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.”

Float Down Stream: The Beatles are on Spotify!

Naturally, let’s celebrate with a Spotify playlist.

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The Beatles are notorious for playing hard-to-get with digital music platforms. The band didn’t appear on iTunes until 2010, and they’ve neglected streaming services since their existence — until now. Starting today, you can stream their entire catalog on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, etc. Let’s just say my playlists are going to get a lot more ‘Fab.’

If you’re a casual Beatles fan, or you only have meager “greatest hits” albums, then this opening-up to the streaming world gives you an opportunity to explore some Beatles tracks that you haven’t heard before. To celebrate, I’ve compiled a Spotify playlist of 30 of my favorite Beatles songs that are NOT considered hits. They won’t show up in the “popular tracks” section and they won’t be featured on compilations like the best-selling 1, but these 30 songs are treasures not to be overlooked.

So come on. Turn off your mind, relax, and float down stream. Click the link here or listen below.

 
Related post: My Insane Devotion to Vocal Harmonies as Used by the Beatles

Spiritualized – “So Long You Pretty Thing” / The Joy of Big, Soaring Choruses


I hadn’t heard of Spiritualized until this week when they released their latest album, entitled Huh?. No joke. entitled Sweet Heart, Sweet Light (Good catch, shortstack, my mistake). I’m usually wary of albums chock-full of 7-minute songs, but the whole thing was a delightful listen, echoing the Velvet Underground at their most accessible. The last track, “So Long You Pretty Thing,” just killed me. I love it. That’s what a big, repetitive, catchy, soaring chorus will do to you. Especially when they go on for a while and fade out at the end of the song. Other notable examples include:

  1. Elbow’s “One Day Like This” (Chorus starts at 3:21)
  2. Pitchfork’s #1 song of 2010, “Round and Round” by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti (at 3:47)
  3. The popular choice, “Hey Jude” by the Beatles

I kind of wish the first minute of the song was chopped off, but oh well. From 1:00 onward, it just builds and builds on the same chords (with great use of strings and a banjo) until the chorus bursts open at 4:17. Check it out.

My Insane Devotion to Vocal Harmonies as Used by the Beatles


(Photo Credit: The Telegraph)

I have an irrational love for vocal harmonies. An absurd love, really. When two or three human voices mesh to create chords, that is the epitome of beauty and purity to me — I’m serious. I maintain that this is the greatest moment in music, even though I’ve been laughed at for saying so.

The Beach Boys were probably the best in the business when it comes to harmonies, but in many cases, the Beatles were just as amazing. Well, not Ringo really. Sorry Ringo. A huge factor in their signature sound was John Lennon and Paul McCartney singing together in harmony, with George Harrison occasionally getting in on the action to add a third part. Those three could blend their voices in spectacular fashion, but they also had the songwriting chops to put that ability on full display.

I decided to come up with the 10 songs that best capture the Beatles’ harmonizing. To be clear, these rankings are based specifically on the role that the vocal harmonies play in the songs. The criteria include, but are not limited to: the ease at which John, Paul, and (usually) George’s voices blend; the nuance and complexity of the vocal lines, as well as the group’s ability to execute them; the difference that the harmonies make in augmenting and improving the song; and the overall goosebump-causing, “this-is-incredible” factor. Sounds like an intense rating system, but let’s be honest, I mostly just focused on the goosebump-causing one.

(Related: “50 Years of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ the Greatest Pop Song Ever”)

Quick Honorable Mentions go out to “Paperback Writer”, for its opening 6 seconds of harmonic joy, and “Baby’s in Black”, for its solid John/Paul two-part harmony. And now, on to the top 10!

10. In My Life | Rubber Soul (1965)
This selection may not be as readily obvious as some of the other choices on this list, since this Lennon masterpiece isn’t really known for its harmonies, but listen for those subtle vocal touches. They make an incredible song even better.

 
9. Ask Me Why | Please Please Me (1963)
“I love you-woo-woo-woo-woo.” This Please Please Me deep cut is proof that even in the beginning, the boys were perfectly in sync.

