In real time it is just over four minutes long, but Strawberry Fields Forever is not in real time, it’s in dreamtime.
Even now when you hear it, if you stop and actually listen, it is as if the song has become elastic. It stretches out and contracts as it bends its way into your consciousness. As you enter the world that beckons and the soundscape it creates, you notice you have stepped into a vivid realm of the imagination; like walking through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia.
The world of English whimsy courses through the Beatles music and it is evidenced most strongly in John Lennon’s lyrics of this period. Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass were among his favourite books and Edward Lear never seems far away.
As the song unfolds you realise the usual points of reference are not there. No zippy little pop ditty à la She Loves You here. No, no, no. What’s going on? What’s happened to the rhythm? What’s the singing about? I don’t understand the language Lennon is using. I can’t fathom it. He sounds as if he’s about to fall asleep.
Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It's getting hard to be someone but it all works out
It doesn't matter much to me
In David Sheff's book All We Are Saying, Lennon provided an insight into the lyrics and the line 'No one I think is in my tree' in particular. 'What I was trying to say is: nobody is as hip as me, therefore I must be crazy or a genius… What I'm saying, in my insecure way, is nobody seems to understand where I'm coming from. I seem to see things in a different way from most people.'
Over time, familiarity has taken the edge off the sense of surprise and power of Strawberry Fields to draw you into its wondrous web. We know this song; it was inspired by Lennon’s memories of playing in the wooded garden of a Salvation Army children’s home near where he grew up in Liverpool. We wore it out on the record player when it was first released in 1967. It’s always on those lists of all-time best songs that nobody ever listens to. We know Strawberry Fields like the back of our hand, or so we think.
It is a most unusual composition and there’s not another songwriter I can think of who has written anything quite like it. It is an invitation to return to one’s childhood, to revisit those joys, fears and preoccupations in a childlike way. To remember associations lost in the mists of time; memories left behind with our old toys. How many other songs come this close to conjuring that innocent age and its magic ‘otherness’?
You can hear something of how Lennon and the Beatles collaborated on Strawberry Fields, from the writer’s embryonic solo demo to the band’s work in the studio, on Anthology 2; from his opening fingerstyle guitar, through the added Mellotron, cellos, brass and thundering drum edits to tape loops, cymbals recorded backwards and the finished version with the chorus as introduction.
None of the takes on their own fulfilled Lennon's vision for the song and he asked producer George Martin to merge his favourite segments. The tempo and key of each was different but by slowing down one and speeding up the other Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick completed their seamless sorcery. You can't hear the join.
To have released this in mono was sheer madness. But then in popular music it’s the format that calls the tune. Music moguls have never been slow to find the quickest way to a fast buck. Back then the 45rpm mono single was king. The suits were chart-obsessed and geared to that format and so were a lot of the bands. The transistor radio and Dansette record player with auto-changer were ubiquitous.
Radio Luxembourg and the pirate radio stations played only singles. The airwaves were in mono; it was the monolithic age. The sound was more immediate, mixed and mastered in mono. Many of those singles still sound good if you throw away the ear buds and play them through speakers. But then so does everything. There’s a generation who have missed out on hearing music in the real world – they only know it in their heads.
I digress. Strawberry Fields was released as a single, a double A-side with Penny Lane. The single format was now beginning to fray at the edges, mainly because the music being made in the studio by the key creative players could not be constrained within a three-minute pop record. Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone was a magnificent six-minute tirade released as a single. DJs and the like were apoplectic. But in the end it was bound to happen. The attitude was very much: well, who said a song must be three minutes and no longer?
As 1966 rolled in, those winds of change kept blowing. It has been described as the year the decade exploded. Old ideas, preconceptions and cultural norms were being questioned. A new soundtrack accompanied those shifts in thinking. Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, all 11-plus minutes of it, ran to one whole side of an LP – my God, where would it all end? By the time Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released the following summer, everybody knew things would never be the same.
It is difficult now to appreciate just how innovative Strawberry Fields was when it came out. Its influence was extensive and set the bar high for the Beatles themselves. To quote Paul McCartney, who of course shared writing credits with his partner: ‘John wrote this absolutely amazing song, Strawberry Fields, for the new album and I was frankly a bit jealous. So I went home and wrote Penny Lane. It worked and we wanted them as the main tracks on Sgt Pepper.’
But as we know, even if you are a Beatle, record companies will often do their worst and usually do. They butchered the album and released those two songs as a single, a move Martin later described as ‘a truly terrible mistake’.
Now, albeit 50 years on, that blunder will be rectified. On June 1 Sgt Pepper is being re-released for the anniversary with Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane reinstated. Such irony that Sgt Pepper should have ushered in the age of the album while sounding the eventual death knell for the 45rpm single. We’ll soon be back in dreamtime.