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Film Shoots, Synthesised Flutes & Childhood Roots: The Recording of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ Half a Century On

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Strawberry Field orphanage gates, Liverpool

Strawberry Field orphanage gates, Liverpool

The recording of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, along with it’s double A-side partner ‘Penny Lane’, represented a high-water mark in the Beatles’ career. Today, November 24, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of the recording of the song at Abbey Road studios.

Starting with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ / ‘Penny Lane’, and following on with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, the music that the Beatles released in 1967 went beyond mere pop or rock, it had the immediate effect of transforming pop music into a serious art form in itself. Popular music had grown up, and the music press began to mature with it. The first edition of Rolling Stone magazine appeared in November 1967 and, lo and behold the cover featured John Lennon, photographed in Spain where he had written the song. Interviewed throughout the years by Rolling Stone and later Playboy, the one song Lennon was persistently pressed about was ‘Strawberry Fields’. Was it a place? Did it really exist? What did it mean? What was really real?

The exercise in introspective lyrical stream of consciousness – seemingly babbled directly into the microphone by its author – was oddly arresting to millions of listeners. Equally as arresting as the lyrical theme, however, was the sonic instrumentation which accompanied it, especially its dreamy melodic intro invoking a childlike lullaby. There were many sounds and performances which went into the recording of ‘Strawberry Fields’: cellos and trumpets, backwards percussion, manic drum takes, Indian harps, piano, and electric and bass guitars. However, the most iconic sounds associated with the groundbreaking track – its childlike flute intro and swooping slide guitar – were provided by a new instrument to Beatles recordings: a mellotron, which actually wasn’t an instrument at all.

Following the group’s three-month hiatus after their final world tour in 1966, the Beatles reassembled in EMI Studio Two on November 24 to begin work on an album, which was from the outset, deliberately intended to be recorded without regard for public performance. Engineer Geoff Emerick recalled George Martin opening the session to the floor: ‘Right let’s get to work, what have you got for me?’ he asked. ‘I’ve got a good one, for a starter!’ replied Lennon.

He wasn’t wrong.

While Martin stood listening to Lennon strum the song on an acoustic guitar live on the studio floor, Emerick raised the faders in the control room. With the song drifting faintly from the control room speakers, he realised they were listening to the beginning of something very different to anything which had come before. ‘When he finished [playing the song live] there was a moment of stunned silence, broken by Paul [McCartney], who in a quiet, respectful tone said simply, “That is absolutely brilliant”. Most of the time when Lennon played one of his songs through for the first time on acoustic guitar, we’d all think, wow, that’s great, but this song was clearly something special’.

Taking a full month to record just one song, the Beatles entered into an entirely new recording phase with the creation of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Constructing three separate versions and arrangements, the track spanned 13 recording sessions, used two producers and two engineers, amassed over 70 hours and numbered some 28 takes. With so much time and effort invested in the track’s recording, and the fact that not only all four Beatles but producers, roadies and even classical musicians provided pivotal musical parts, the song heralded the beginning of a run of sessions which would see the Beatles work as a genuine unit, greater than the sum of its parts. When this glorious phase of recording ended late in 1967, it was really the beginning of the end for the band.

The actual origin of the song can be traced to Lennon’s journey to Almeiria, Spain in September 1966 where he travelled to film Dick Lester’s How I Won the War. The Lennons rented a large house with an extended garden on the outskirts of the town. Cynthia Lennon recalled feeling the house was haunted. For John Lennon, however, Santa Isabel’s iron gate and overgrown gardens evoked a haunting of a different kind – nostalgic recollections of his childhood and a favourite hideout. The the gate and gardens struck Lennon with its similarity to Strawberry Field orphanage and Salvation Army home, where as a boy he had frolicked and hidden away in the gardens of Strawberry Field with various childhood friends.

