Let Me Take You Down…
Song: Strawberry Fields Forever
Artist: The Beatles
Release date: 17th February 1967
50 or so years on, there’s nothing new to say about The Beatles. It’s all been said and it’s all been heard. For years the bootlegs kept the fanatics active and poorer than they could have been before Apple realised that there was the scope and opportunity to take everybody’s money once again, and again. The Anthology releases ripped back the curtain with vigour and books like Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald took you through every song, every day. There’s nothing new to say about The Beatles.
And yet the talk doesn’t stop.
And with songs like Strawberry Fields Forever, why should it?
The Beatles were off the road, coming to terms with death threats and public demonstrations against them, facing a battle with their peers climbing sonic mountains and wondering how to make the most of the freedom, both in time and financially, their previous successes had delivered to them.
It would be natural for doubt to creep in, especially with the ever expanding array of chemicals being explored and enjoyed by the group, but the doubt was channelled in the most appropriate way. Strawberry Fields wasn’t the first cry for assistance or attention from John Lennon, nor was it the most overt (feel free to shout Help! at any point) but the stuttering doubt or uncertainty in Lennon’s mind was all over the record.
Volleying from thinking that he had no peers in one line to dismantling that claim and musing whether that’s a good or bad stance before the next chorus kicks in is a breathless manoeuvre. In hindsight, when you consider everything Lennon was going through in that year, you can hardly blame him for the stuttering breakdowns and resignation found on the initial demo takes of the song.
No matter what you think about The Beatles Anthology project, its merit was justified in the joining the dots process surrounding the song. In more recent times, Columbia and Dylan have shown us how to properly mine the archives, releasing every single note that Bob recorded during his 1965 and 1966 sessions but The Beatles Anthology was just enough to showcase the development of a song that would become legendary and ground-breaking.
This was psychedelia, the quaint and perfectly unique English psychedelia that was created from ’66 onwards. The sense of child-like wonder of the song chimes perfectly with The Pink Floyd’s skewed tales of quirky subversive life and the folk infused acid revelry of bands like Traffic or Family. It wasn’t the psychedelia that was being brewed in America, which was a sound laced with amphetamines and violence. For the Britain acts delving into this genre, it was restrained and delivered with the stereotypical stiff upper lip or distanced uncertainty.
The song is rightly regarded as John’s tour de force but there was a big part for all The Beatles to play. It’s yet another song where people who doubt the brilliance of Ringo should be forced to sit down with headphones and not be allowed to stop listening until they acknowledged how good the drummer could be. With McCartney on Mellotron and Harrison on the zither, this wasn’t the same band that blasted through 11 songs in Candlestick Park, San Francisco on 29th of August 1966. Less than three months after that gig, the Fab Four were back in the studio, free from the shackles of playing live and facing no restrictions in what they could create.
It’s also another track where George Martin, and engineer Geoff Emerick, did more than their fair share, perhaps even pulling the track together so much that they should have been included in the credits. Plenty of historians can pinpoint plenty of moments in 1967 where the cracks of The Beatles started to appear but this track, like so many recorded for and around the Sgt. Peppers sessions showcased a sense of unity and collective spirit that hauled the band to greater heights. Then you have the trumpets and cello underpinning and punctuating the track. As a studio band, the group were already light years ahead of their live act but that gulf was about to become a chasm.
For make no mistake, Strawberry Fields Forever is an example of the band at one of their highest peaks. Individual taste will see an argument made for virtually every era, sound or style but in Strawberry Fields Forever, they pushed an envelope that they had helped create, going further and bigger than could ever been imagined three short years ago.
And it didn’t even get to number one in the charts!
In some ways, you can see why. The Beatles were moving faster and further than a lot of their fan base were willing to go. Someone called it wrong, if the main aim was to keep the run of number one hits coming, Penny Lane should have been the main focus. Penny Lane is wonderful, it’s as much a sound of that era as the flip side, but McCartney, as he so often did, had that extra pop edge up his sleeve. (And yes, we’ll talk about Penny Lane later….a lovely girl, it must be said.)
It’s a phenomenal 1-2, a Double A-side which writes the book on what a Double A-side should be (or was that We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper), and while it was probably just too out there for the time, it’s majesty is still relevant today.
Which in a way teaches us another lesson….never underestimate the buying power of the grans or the story of ditching your current love because there’s someone you love more around the corner…infidelity being a far more commercial topic than self-analysis and ground-breaking instrumentals.
But the short-term failure doesn’t matter because it has a legacy larger than its initial chart placing. Rolling Stone listed it as the third best Beatles song of all time, Mojo made it number two. It also gets my personal seal of approval, a double McCartney thumbs-up. It was a song that inspired and influenced, and that will continue to be the case for many years to come.
Candy Flip were spot on with their cover version, keeping it fairly close to the original but dousing it liberally in the music of the time. It was a bridge between the old and the new, a gateway track that made it easier for people to travel back and forth between the eras. The group themselves never reaped the benefits of repositioning the old into the present day, as is so often the case with pioneers, but the gates were opened, even if it all came too late to provide the perfect connection the two summer of loves were crying out for.
It sounds strange to say it now but in the early 90s, it wasn’t really hip to like The Beatles. Okay, I was just starting secondary school so I was far removed from that sound and era but for the first couple of years, when an old-time band came into fashion, it was never The Beatles. The Doors were talked about for a spell because of the film and the drugs, Bob Marley was talked about for a spell, because of the drugs, mid to late 1970s Pink Floyd was discussed because of the drugs and the song Bob Dylan sung about how everybody must get stoned was a massive hit and I think that was down to a load of young kids clatching on to the subversive nature of the lyrics and feeling empathy with the alienation Dylan felt about being classed as the spokesperson for his generation and being made to carry the can for said generation’s failings…no wait, it was because of the drugs.
So, if you were an old band that talked about the drugs, you were a hit on the Southside of Glasgow…but The Beatles had been overlooked. A mate and I bonded over the Past Masters albums and whatever we gleaned from older siblings but there was genuinely a feeling that The Beatles were a band from a bygone era and only to be rolled out for nostalgia purposes.
Of course, by the time I left secondary school in 1996, The Beatles were hotter than the days in Bellahouston Park that summer. There had been a change in musical tastes and outlook and the new bands of the day were all doffing their caps to the genius of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
There was also a band from the mid to late 90’s that claimed to like The Beatles, I think they mentioned a fondness for the Fab Four once or twice. It was another ’67 cut that Oasis hitched their wagon to but here’s Noel and Gem covering Strawberry Fields Forever.
There’s also a Peter Gabriel cover version but the vocals are pretty strange at times, almost as if the singer is being strangled at certain points. There’s no confirmation about the recording process but I think we can agree that it’s Phil Collins doing the strangling…no doubt citing the fact that he was in A Hard Day’s Night and how Gabriel should leave The Beatles links to him.
It may have been number 2 in the charts but Strawberry Fields Forever in number 1 in the hearts and minds of those that matter.