Saturday, June 3, 2017

Strawberry Fields

On November 24, 1966,  The  Beatles rolled into Abbey Road and began recording their eighth LP. They'd had enough touring, churning out hits to shrieking girls who couldn't tell what song they were playing, unable to hear themselves. Spurred on by their experiments in sound on Revolver, the new album would comprise songs that could be performed only in the studio. At this point in their career, and unprecedentedly, they had unlimited use of the studio and no limit to the budget. The project, of course would morph into Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Paul McCartney's grandiose plan to send out a fictitious touring band in their place - on vinyl, instead of on the road.

The session kicked off, as did virtually all Beatle sessions, with a Lennon song. In Almeria in southern Spain he wrote "Strawberry Fields Forever." The song was titled after a Salvation Army children's home, Strawberry Field (he added the s), in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton. The Victorian edifice was a landmark from his boyhood and he had fond memories of attending the annual fĂȘte there with his Aunt Mimi.

In Abbey Road's Studio Two, Lennon strummed the somnolent, opening bars: "No one I think is in my tree..." Geoff Emerick, at only 19 years of age, was the Beatles' sound engineer. His inventive and nimble fingers had spliced tape and nudged faders alongside the steady hand of the producer George Martin on Revolver and would do so on most of The Beatles' subsequent recordings. "It was just a great, great song, that was apparent from the first time John sang it for all of us, playing an acoustic guitar," Emerick says. "Everyone was fired up and full of creative ideas after the break. Most exciting was the idea that, freed from the rigours of touring, they no longer had to worry about having to play the new material live, so we literally could take the song in any direction."

There was just one hitch to the initial recordings: "John had been listening to his acetate of 'Strawberry Fields'... and he decided he didn't like it," recalled Emerick. It needed to be "heavier."

Said George Martin, "That November John came into the studio, and we went into our regular routine. I sat on my high stool with Paul standing beside me, and John stood in front of us with his acoustic guitar and sang the song. It was absolutely lovely. Then we tried it with Ringo on drums, and Paul and George on their bass and electric guitars. It started to get heavy - it wasn't the gentle song that I had first heard. We ended up with a record which was very good heavy rock. Still, that was apparently what John wanted, so I metaphorically shrugged my shoulders and said: 'Well, that really wasn't what I'd thought of, but it's OK.' And off John went.

"A week later [November 28, 1966] he came back and said: 'I've been thinking about it, too, George. Maybe what we did was wrong. I think we ought to have another go at doing it. Up to that time we had never remade anything. We reckoned that if it didn't work out first time, we shouldn't do it again. But this time we did. 'Maybe we should do it differently,' said John. 'I'd like you to score something for it. Maybe we should have a bit of strings, or brass or something.' Between us we worked out that I should write for cellos and trumpets, together with the group. When I had finished we recorded it again, and I felt that this time it was much better. Off went John again.

"A few days later he rang me up and said: 'I like that one, I really do. But, you know, the other one's got something too,'

"'Yes, I know,' I said, 'they're both good. But aren't we starting to split hairs?'

"Perhaps I shouldn't have used the word 'split', because John's reply was: 'I like the beginning of the first one, and I like the end of the second one. Why don't we just join them together?'

"'Well, there are only two things against it,' I said. 'One is that they're in different keys. The other is that they're in different tempos.'

"'Yeah, but you can do something about it, I know. You can fix it, George.'"

As December drew to a close, the final master of the song was made. They worked late into the evening, as Emerick, Lennon and McCartney skilfully edited the tapes together. Such close collaboration, says Emerick, was unusual. "In general, Paul and John didn't watch over my shoulder; they trusted George Martin and me to translate their ideas into reality. For the most part, they stayed in the studio working on the music and we stayed up in the control room working on the sounds." Emerick discovered that by speeding up the playback of the first take and slowing down that of the second, he could match them in both pitch and tempo. The join was made exactly one minute in. "George [Martin] and I decided to allow the second half to play all the way through at the slower speed," says Emerick. "Doing so gave John's voice a smoky, thick quality that complemented the psychedelic lyric and swirling instrumentation."

By the new year, EMI was demanding a single. With only three songs completed, the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, made his selection. Originally "Strawberry Fields Forever" was to be paired with "When I'm Sixty-Four", but fate - or Martin - intervened and it was diverted to seven-inch as a double A-side with "Penny Lane", in February 1967. Astonishingly, it was kept from the No. 1 spot by Engelbert Humperdinck's cabaret styled, "Release Me".

Dick Clark premiered the "Strawberry Fields" video on American Bandstand in March 1967. The audience reaction pinpointed a defined unease - not with what they heard but with what they saw: the kids were caught off guard by The Beatles' appearance.  Just about all their comments referred to the mustaches and brand of dress.  Nothing was mentioned about the innovative sound.  It was just a year prior to the "Summer of Love," when these same teens would most likely mirror the Beatles 'strange' look. 

It was on this day in 1967 that my brother came into my room where undoubtedly The Monkees' "She" was blasting from my Voice of America phonograph. My mother wouldn't let him play 45s on the living room console. He said, "Listen to this instead," and he put on "Strawberry Fields." I was five years old and it blew my little brain (though when he left, I flipped it over to "Penny Lane" and listened to it a thousand times).

Recorded: 24, 28-29 November; 8-9, 15, 21-22 December 1966
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Geoff Emerick
Released: 17 February 1967 (UK), 13 February 1967 (US)
John Lennon: vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, bongos, Mellotron
Paul McCartney: Mellotron, bass, electric guitar, timpani, bongos
George Harrison: electric guitar, svarmandal, timpani, maracas
Ringo Starr: drums, percussion
Mal Evans: tambourine
Neil Aspinall: guiro
Terry Doran: maracas
Tony Fisher, Greg Bowen, Derek Watkins, Stanley Roderick: trumpets
John Hall, Derek Simpson, Norman Jones: cellos