Main Writer: Lennon
Recorded: November 24, 28 and 29, December 8, 9, 15, 21 and 22, 1966
Released: February 13, 1967
9 weeks; no. 8
John Lennon wrote "Strawberry Fields Forever" in September 1966 in Spain, where he was making the film How I Won the War. Alone, with no Beatles business for the first time in years, he found himself free to reach deep for inspiration, going back to childhood memories. As Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1968, "We were trying to write about Liverpool, and I just listed all the nice-sounding names arbitrarily. But I have visions of Strawberry Fields. . . . Because Strawberry Fields is just anywhere you want to go." Strawberry Field (Lennon added the "s") was a Liverpool children's home near where Lennon grew up with his Aunt Mimi. When he was young, Lennon, who had been abandoned by both his parents, would climb over the wall of the orphanage and play in its wild gardens.
"I was hip in kindergarten," Lennon explained in 1980. "I was different all my life. 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 was saying. Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius — 'I mean it must be high or low,' the next line. There was something wrong with me, I thought, because I seemed to see things other people didn't see."
After finishing the song on a Spanish beach, Lennon returned to England and played it for the rest of the band. As engineer Geoff Emerick recalled, "There was a moment of stunned silence, broken by Paul, who in a quiet, respectful tone said simply, 'That is absolutely brilliant.'" At that point, it was an acoustic-guitar ballad, reminiscent of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." But in the studio, it became a whole new thing, as the Beatles experimented with it for days. Having retired from touring earlier that year, they were free to record at their leisure, cutting dozens of takes in the next two weeks. McCartney composed the intro on a Mellotron, a primitive synthesizer.
Lennon wanted to keep the first part from one take (Take 26) and the second part from another, recorded the previous week (Take 7) — despite the fact that they were in different keys and tempos. Producer George Martin accomplished this by slightly speeding up one take and slowing down the other. The manipulation of time and key only added to the brooding, ghostly feeling of Lennon's vocals, giving the entire song an aura of surreal timelessness. The finished take ends with a fragment of a long jam session, in which Lennon says "cranberry sauce": Paul Is Dead freaks believed he was saying, "I buried Paul."
"Strawberry Fields" was the first track cut during the Sgt. Pepper sessions. The innovative studio techniques the Beatles employed recording it and McCartney's "Penny Lane," another childhood memory of a Liverpool landmark, heralded the band's new direction — as did the acid-inspired reverie in the lyrics of both songs. The tracks were to be centerpieces of the Beatles' greatest album, but under pressure by EMI to produce a new single (it had been six months since their last 45), they released both songs in February 1967 as a double A side. Martin later regretted the decision to remove the tracks from Sgt. Pepper as "the biggest mistake of my career."
Growing up "was scary because there was nobody to relate to," Lennon once said. Strawberry Field the place (which closed in 2005) represented those haunting childhood visions. With "Strawberry Fields" the song, he conquered them forever.
Appears On: Magical Mystery Tour