Sunday, November 26, 2017

In Penny Lane a Barber Shaves Another Customer - Hits of '67

Maybe you've heard this before. In August 1966, the Beatles permanently retired from touring and began a three-month holiday from recording, done and done. Then, during a return flight to London in November, Paul McCartney had an idea for a song involving an Edwardian-era military band that would eventually form the impetus of the Sgt. Pepper concept. Sessions for what was to become The Beatles' eighth studio album began on November 24th in Abbey Road Studio Two with two compositions inspired from Lennon and McCartney's youth, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane." The Pepper sessions had begun, but after pressure from EMI, the songs were released as a double A-sided single and were not included on the album. Like The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," released a few months earlier, "Penny Lane" kicks off with a vocal, skipping any kind of introduction. McCartney narrates the scene around Penny Lane, a bustling street in Liverpool, with a wonderful, rolling melody over steady piano chords. George Martin provides a score of brass and woodwinds to help conjure up the scene while Lennon and Harrison contribute background harmonies. McCartney said, "I'd get a bus to his [Lennon's] house and I'd have to change at Penny lane, or the same with him to me, so we often hung out at that terminus." 

McCartney pulls off a difficult songwriting feat by placing the verses and the choruses in neighboring keys (the verses are in B and the choruses are in A). At the end of the song, McCartney includes a key change so that the final chorus is in B, bringing the song full circle. Yet, it’s in the verse that McCartney injects a magical chord that helps make "Penny Lane" a case study in songwriting.

The lyrics, as well, were the subject of critical analysis. In late '67 the album was the subject of a scholarly inquiry by American literary critic and professor of English, Richard Poirier, who observed that his students were "listening to the group's music with a degree of engagement that he, as a teacher of literature, could only envy". Poirier identified what he termed its "mixed allusiveness": "It's unwise ever to assume that they're doing only one thing or expressing themselves in only one style ... one kind of feeling about a subject isn't enough ... any single induced feeling must often exist within the context of seemingly contradictory alternatives." Paul said at the time: "We write songs. We know what we mean by them. But in a week someone else says something about it, and you can't deny it. ... You put your own meaning at your own level to our songs." 

A unique work of British psychedelia, Sgt. Pepper, and Magical Mystery Tour, on which "Penny Lane" would appear, incorporates a range of stylistic influences, including vaudeville, circus, music hall, avant-garde, and Western and Indian classical music. During the recording sessions, the band furthered the technological progression they had made with their 1966 album Revolver. Knowing they would not have to perform the tracks live, they adopted an experimental approach to composition and recording on songs such as "With a Little Help from My Friends", "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "A Day in the Life". Producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick's innovative recording of the album included the liberal application of sound shaping signal processing and the use of a 40-piece orchestra performing aleatoric crescendos. Recording was completed on 21 April 1967. One would think that at point, particularly following the extensive work put into Pepper, that The Beatles would take a well-deserved hiatus. Said hiatus lasted all of four days, with the fist day of Magical Mystery studio sessions beginning April 25th. 

On release, Sgt. Pepper was lauded by the vast majority of critics for its innovations in music production, songwriting and graphic design, for bridging a cultural divide between popular music and legitimate art, and for providing a musical representation of its generation and the contemporary counterculture. It won four Grammy Awards in 1968, including Album of the Year, the first rock LP to receive this honor. And it all started with a barber on Penny Lane.