Favorite musical memories from years gone by
by Randal Hill
In November 1966, the Beatles met at London’s Abbey Road Studios to begin work on an untitled album about their Liverpool childhoods. The first two songs recorded were Paul McCartney’s Penny Lane and John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever. However, when producer George Martin released both tunes as the Beatles’ next single, the album concept was scrapped. The band’s recordings — drug-fueled, mind-bending experiments — continued but without a focus.
Penny Lane was named for an infamous Liverpool slave trader named James Penny.
The area (not one particular street) was an ordinary, some would say dull, suburban Liverpool district where the young Lennon had once lived with his mother and often-absent father.
The Penny Lane roundabout (bus shelter) was where McCartney often changed coaches
on his route from his Allerton suburb home to downtown Liverpool. Later, he and Lennon
would sometimes meet in Penny Lane on their way downtown or to a music gig.
McCartney brought the area to life with snapshot-like images that could have been
gleaned from a children’s picture book.
Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway
In Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer
We see the banker sitting waiting for a trim
And then the fireman rushes in
From the pouring rain, very strange
McCartney wrote the song in two-hour bursts on a small upright piano he had painted
in a rainbow of psychedelic colors. Some of his more bizarre Penny Lane scenes were fictionalized psychedelic images.
He elaborated in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits: “It’s part fact, part nostalgia
for a place which is a great place, blue suburban skies as we remember it, and it’s still there.”
And the lyrics weren’t entirely his. “John came over and helped me with the third verse,
as was often the case,” McCartney admitted in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All
Time. “We were writing recently faded memories from eight or ten years before.”
Today Penny Lane is a popular Liverpool tourist destination with few changes having
being made since the 1960s except for the street signs. So many were stolen after the song became a worldwide hit that replacements had to be screwed onto walls.
Many music critics have since labeled Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever as the
greatest Beatle 45 ever.
As for the Beatles’ original album concept that was scrapped? The recordings that followed
eventually emerged into the album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,
hailed by many music lovers as rock’s defining artistic moment.
Randal C. Hill, a former disc jockey, English teacher, record collector and author, confesses to being hopelessly stuck in the past when it comes to music appreciation. He lives on the Oregon coast and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.