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John Lennon songwriting in Almeiria, Spain, 1966

Once in Almeiria, Lennon discovered what it was like to halt the carousel that was Beatlemania, and to finally step off. Realising he was at a crossroads in his artistic career following the Beatles’ decision to quit touring, Lennon continued in his pursuit of lyrical introspection. Freed from the pressures of life on the road and the boredom of life at home, he found himself drifting back to simpler, happier days in his childhood. This nostalgia trip to brighter days gone by was in fact keeping instep with what was truly behind the British psychedelic scene: a deep yearning for the past.

Lennon later confessed that ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was psychoanalysis to music. In dealing with recollections of the past, psychoanalysis contends with the obsession of self objects – people or places which are recalled from simple childhood memories through the mind of an adult. The self object is then recalled as a memory of a memory and clung to as a person or place of perfection, which it may never have been in reality.

In Lennon’s lyrical exploration, the place was both real and unreal, a physical place recalled from the past and existing now in its perfection only in a child’s memory. In a spirit of openness, the author invited the listener to take a trip with him while he discussed his personal struggles with abandon. The lyrical theme of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is a natural evolution of Lennon’s introspective writing, and after the panic and helplessness of ‘Nowhere Man’ or ‘Help!’, it finds its author no longer at odds with himself but rather finally acknowledging that things will work out in the end.

On returning to London on November 7, Lennon took his acoustic demos into his attic studio at Kenwood and set to work finishing the song, tweaking its structure and doodling with electric guitar and other instrument parts. During these extended home demos, Lennon can be heard adding layers of organ sounds in an attempt to experiment with the general ambience he had in his head. Most likely these sounds were provided by an instrument which he had acquired over the previous year (in August 1965), and although it was in his possession throughout the Rubber Soul and Revolver sessions, the mellotron was yet to feature on any Beatles recording. It was perhaps these experimentations which prompted Lennon to decide that the mellotron could provide the otherworldly sounds he had in his head to accompany his dreamy nostalgic lyric.

A pro-type synthesizer, this so-called instrument was actually a rather very expensive gimmick-box marketed at the super rich, with the unit retailing at £1,000. Considering that in 1966 the average annual pay for men was £1,220, and the average house price was £3,840, the mellotron was well beyond the reach of the average musician or enthusiast. It’s hardly surprising then that early owners included the jet set club of wealthy rock musicians, movie stars and members of royalty. Besides Lennon, notable mellotron owners included Princess Margaret, Peter Sellers, King Hussein of Jordan, and L. Ron Hubbard.

IBC Studios in London is the location where a Beatle most likely first encountered a mellotron. On August 9, 1965, Lennon produced a recording of ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ for The Silkies at IBC Studios. During the same recording, Paul McCartney played guitar while George Harrison played tambourine. All three Beatles likely encountered a mellotron at IBC during this session as Lennon ordered one (black with gold lettering) from the London Mellotronics office and this was delivered to his home in Weybridge precisely one week later on August 16. Known for collecting expensive toys such as Scalextric track racers to relieve his boredom at home, Lennon may have bought the instrument as much for its gimmick entertainment value as for its potential studio usage.

Mellotron MKII

To Lennon, the mellotron probably seemed as British as World War II Spitfires, but the truth of its origins lay in California. The instrument had controversial beginnings, and in fact the concept and design of the mellotron had been copied directly from an American invention, stolen and exported to the UK by its salesman, Bill Fransen.

The very first instrument-sampling device had been designed, built and patented by U.S. inventor Harry Chamberlin in the late 1940s. Having helped to design the electrical systems for the B29 bomber during World War II, Chamberlin allegedly spent time designing windshield wipers and motor boats before settling down to a career pioneering housing insulation after the war. An amateur musician who played saxophone and clarinet in a dance band, Chamberlin purchased an organ for home entertainment but soon wondered if he could use the instrument’s keys to trigger sounds from other instruments pre-recorded onto sections of tape.

