Strawberry Fields Forever
is a Beatles
song credited to John Lennon
and Paul McCartney
but solely written by Lennon.
After the Beatles' last ever gig, in 1966 at Candlestick Park, the band members seemed desperate to find something to occupy them. While George Harrison learned sitar and Paul McCartney composed the score to The Family Way, Lennon was appearing as Musketeer Gripweed in Richard Lester's film How I Won The War, filmed in Almeria, Spain.
While the film initially interested Lennon, he rapidly bored of the experience, his low attention-span meaning he needed constant stimulation. He fell into a funk, and spent the entire time fiddling with a single song, the song that became Strawberry Fields.
The song is clearly the work of a lonely man - Lennon was away from his friends (other than Ringo Starr and Neil Aspinall, who visited during part of his time in Spain) and his marriage was breaking up. While the line "No-one I think is in my tree" has always been interpreted as talking of the isolation of the artist, it's also quite clearly the work of a very lonely man, who feels isolated from the people who have been supporting him all his adult life, and who has no idea where his future is leading.
In this environment, as he always did in times of stress, Lennon seems to have turned his mind back to a highly-mythologised version of his childhood. The Strawberry Fields of the title refers to a Salvation Army children's home near where Lennon grew up, and the whole song speaks of a longing for childhood innocence and naivete ("Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see") and the stress of growing up ("it's getting hard to be someone"). The very syntax of the lyrics speaks for Lennon's mental state - "always, no, sometimes think it's me, but you know I know and it's a dream" , "I think I know, I mean, ah yes but it's all wrong, that is I think I disagree". This was not long after Lennon claimed to have experienced 'ego death' while on LSD, and this is obviously the work of a man who is still profoundly unsure who he is and where he is.
The music serves only to reinforce this. The melody is even more 'horizontal' than most of Lennon's melodies, obsessively returning to the same few notes, while it's right at the top of his range, forcing him to sing in a thin, childlike voice. Meanwhile, the fact that the normally expected V-I resolutions never occur, being replaced with V-IV-I transitions, while probably a device taken from the blues (this is the normal mode of resolution in a 12-bar blues), nonetheless seems to suggest a profound insecurity about where 'home' really is.
The song was first demoed by Lennon on just guitar, between September and November 1966, and George Martin still claims that these simple guitar and vocal demos should have been the version released, but Lennon wanted something more complex. One of these demos later was released on the Anthology 2 set.
The first full-band attempt at recording the track was recorded on November 24. Just a simple arrangement, this starts out with Lennon's vocal sung over Paul McCartney's mellotron line, which would later become the introduction to the song. The mellotron then drops out, to be replaced by picked/strummed guitar, bass, and a very simple drum line. On the first chorus a slide guitar played by Harrison enters in, just playing very, very simple swoops on the choruses, and then at the end the song fades with arpeggiated guitar and the return of the mellotron. It's a stunningly beautiful, effective track, also released on the Anthology set. At this point the structure of the song is different - the 'let me take you down' chorus doesn't come in until after the second verse (likewise on the demos the first verse wasn't "Living is easy with eyes closed" but rather "no-one I think is in my tree").
This version of the track was left, and a newer, 'heavier' arrangement was worked on on the 28th and 29th of November. Starting with McCartney's intro on the mellotron (on a flute setting), this featured two electric guitars, one arpeggiated and the other more staccato, the slide part from the first take, mellotron throughout, and a 'bubbling' bass part and more complex drum part. This was also the first version that opened with the intro and chorus, rather than a verse - a change suggested by McCartney. Take 7, a very oppressive sounding take, was marked as the final version (this take, with an edit piece on the end, was also released on Anthology 2)
Incidentally, I think I may be the first person to note this, but the rhythm of the first few notes of the intro sounds exactly like the BBC time pips, to my ears at least.
On 8th December, a complete remake was attempted, a much lighter, faster version, featuring cellos, horns, swordmandel and backwards cymbals. Lennon eventually decided he wanted the first half of take 7 from the earlier sessions and the last half of take 26 from this session, something that should have been impossible under normal circumstances, as the two tracks were recorded in different keys (A and B) and different tempos. However, luckily, the difference in tempo matched the difference in key almost exactly, so by speeding the first half and slowing the second half, a full version in B-flat could be spliced together at the 55 second mark.
The other major notable feature of this track is the ending. The recording of the basic track had degenerated into a bit of a free-form jam after the band recorded what they assumed was the fade. George Martin mixed a tiny bit of this up after the song proper faded, including Lennon's shouts of 'cranberry sauce'. Misheard as 'I buried Paul', this gave ammunition a couple of years later to the 'Paul is dead' conspiracy theorists, but this false-fade is probably more interesting as a forerunner to the hidden tracks of the CD era.
Strawberry Fields Forever, backed with McCartney's Penny Lane, was released as a double-A-side single, and only got to number 2 in the UK, the first Beatles single not to reach number 1 since 1962's Love Me Do, being kept off the top spot by Release Me by Englebert Humperdinck. It was not included on an official British album, but was included on the US version of the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack, and is available on that CD, as well as on the compilation The Beatles: 1967-1970. The Beatles never performed the song live, and nor did Lennon as a solo act, but McCartney included it in his Lennon tribute medley on his 1989 tour.