I remember once having a free pull-out poster with one of the rock newspapers in about 1976 (either the NME or Sounds) listing the best 100 singles of all time. The usual suspects were all there – ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, ‘Good Vibrations’ etc., and I was happy to see ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (a double A-side with ‘Penny Lane’) in the top ten (at #2). Taken aback to see Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ at number one (I’d expected another Beatles song), it reminded me of the time Englebert Humperdinck kept the Beatles from the top spot in the British charts in February 1967, with his detestable, oily ballad for the over 50’s, ‘Release Me’. Strawberry Fields Forever had, again in 1976, been prevented from its rightful place at no 1, this time in a journalist’s poll.
Here, to set the record straight is why ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is the best Beatles song ever. Firstly, the reason I like it so much is that, in a nutshell, it has everything – no other Beatle song had gone quite so far in its experimentation (a trend that had begun with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ from Revolver). No other Beatle song had matched feeling to form like this, for its outer structure is, ultimately, unsuited to the sleepy, confused, inner dialogue of its lyrics. No other song had spliced two different versions together to make an eerie hybrid such as this. Mark Lewisohn, in the Complete Beatles Chronicle, says that ‘it remains one of the greatest pop songs of all time,’ and yet he’s only half right – for it is the greatest pop song of all time.
The inspiration for the song is Strawberry Field (the ‘s’ was added by John), a Salvation Army orphanage not far from where Lennon was raised by his Aunt Mimi on the dual carriageway that is Menlove Avenue, Liverpool. He would play in its capacious grounds with childhood companions, that is, when he wasn’t there for the summer fêtes, dragging Mimi along to the annual garden party. ‘There was always something about the place that fascinated John,’ she recalled. Indeed, this is why Strawberry Fields Forever became one of his most cherished songs – it was a link to the real Lennon. (Plus, many years after its release, he wondered if he shouldn’t record it again ‘properly’!)
As Albert Goldman opined in his controversial late eighties biography, The Lives of John Lennon: ‘Strawberry Field wasn’t just Lennon’s playground, it was his spiritual home. For the drifting, groping, marginally depressed mood in which he spent much of his life was the product of his early orphaning.’ The actual, tangible Strawberry Field thus turns into the mythical, Strawberry Fields, the last resting place, a spiritual abode like the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology.
The promo film for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was shot at Knole Park, Sevenoaks, Kent on Jan. 30, 1967, in the grounds of the eponymous historic house. Shot by the avant-garde, Swedish TV director Peter Goldman, it appropriately captures the dream-filled, hallucinogenic landscape of its author’s mind. The resulting video even contains the tree motif of the lyric, the thing around which all of the action (such as it is) takes place. (With the piano’s innards surreally reaching into its branches.) Synchronicity plays a part here, too, since the afterlife/eternal rest motif of Strawberry Fields connects to the symbolism of the tree in myth – associated with death and the sacrifice of the hero. (I could also mention the anecdote that one day in 1969, at the height of the Beatles’ business problems with Apple, and presumably high on drugs, Lennon convened the other Beatles to inform them he was Jesus Christ.)
What really matters is that Lennon’s muse was working beautifully in late ’66, early ’67, and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ stands as the pinnacle of English psychedelia, whose golden years (either here or in America) were 1966-68. These recordings abound in ethereal visions, surreal lyrics, cryptic utterances, backward tape effects, false endings, and Lennon’s masterpiece faithfully ticks all of the boxes.
What characterises English ‘acid rock’ is that it’s a return to a child’s perspective on the world, where – returned to a secure, prelapsarian state – everything is larger than life, an endless multi-coloured fascination. Hence songs like ‘See Emily Play’ (Pink Floyd), ‘Hole In My Shoe’ and ‘House For Everyone’ (Traffic), ‘She Wandered Through the Garden Fence’ (Procol Harum), almost any Donovan track of the period, plus side two of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (Small Faces). These were songs in which adult problems are wished away by magical potions or cartoon insects, where bizarre visions transport one to the next dream scene, as if one had entered a hippy version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
That John was drifting back to childhood memories in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is also there in the ‘nothing to get hung about’ lyric, an allusion to when Mimi would scold him and threaten to ‘hang him’ if he misbehaved. In fact, the interior landscape of the song, its whole mood of uncertainty, with sentences left to hang unfinished in mid-air (like a sleepy conversation with oneself) is enhanced by the LSD he’d been ingesting at home in his Surrey stockbroker belt mansion. No wonder, then, we get the declaration that ‘nothing is real’ since so-called 3D reality takes on a more hazy tone under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.