 
8. Sun King | Abbey Road (1969)
The Beatles were throwing around random Spanish words long before Troy and Abed (with some Italian and Portuguese for good measure). John said, “We just started joking, you know, singing ‘cuando para mucho.’ Paul knew a few Spanish words from school, you know. So we just strung any Spanish words that sounded vaguely like something.” And their harmonies while doing it are incredible, as per usual.

 
7. Nowhere Man | Rubber Soul (1965)
The a capella opening to “Nowhere Man” is so striking! I love it.

 

6. If I Needed Someone | Rubber Soul (1965)
I have stated that “It’s All Too Much” is the Beatles’ most underrated song. Well, “If I Needed Someone,” another George composition, comes in a close second as far as under-appreciated songs are concerned. The whole thing is great, but it attains an even higher level when they get their second wind after the bridge at 1:22. They get in a zone and really lock into Ringo’s steady drumming.

 
5. And Your Bird Can Sing | Revolver (1966)
This is my sister’s favorite Beatles song, and I have no arguments here. You can hear the joy emanating from every line.

 
And, as a bonus, here’s a take of John and Paul messing around while trying to record the song.

 
4. This Boy | Past Masters, Volume 1 (1963)
When “This Boy” was released, that was the moment when the Beatles entered the harmony big leagues. This was the first manifestation that John, Paul, and George could really pull it off. And by the way, John doesn’t do too badly singing the chorus by himself.

 
3. If I Fell | A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Two heads are better than one. Three-part harmonies are better two. That’s just how it is — usually. However, “If I Fell” — with just two parts — is amazing enough to hang up here with the three-parters and land in the top 3! This is Lennon and McCartney doing what absolutely they do best.

 
2. Yes It Is | Past Masters, Volume 1 (1965)
“Yes It Is” was so close to being #1. The intricacy and nuance of the three vocal parts, with all its gorgeous dissonance, is incredibly compelling. This is one of those instances where the harmonies augment and improve a song immensely, as per my previously mentioned criteria. John actaully insisted that “Yes It Is” was crap, saying that he tried to rewrite “This Boy” only to have it turn out badly, but he was just plain wrong. Not only does “Yes It Is” show, on a purely technical level, the complex chords swirling around John’s head, but it is also succeeds at being heartbreaking and amazingly beautiful.

 
1. Because | Abbey Road (1969)
That goosebump-causing, “this-is-incredible” factor I was talking about? Check. Times a million. Really, how could anything beat “Because?” John, Paul, and George all recorded each of the three vocal parts and put them all together, effectively creating nine voices, but you wouldn’t believe it based on how well they execute it. The way their voices blend together is stunning, capitalizing on their years of growing familiarity with each other. As a prominent cut on the Beatles’ calling card Abbey Road, it showed John, Paul, and George putting aside their differences (albeit briefly) and coming together one last time to blow our minds.

 
If you think that was good (or, on the contrary, if you’re not a big fan of that harpsichord), then listen to the version below. It’s just the vocals. I dare you to not be blown away. It’s even better than the original version.

 
I’m a sucker for harmonies and I’m a sucker for the Beatles. So when you combine the two… game over.

 
Related post: Float Down Stream: The Beatles are Now on Spotify!

The Most Underrated Beatles Song: “It’s All Too Much”

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Yellow Submarine was easily my favorite movie at the tender age of 6. Either that or Space Jam. One of my clearest memories from first grade was asking my teacher, Mrs. Moore, if she “had heard of John Lennon before,” which might as well have been rephrased as “Mrs. Moore, did you live under a rock your whole life?” But I was 6. And I really liked John’s mustache in the movie. Anyway, “It’s All Too Much” is a George Harrison composition that made it onto the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film soundtrack in 1969. It was the last song of the movie, making a perfect psychedelic sendoff for the whole affair. Due to the song’s placement on the Beatles’ often-disregarded Yellow Submarine soundtrack, it’s often forgotten, which is a shame. I think it’s one of their catchiest, and definitely one of George’s best. “All the world is birthday cake, so take a piece, but not too much.”