Tinkering around with the idea in his basement, he found success with a system of pre-recorded taped sounds housed inside a wooden unit. His first creation was actually the earliest known drum machine. Created in 1949, The ‘Rhythmate’ or Chamberlin 100 preceded the Wurlitzer Sideman by some 10 years. Building a home recording studio in a closet, Chamberlin’s son Richard apparently played acoustic drum kits which (Harry) Chamberlin recorded and cut into loops of tape to be played back with various combinations and tempos from the unit’s capstan control. Never considering the invention for professional usage, the units were designed for light home entertainment, allowing users to even plug a microphone, guitar or other instrument into it to play along with the pre-recorded sounds. Effectively, Chamberlin had created a primitive karaoke machine.

For his second creation, the Chamberlin 200, he built the first keyboard triggering unit to playback pre-recorded musical instruments on reels of tape, with the instrumentation for the recordings now being supplied by professional musicians. Employing only family members, Chamberlin continued to improve on the instrument’s design and concept and began demonstrating his creations at music shows. Although interest was high and orders began to pour in, it’s hardly surprising that Chamberlin began to receive attention from musicians’ unions, who were aware that mass production of his instrument could put musicians out of work by replacing them in recording studios.

As Chamberlin’s business began to expand, he took on his window cleaner, Fransen, as his salesman, who travelled the country with working display models for demonstrations at trade shows. However, in 1962 Fransen eloped to the UK in with two Chamberlin 600s, removed the ‘Chamberlin’ badges and replaced them with duplicate ‘Fransen’ badges. Unbeknown to his employer and the rightful patent holder, Fransen arrived in the UK and quickly put an ad in a publication asking for a company that could manufacture 70 identical tape heads, his intention obviously to produce ‘Fransens’ and pass them off to UK buyers as his own invention.

The ad was answered by Birmingham tape engineering firm Bradmatic Ltd who became intrigued with the instrument. After meeting Bradmatic founders Frank, Norman and Les Bradley, Fransen sold the two Chamberlin 600s to the company and entered into a partnership with them to mass produce the instruments for the UK market. He neglected of course to mention the machine’s U.S. origins. Although the instrument posed an exciting prospect for market, the Bradleys quickly identified its reliability issues and set about making a new and improved version. The result was the Mellotron MKI, although the following year the company presented an updated model with improved design and functionality which was named the MKII. This was the model used on the recording of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.

A new bank of tape sounds were created for the Mellotron at IBC Studios in London, and in a wonderful moment of serendipity the master tapes were actually recorded by IBC Studios engineers Allen Stagg (who later managed Abbey Road) and Glyn Johns. Johns of course served as an engineer on later Beatles albums and was also heavily involved in the Get Back mixing sessions, which eventually became Let It Be. Johns then receives an unusual credit for unwittingly contributing to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ as it was he who engineered the flute sounds which were used on the actual recording.

One of the biggest myths surrounding the song’s recording was that it was actually Lennon’s mellotron which featured on the track. This is untrue, however. According to the authors of Recording the Beatles, the surgical analysis of Abbey Road studios, EMI had simply hired a unit from the Mellotronics office, and it was this unit which provided the iconic sounds for the track. However, some demo versions recorded at Kenwood feature layered keyboard and organ parts. These sounds were mostly like a combination of vibraphone and Farfisa Compact from Lennon’s MKII Mellotron.

Capturing what Lennon had in his head for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was certainly a long and drawn out process, and the group taped no less than three versions of the song, two of which were famously spliced together to make up the finished song released as a single in February 1967. The mellotron was central to the sonic and subsequent psychedelic quality of the song, although inspection of the early takes reveal that Lennon certainly did not have the finished flute intro in mind when he decided to use the mellotron.

Take one began with the ‘living is easy’ verse, instead of the later refrain, and the basic track likely consisted of Lennon on vocals and electric guitar, McCartney on mellotron (which for take one was probably set to the machine’s ‘brass’ tape sounds instead of flutes), and Ringo Starr on drums, while Harrison provided additional rhythm with electric guitar. Several overdubs were undertaken, including slide guitar from Harrison, a double-tracked Lennon vocal on the second verse, and beautifully surreal-sounding harmonies, again only on the second verse, which were provided by Lennon/McCartney/Harrison. This version would later appear on Anthology 2.

