100 Greatest Beatles Songs

From 'Helter Skelter' to 'Sgt. Pepper's,' ranking of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison's output

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'Penny Lane'
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images32/100

32. 'Penny Lane'

Main Writer: McCartney
Recorded: December 29 and 30, 1966; January 4-6, 9, 10, 12 and 17, 1967
Released: February 13, 1967
10 weeks; no. 1

"Penny Lane" was Paul McCartney's ode to the Liverpool he knew as a child, but the song also had a hidden inspiration: His white-hot competitive streak. "The song was generated by a kind of 'I can do just as well as you can, John,' because we'd just recorded 'Strawberry Fields,'" said George Martin. "It was such a knockout, I think Paul went back to perfect his idea. And they were both significant. They were both about their childhood." The songs would be released together — opposite sides of the first single from the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band sessions.

Many of the lyrics come straight from McCartney's adolescence. Penny Lane is a Liverpool neighborhood where Lennon lived as a child and also the name of a bus depot McCartney would pass through on the way to Lennon's house. A barbershop in the area, Bioletti's, displayed pictures of different haircuts it offered — hence the lines "There is a barber showing photographs/Of every head he's had the pleasure to know." As McCartney put it, "The song is part fact, part nostalgia for a place which is a great place — blue suburban skies as we remember it."

"Penny Lane" was striking not just for McCartney's gorgeous melody but also for its complex arrangements. The Beatles "were avidly hungry for new sounds," Martin said. With McCartney playing three piano parts, bass, harmonium and tambourine; his bandmates playing more piano, guitar, drums and a hand bell; and several horn sections, "Penny Lane" built a detailed wall of sound that achieved the force of a rock song without sounding anything like one.

The recording's crowning touch was inspired by a televised performance of J.S. Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 2" that McCartney saw after the basic track for "Penny Lane" had been recorded. He arranged for the trumpet player he'd heard on the broadcast, David Mason, to come in and add a piccolo trumpet solo (as well as a brief coda, which appeared only on early promotional copies).

Besides giving the Beatles a chart-topping hit, "Penny Lane" gave Lennon's old neighborhood a boost as well: The Penny Lane area became a significant tourist attraction, and Beatles fans quickly went about pilfering its street signs.

Appears On: Magical Mystery Tour

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