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

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

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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 na├»vety 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.”