Sunday, July 02, 2006

Stories of the Songs: Strawberry Fields Forever

In this new series of articles I will be looking at the background behind some of John's greatest songs, both Beatles and solo, starting today with Strawberry Fields Forever.

"Living is easy, with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see. It still goes, doesn't it? Aren't I saying exactly the same thing now? The awareness apparently trying to be expressed is - let's say in one way I was always hip. I was hip in kindergarten. I was different from the others. I was different all my life. The second verse goes, "No one I think is in my tree." Well, I was too shy and self-doubting. Nobody seems to be as hip as me is what I was saying. Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius - "I mean it must be high or low," the next line. There was something wrong with me, I thought, because I seemed to see things other people didn't see."
John Lennon (Playboy, 1980)


In September 1966, John was in Almeria, Spain, filming Richard Lester's "How I Won The War". It was here that he began composing "Strawberry Fields Forever". The actor Michael Crawford was sharing a rented house with John and remembered John playing him verses from the song and asking for his opinion.

The title of the song refers to a Salvation Army orphanage called Strawberry Field (not Fields) near John's childhood home in Woolton.

"There were two famous houses in Woolton. One was owned by Gladstone - a reformatory for boys, which I could see out my window. And Strawberry Field, just around the corner from that, an old Victorian house converted for Salvation Army orphans. As a kid I used to go to their garden parties with my friends Ivan, Nigel and Pete. We'd all go up there and hang out and sell lemonade for a penny and we always had fun at Strawberry Field."
John Lennon (Playboy, 1980)

"We were trying to write about Liverpool, and I just listed all the nice-sounding names, just arbitrarily. Strawberry Fields was a place near us that happened to be a Salvation Army home. But Strawberry Fields - I mean, I have visions of Strawberry Fields. And there was Penny Lane, and the Cast Iron Shore, which I've just got in some song now, and they were just good names - just groovy names. Just good sounding. Because Strawberry Fields is anywhere you want to go."
John Lennon (Rolling Stone, 1968)

"There was a wall you could bunk over and it was a rather wild garden, it wasn't manicured at all, so it was easy to hide in. The bit he went into was a secret garden like in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and he thought of it like that, it was a little hide-away for him where he could maybe have a smoke, live in his dreams a little, so it was a get-away. It was an escape for John." Paul McCartney (Many Years From Now)

Strawberry Field finally closed as a children's home in 2005 and is now being used a prayer centre.

The famous Strawberry Field gates

John completed the song on returning to England. George Martin remembers hearing it for the first time:
"The first time I heard the song was when I listened to John singing and playing it on an acoustic guitar. John was very Dylanish in many ways, but of course, he had that lovely voice which I think was much better than Dylan's. Just to hear his voice with a simple guitar backing was absolutely delightful, and I wish we had been able to record a version like that - the way I first heard it."

Lennon then told Martin he would like him to do a score with strings and horns.

"We made another version which was much heavier, with a really raging rhythm section with everybody piling in on timpani and everything, and we made another track completely, which was also extremely good, and I thought now you've got it, John"

However, John was still not satisfied. He decided he liked the beginning of Take 7 and the ending of Take 26, and gave George Martin the task of joining the two together.

"I said there's only two things against it - one is they're completely different tempos and secondly they're in different keys. So he said, 'George, you can fix it, I know you can'."
George Martin (Beatles Anthology)

Fortunately for Martin and the engineers the two takes were found to be almost exactly half a tone apart in pitch so could be combined fairly easily. You may be able to hear the edit 59 seconds into the song.

As well as the guitars, strings and brass, the record also featured several more unusual instruments such as the swordmandel (a harp-like Indian instrument) and the Mellotron.

At the very end of the song, some people believe that John is saying "I buried Paul". What he actually says is "cranberry sauce". As Paul McCartney said, "That's John's humour. John would say something totally out of synch, like 'cranberry sauce'. If you don't realise that John's apt to say 'cranberry sauce' when he feels like it, then you start to hear a funny little word there, and you think 'Aha!'". (The Beatles in Their Own Words)

Song trivia

The Beatles filmed the music video for the song in Knole Park near Sevenoaks, Kent, on January 30, 1967.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" was released as a double A-side with Paul's "Penny Lane". It only reached number 2 in the British chart and was kept off the top spot by Engelbert Humperdinck's "Release Me".

"Strawberry Fields" is the name of the John Lennon memorial in New York's Central Park.

Around the time of the song's release, Brian Wilson was working on the Beach Boys' album "Smile". On hearing "Strawberry Fields Forever" for the first time, Wilson is said to have commented that the Beatles had 'got there first'. This is thought to be among the reasons why "Smile" was eventually abandoned.

In the line "No one I think is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low", Lennon had originally used the word "wavelength" but later changed it to "tree".

Richie Havens performed a cover version of the song at Woodstock in 1969.

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