Like the Shaman’s vision, one sees that reality is not solid, objective and monochrome, a matter of simple time and space. Instead, the world is malleable, protean. Subjective reality dominates and the perceptual border between ‘in here’ and ‘out there’ is blurred. The emphasis is less on spatial awareness and clock time, than it is on the intensity of experience – meaning, mood, colour and the Eternal Now. Indeed, like a dream, time as normally perceived disappears in this heightened state. These were the perceptions at work in the lyrics of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.
JOHN LENNON’S HOROSCOPE
I have analysed Lennon’s chart more fully here but Albert Goldman also referenced Lennon’s ‘saturnine’ personality, which – though his book is loaded with distortions and contempt for his subject – is a perceptive insight into Lennon’s psyche. Witness the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in the 1st house of the chart. The forward-looking, growth-oriented Jupiter was held in check and compressed by an earthy, narrow Saturnian perspective. It makes a person shift from one psychological extreme to another, from optimism to pessimism, from hope to despair and back again.
Once the Beatles rose to fame he didn’t have to worry about success or money, but as early as 1965 he was confessing to a journalist his boredom and general disenchantment with his lot, wondering when his ‘real’ life would begin. He felt he was really meant to be doing something else with his existence. This is a classic Jupiter-Saturn conflict – once he’d achieved his goal he found it didn’t satisfy, it wasn’t really enough for him. Saturn will force us to discover what is truly authentic in ourselves, and the Beatles (amazingly) weren’t quite doing it for him. The next ‘big thing’ had yet to arrive – Yoko Ono.
The genesis of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ came about at the time of a Saturn-Neptune opposition on Sept. 1966, during Lennon’s stay in Almeria Spain to film Richard Lester’s satire How I Won The War. Thoughts naturally turned to home, indeed, to his own past and Liverpool, in fact, this was to be the theme for the next twelve months of his creative life. Lennon’s solar return chart for 1966 (from Oct. 10) shows moon on the ascendant, square Neptune in the 4th house – a perfect signature of dreamy nostalgia, a hankering after the past and roots. It also underlies the lazily escapist verse opener for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’: ‘Living is easy with eyes closed’.
It was the Saturn-Neptune opposition that provided the ‘nothing is real’ basis that arose in the song lyrics. With this transit, one often has that feeling of not being able to tell fantasy from reality. Psychologically, when Saturn makes a harsh angle to natal Neptune, one exists in a kind of limbo; free-floating anxiety, ridden with existential doubts about one’s identity, one’s place in the Universe. Hence all of the ‘sometimes I know I think it’s me, but you know I know when it’s a dream’ ruminations.
Strawberry Fields Forever – the Recording
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (and its co-A side ‘Penny Lane’) were to be on the Sgt. Pepper album, one ostensibly about their childhoods. (Reflected in the fact that the single’s picture sleeve has shots of the Fab Four when they were children.) Famously, the finished result is an edit (audible at exactly 1.00) of two earlier versions. John wanted the slower version – its intro played on Paul’s mellotron – to begin the song, but joined with the other, faster version, laden with orchestral brass and cellos. Told by producer George Martin that this was impossible (since the two versions were not only in different keys but different tempi) John replied: ‘you can fix it George’. Luckily, he could – by speeding up the first version and slowing down the second, faster version he managed an almost perfect match of pitch and tempo. (Which changed the result from A major to B flat).
The result was majestic – it comprising not just an insight into Lennon’s psyche, but a musical potpourri that was the stock in trade of psychedelic rock. Its wonderfully crafted string arrangement came from George Martin; there is George Harrison’s Indian table-harp, the svarmandal (rendered as ‘swordmandel’ on the tape reel label) and early use of the Mellotron with its bank of pre-recorded sounds. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ even contained some mysterious morse code (audible straight after the initial ‘let me take you down cause I’m going to …’) that allegedly spells the letters J and L. And as the false ending fades in and out again, we hear Lennon apparently uttering ‘I buried Paul’. This was one ingredient in the ludicrous Paul is Dead conspiracy theory, where the Beatles were supposedly leaving clues in their work as to his demise. (John is actually saying ‘cranberry sauce’.)
This won’t be a popular comment, but it’s my contention that the Beatles’ work went into slow decline after the peak of Pepper. Whilst they still made good singles, Magical Mystery Tour was pale in comparison, the ‘White album’ patchy, and only on Abbey Road did they up their game. The Let It Be sessions from early 1969 produced only average to good music, the best being the title track and ‘Get Back’. My point is that their psychedelic period represents the high point of their creativity; yes, it’s a subjective view and a matter of taste. So let’s hear it for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Perhaps it’ll be re-released and finally make no 1! Now – enjoy:
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