Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of the go-to examples of classic concept albums, yet it’s equally as well-known for the flimsiness of its concept. There’s no overarching narrative or thematic unity; the closest unifying thread, the idea that a fictional band (looking an awful lot like The Beatles in neon satin suits) are performing the album, barely makes it into track two. But The Beatles had initiated the recording session with a much clearer, more compelling idea: an album centered on aging and memories of youth. This concept fell apart in early stages after two of the three tracks earmarked for the project were pulled and released as a double-sided single. (The leftover, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” did turn up on the final album.) Subsequent reports conflict as to whether this was an emergency stopgap measure – The Beatles and George Martin reluctantly caving to record company demands for new product – or whether the concept had simply run out of gas.
The resulting single, “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane,” notoriously peaked at #2 in Britain, becoming the group’s first single on Parlophone not to top the charts since “Please Please Me” in 1963. In the US, however – which, unlike the UK, tracked each side of a single separately for chart placement – “Penny Lane” managed to come out on top, with “Strawberry Fields Forever” eventually peaking a few spots below at #8. The outcome replicated the chart placement for “We Can Work It Out”/“Day Tripper” two years prior: the gentler, poppier McCartney composition besting the harder-edged, more outré Lennon one. That “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” finds both songwriters treating similar subject matter – their childhoods in Liverpool – further emphasizes the difference in sensibilities between the band’s principal songwriters.
“Penny Lane” drops listeners into a series of lightly humorous, sharply detailed episodes from the past, using pre-rock instrumentation (piano, brass, woodwinds) to set the nostalgic scene. Where “Penny Lane” is about memories, however, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is about the process of memory, how things get fuzzy and distorted when examined remotely. Its use of cutting edge electronic instrumentation and production techniques – Mellotron, backwards recording, pitch-shifting – both creates an abstract, illusory atmosphere (where “nothing is real”) and establishes the song’s location in the present, or perhaps even the future. It’s not the sights and sounds of playing in Strawberry Field that Lennon details in the song, but his attempts as an adult to return to the particular frame of mind embodied in his childhood self, and the impossibility of trying to recapture the past as anything more substantial than a dream.
But while “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” seems the ultimate depiction of the dichotomy between Lennon and McCartney – the former experimental, philosophical, cynical; the latter cheerful, nostalgic, whimsical – as usual, the starkness of this division glosses over McCartney’s knack for subtle complexity. “Penny Lane” isn’t just bright – it has the overlit affect of a Hollywood set and the unnaturally vivid hues of Technicolor. The chorus’s description of “blue suburban skies” (likely an anomaly in Northern England) is contradicted by several references within the verses to “the pouring rain.” Likewise, the specificity of the (often unusual) details makes the scenarios seem hyperreal – highlighted by the recurring line “very strange” and the title-card interjections of “meanwhile back.” McCartney is demonstrating the hazards of reconstructing memory as a narrative – conflating unrelated elements, rearranging timelines, and exaggerating minor pieces of the story.
In the final verse, many of the characters earlier in the song (the barber, the banker, the fireman) congregate in the same scene, as if part of a dramatic production with only a limited company of actors. In fact, the only character in the song who doesn’t turn up again in the barber shop is the nurse selling poppies, perhaps because she’s come to doubt her own existence (“and though she feels as if she is in a play/ she is anyway”). That segment is McCartney’s most explicit acknowledgement that “Penny Lane” may not be intended as the strict truth, a division emphasized by McCartney’s keening vocal line that occurs nowhere else in the song. There are other moments throughout “Penny Lane” where gray clouds threaten to intrude on the blue suburban skies: the jolt of minor chords around the third line of every verse; the slight tinges of seediness (the fireman with his “portrait of a queen” and “clean machine,” the references to “finger pies”); the ominous outro, with a cymbal rolls and piercing, feedback-like piccolo. These minor disruptions never threaten to derail the cheery narrative, but they do hint that there’s more going on below the surface for those willing to look.
If “Strawberry Fields Forever” describes the impossibility of returning to the past, “Penny Lane” demonstrates why that is the case: what is thought of as the past isn’t necessarily what actually happened, but a composite from multiple sources, with the negative and dull parts excised and the gaps filled with invention. Rather than explicitly stating its themes, however, as Lennon did with “Strawberry Fields,” McCartney presents “Penny Lane” in a more ambiguous manner. It may be accepted at face value as a nostalgic fantasy, but it also rewards a more critical listener who can pick up on its contradictions and embellishments. “Strawberry Fields Forever” may be more self-consciously experimental and cerebral, but “Penny Lane,” with its sunny lyrics and upbeat, conventional arrangement, is no less clever – and in its own way, more subversive – an exploration of the limits of memory. 9
Hit #1 on March 18, 1967; total of 1 week at #1
181 of 1,036 #1’s reviewed; 17.47% through the Hot 100