"Strawberry Fields Forever" represents one of the most daunting achievements of the Beatles' career, and a landmark in 20th-century music as a whole, but what if someone was to say there exists a "Strawberry Fields" recording that surpasses the single released in February 1967? A fatuous claim? Or a gateway to the most revealing of all Beatles recordings?
John Lennon, the song's author, esteemed "Strawberry Fields Forever" in a way he did few of his own compositions.
"It's real, you know," he remarked in 1970. "It's about me, and I don't know anything else really. The only true songs I ever wrote were 'Help!' and 'Strawberry Fields Forever.'"
The writing of the latter commenced in September 1966 while Lennon was in Spain for the filming of Richard Lester's How I Won the War. The Beatles may have sensed they had reached a middle-aged point of their career, hence an impetus to look back to childhood, as Lennon now was, Strawberry Fields itself being the Salvation Army children's home where he'd play as a boy, despite his Aunt Mimi's warnings that the grounds were dangerous.
Lennon, ever a collector of found sounds, was now finding himself in song, and elected to document the process, beginning with those early demos he made in Spain on a portable recorder.
The song is skeletal at this point, less of a ballad and more of a breath of gossamer-like minor keys.
There's an intimacy rarely glimpsed in the Beatles' world, with Lennon sounding both unsure of himself, and at his ease, like he's comfortable trusting, in this instance, at least, a compositional process that all will eventually be revealed.
The crucial "No one I think is in my tree" line is not present, with the rather unwieldy "There's no one on my wavelength" boast standing in for it, but he has that odd, syntactical stutter-step style of speaking already well established with "That is you can't, you know, tune in but it's all right/I mean it's not too bad."
Lennon tended to write swiftly, even if he wrote just one line a day, as he did with "I Am the Walrus." Songs wouldn't gestate over months, but "Strawberry Fields" was different, the work that mirrored Lennon's own blend of self-doubt and self-assurance.
"I was different all my life," he said in 1980. "The second verse goes, 'No one I think is in my tree.' Well, I was too shy and self-doubting. Nobody seems to be as hip as me is what I'm saying. Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius – I mean it must be high or low.'"
Indeed. The charting of a genius' inner workings in song form continued back at Lennon's mansion in Kenwood, where he added to the song through the first several weeks of November.
This is Lennon up late at night, sometimes stoned, the sound of a man giving in to his internal processes, the pull of childhood, the call of Liverpudlian muses.
Again, he's always relaxed, muttering jokes to himself sotto voce when he hits the wrong chord, singing a given section repeatedly, words turning into humming sounds when he can't figure out the words that should come next. He likes the idea of starting the song with the "No one I think is in my tree" line but eventually tucks it further back into the piece.
But if you're a Beatles fan, or just someone with a bent for witnessing epiphanic moments, little tops the joy to be sourced from hearing that moment when Lennon's latest holding pattern hums cease and give way to the crucial line: "Let me take you down ..."
Boom, he has it, and we're getting a little closer to making a kind of history.
Next up was to bring in the rest of the band and producer George Martin, which occurred at Abbey Road's Studio Two, 50 years ago on November 24th. Engineer Geoff Emerick remembered Lennon's new offering as a "great, great song" when Lennon premiered it on acoustic guitar, sitting on a high stool, for those who would help him shepherd it into final form.
The bootleg It's Not Too Bad, which runs to almost an hour, compiles what we have of the "Strawberry Fields" recording process, from Spain to Kenwood to London, and it's the package you need to properly hear the first full studio take of the song. For some maddening reason, Paul McCartney and George Harrison's exquisite backing vocals were scrubbed from the version of the first take released on the second Anthology in 1996.
One can easily love "Strawberry Fields" in the version it ultimately became famous for, and prefer this earlier take. Lennon sings it even better, for starters, with the sense that he's opening himself up to his mates in a manner maybe one doesn't think to for the masses. Or maybe doesn't first think to.
The instrumental underpinning has the quality of a blues from on high, something seraphic crossed with a slowed-down Jimmy Reed beat.
You almost wonder if the Beatles would have had the balls to release this version if Lennon wanted it. Could it have been a hit? It's so personal, a rumination on the very nature of genius, of delving inside one's self so that others might discover new bits in themselves, sans a big, meaty hook, the chorus to sing along to.
But we'll never know, because Lennon wasn't satisfied. A different arrangement was attempted four days later, which is also heard on the It's Not Too Bad bootleg. Then a third arrangement followed, which was much heavier, with Ringo Starr starting to figure out the orchestral approach to drumming that would mark the final version, and Harrison stepping up his guitar efforts, finding the tone and filigree that would add so much texture to the classic single.
This was a version approaching proto-metal. Lennon couldn't decide if he wanted to go the ethereal route, or the stomping one, and famously told George Martin to combine the two versions. This was less than practical.
"Well, there are two things against it," Martin informed Lennon. "One is that they're in different keys. The other is that they're in different tempos."
But for a man who had started his most personal, honest musical journey, within the parameters of a single song, back in Spain, this was merely part of the process.
"You can fix it, George," Lennon concluded, and that was that, with Martin now tasked with finding a solution to a problem that seemingly violated the laws of musical physics.
Any Beatles fan knows that this was achieved by slowing down one version and speeding up the other, the keys got within at least shouting distance of each other, meaning that only a musicologist, really, would know that there was that much of a difference.
And so, one of the finest Beatles songs, which so many people associate with Lennon, but which required so much of his bandmates – that would be Paul McCartney on the song's signature Mellotron, by the way – and his recording team was completed.
But wouldn't you know: Lennon himself was never fully satisfied with the final product, thinking maybe he'd take another pass at some point in life, though he never did. Probably because the journey back to Strawberry Fields, and the journey to "Strawberry Fields" that began in Spain, was the real sound he was chasing.