When George Martin marked his 41st birthday on January 3, 1967, he was standing on the precipice of a vastly new and different era as the Beatles’ producer.
With the triumphs of Rubber Soul and Revolver having considerably widened the Beatles’ demographic from youth culture to fans of all ages, the man who had brought Parlophone back from the brink of obsolescence had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. He had crawled out from behind EMI’s shadow and made a name for himself in the wide world of pop music and Western culture. And Martin had done so with a beat music band of his own—with a group of Liverpool musicians upon whom the rest of the industry had turned its back. He had piloted them beyond their modest Mersey sound origins into something that none of them could have even reasonably imagined.
Yes, they had come a long way from the simple, bluesy sound of “Love Me Do” and eclipsed George’s expectations many times over. With each passing session—from Please Please Me through Revolver—they had marched into the studio, brimming with new and often breathtaking compositions, and unveiled a seemingly endless array of musical riches in the friendly confines of Studio 2. And to think that by January 1967 they were still only just getting started.
On January 4, 1967, George and the Beatles were back in the studio for the first time during that incredible year. With John’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” having been waiting in a state of completion since December 21st, George and the band mates turned their attention to Paul’s “Penny Lane,” the composition slated to accompany “Strawberry Fields Forever” as the Beatles’ upcoming singles release in February.
For Martin, “Strawberry Fields Forever” had been nothing short of a revelation. “It was absolutely lovely,” he later recalled. “I was spellbound. I was in love.” By the time that the new year had rolled around, though, the Beatles’ producer was experiencing the twin pressures from the Beatles’ manager and EMI for new product as soon as possible. After all, the most recent Beatles release had been the Revolver long-player back in early August. As George later remembered, “Brian Epstein wanted a single and he was genuinely frightened that the Beatles were slipping. He wanted another single out that was going to be a blockbuster, and so I put together ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ and said to him, ‘If this isn’t going to be a blockbuster, then nothing is!’”
But George and the Beatles’ efforts on “Penny Lane” were suddenly halted on January 5, 1967, while Lennon and McCartney attended to “Carnival of Light,” an avant-garde recording that had been invited for presentation by the organizers of The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, an art festival comprising electronic music and light shows that were slated to be debuted on January 28th, at London’s Roundhouse Theatre. The result was some 14 minutes of electronic noise. According to Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, “Track one of the tape was full of distorted, hypnotic drum and organ sounds; track two had a distorted lead guitar; track three had the sounds of a church organ, various effects (the gargling of water was one) and voices; track four featured various indescribable sound effects with heaps of tape echo and manic tambourine.” As sound engineer Geoff Emerick later recalled, “When they had finished, George Martin said to me, ‘This is ridiculous, we’ve got to get our teeth into something more constructive.’”
On January 6th, the George and the Beatles returned to work on “Penny Lane,” with Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison providing a guide vocal by scat singing during the bars where additional musical accompaniment—including four flutes, two piccolos, two trumpets, and a Flügelhorn—was overdubbed later. The next evening, a set of orchestral chimes was added to the mix, with a tubular bell being rung whenever the song referenced the fireman or his fire engine—his “clean machine.” Studio musicians complemented the accompaniment from the January 6 session with two trumpets, two oboes, two cor anglais (English horns), and a double-bass.
The Beatles finally completed “Penny Lane” during a whirlwind session on January 19. A few days earlier, McCartney had seen musician David Mason playing the trumpet on Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major for the BBC program Masterworks. A member of the New Philharmonia Orchestra, Mason was summarily recruited to play the piccolo trumpet solo on “Penny Lane.” In his typical breakneck fashion, George dutifully scored a trumpet chart for Mason, who performed an exquisite solo, brimming with pomp and nostalgia, for the ages.
Upon its release in February 1967, the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” single was a smash hit from the newfangled, psychedelically-tinged Beatles. Over the years, the songs have enjoyed numerous accolades. In addition to being inducted into the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Grammy Hall of Fame, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were included by Rolling Stone in the magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 2010, Rolling Stone ranked “Strawberry Fields Forever” as No. 3 and ranked “Penny Lane” as No. 32 on the magazine’s list of The Beatles’ 100 Greatest Songs.
Yet for all of the single’s multitudinous honors, it holds a rather dubious place in the annals of the UK record charts. Indeed, after the Beatles’ incredible 11 consecutive No. 1 singles in the United Kingdom, “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” failed to capture the top spot—likely because of the runaway success of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me.” Beatles scholars also attribute the record’s near-miss to its double A-side status. In the United States, the Beatles’ latest single briefly topped the charts for a week before being displaced by the Turtles’ “Happy Together.”
But for George, the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” single existed in an aesthetic space well outside of the hit parade, making for a singular achievement all its own. It was quite simply, in George’s words, “the best record we ever made.”
Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. His latest book, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966), is forthcoming in 2017. His previous Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com.