterpieces. In my opinion, he has even claimed a spot alongside George Martin and Rick Rubin in the pantheon of transcendent music producers.

However, something troubling has developed over the past two years — lately, Burton has been coasting in neutral. Where his production was once fresh and original, it has gradually become a little stale and overbearing. It’s something we need to analyze.

Burton’s career can be broken up into four phases:

  • Phase I: Danger Mouse the Hip-Hop Producer
  • Phase II: Danger Mouse the Genre-Blender
  • Phase III: Danger Mouse the Excellent Neo-Psychedelic, Ambient, Indie Rock Producer
  • Phase IV: Danger Mouse the Stale and Overbearing Neo-Psychedelic, Ambient, Indie Rock Producer
  •  
    Continue reading

    Leon Bridges, ‘Selma,’ and the Mini-Revival of 1960’s R&B

    Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 1.04.50 PM

    One of the unsung strengths of the recent film Selma is its soundtrack. With the exception of the celebrated, Oscar-winning, gospel-rap of John Legend and Common’s “Glory”, Selma is full of of 1960’s rhythm & blues that succeeds at being both understated and evocative. No huge hits are used, but the music still expertly and thoroughly channels the spirit of the American South during the 1960’s.

    Two of my favorites from the soundtrack are the slow-churning, sweaty R&B of “Ole Man Trouble” by Otis Redding, and the spare, acoustic blues of “Alabama Blues” by J.B. Lenoir, as he sings “I never will love Alabama / Alabama seem to never have loved poor me.” The songs’ lyrics give us a glimpse into the oppression felt by black Americans in the South, and you can almost feel the heat and humidity in the music.

     

    Continue reading