Remaking the song on November 28/29, the now famous melodic pattern can be heard developing rapidly from takes two through six, played by McCartney. Harrison was next to sit behind the mellotron, and using the instrument’s guitar settings he added the definitive slide guitar which swoops the listener out of the intro and into the first chorus proper. In addition, Harrison added the sublime Morse code-sounding dots which permeate the chorus.

Lennon took the acetates of the recording home where he analysed the performance. Not entirely happy with what they had recorded, he requested another attempt, and on December 8 the group taped a frenzied rhythm track, complete with manic drum tracks provided by Starr, Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, and the other three Beatles. Backwards drums and cymbals were added before the song was scored by Martin for the familiar cellos and trumpets.

In keeping continuity with the previous version, the flute and slide guitar sections were added to this faster recording, although these were played not by McCartney and Harrison but by Martin himself, who became the third mellotron instrumentalist on the track. Lennon became the fourth and final mellotron player when he added the manic and chaotic flurry of flutes which can be heard as the song begins to fade back in on the coda.

Version three was completed by the addition of a double-tracked vocal from Lennon, inspired electric guitar licks and piano from McCartney, additional snare drum overdubs from Starr and finally, an Indian harp otherwise known as a Swaramandal provided by Harrison. This last addition provided the hauntingly transcendent bridge between the choruses and verses.

A week after the final recording session for the latest version, Lennon flummoxed Martin and Emerick by stating that he liked elements of the second version and the third, and suggested that they simply edit them together. Martin explained that both versions were at different tempos and in different keys – the first A Major and the second C Major, and that his request was almost certainly impossible to achieve.

Unperturbed, Lennon informed them that he had total confidence in them before walking out. To their credit, using only a tape machine, scissors and scotch tape, Martin and Emerick varispeeded both versions – speeding up the first and slowing down the second – to create what must be the most celebrated edit in popular musical history. Creating a shallow splice on the section, Emerick achieved a cross fade on the edit instead of a hard jump, and unable to recognise the edit himself on initial playback, Lennon’s reaction to the splice was ecstatic.

What happened to the mellotron used in the recording and its location is a mystery that may never be solved. Contrary to another myth, McCartney does not own it. He gained possession of the EMI studios’ mellotron which was acquired in 1968, after the rental unit had been returned to the Mellotronics office. This unit was used for the Spanish guitar intro on ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’, but not ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ Perhaps some enthusiast has the unit in their possession today, although that would now be impossible to prove. In 1986 the Mellotronics Company was liquidated, and its records – presumably including those of rentals – were lost. Today, the mellotron flame is kept alive in England by Streetly Electronics.

Martin didn’t particularly remember the mellotron fondly, claiming ‘… [it was] as if a Neanderthal piano had impregnated a primitive electronic keyboard’. However, the wily old producer who viewed the capture of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ as his finest moment was to be stung by the song’s author when the two met years later: ‘I’d love to [record] everything again’, Lennon stated. Martin was horrified and blurted ‘John, you can’t really mean it. Even Strawberry Fields? And he said, “Especially Strawberry Fields!” I thought, oh shit, all the effort that went into that. We worked very hard on that trying to capture something that was nebulous’.

‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was a total departure from anything the group had recorded before, in a sonic sense and in a sense of how they approached recording a song. The unique input each member provided (Lennon: vocals, guitar, mellotron, percussion; McCartney: mellotron, bass, piano, guitar, percussion; Harrison: mellotron, guitar, swarmandal, percussion; Starr: drums, percussion; Martin: mellotron, score for cello & trumpet) demonstrated how devastating the group could be when they worked together to pursue perfection.

Hitting a peak in 1967, the Beatles became an almost organic and sentient unit who pulled so far ahead of their contemporaries as to seem completely untouchable. Happy 50th birthday, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.

Photo credit for John Lennon: Douglas Kirkland


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