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Life in the Key of Song: "Strawberry Fields Forever"

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Thursday, Dec 16, 2010
John Lennon agonized over his snapshot of youth seen through the glass hazily, and with the final touches of the indispensable George Martin, saw his simple reminiscence mutate into the surreal sound-bomb it remains today.

“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”. Those aren’t just defining lines from a defining song by the defining band of all time, the Beatles. They are lines written by the closest thing we humans get to a super hero at the top of his game, having just shouted down from the mountain top on one of the most innovative, shape-shifting songs of all time, “Tomorrow Never Knows”.


If some people, understandably, think the everything-plus-kitchen-sink approach on the subsequent Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was in places a tad too haphazard and indulgent, no such concerns can apply here: songwriter John Lennon knew what he wanted, telling MVP producer George Martin he wanted his vocals to sound like “a hundred chanting Tibetan monks”. No worries, right? Martin, with appreciable assistance from an always-game Paul McCartney, sliced, diced, looped and spliced, and second by painstaking second, reel-to-reel tape transported the magic from Lennon’s mind. To say that this song set the tone for experimentation and was influential across multiple genres, including—or especially—ones that didn’t even exist yet, scarcely does it justice.
  
Just before Sgt. Pepper helped define the Summer of Love and introduce the mixed blessing also known as the concept album, the Beatles released what is arguably the most transcendent single of all time. McCartney (as always, making it sound easy), contributed “Penny Lane”, which is neither as oblique nor unsettling as “Strawberry Fields Forever”, but is disarmingly rich in detail and the product of a songwriter firing on all cylinders. Lennon, of course, had agonized over his snapshot of youth seen through the glass hazily, and with the final touches of the indispensable George Martin, saw his simple reminiscence mutate into the surreal sound-bomb it remains today.


It is, therefore, revealing that “Strawberry Fields Forever”, a song that now stands out among (if not above) all others as the most singular Lennon composition (yes, taking into account “In My Life”, “I Am the Walrus”, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, “Dear Prudence”, “Come Together”, and “Across the Universe” –-just to name the true heavy hitters in the Beatles canon and not even taking into account his ten years of solo work) had such humble origins.


In late 1995 (15 years ago, already?) when The Beatles Anthology series came out, the assorted demo cuts and false starts were something beyond revelatory. Aside from bootlegs (and pre-digital files or the ubiquity of Internet content) this was the first opportunity many people had to peak behind the golden curtain and listen to the best band ever struggling to assemble the songs we learn and sing. The Beatles were sufficiently god-like that we not only never saw them sweat: literally after ’66 as they did not appear live, figuratively in the sense that they were operating at a level approximated by few collectives before or since, dropping new Songs in the Key of Life every other month.


Put another way, The White Album was released three years after Rubber Soul. Three years. Actually stop and think about that for a second. It is—or at least was—tempting to imagine that these albums were dreamed into life through a combination of drugs, meditation, competition and the inexplicable forces of Fate decreeing that these four lads from Liverpool would be the Oracles of our era. In actuality, we now know these magicians sometimes struggled to conjure their spells and in some cases it required a patience and faith we mere mortals are quite accustomed to. Put less pretentiously, making some of the best rock music of all time was hard work. Rather than diminishing the import of these songs, this concession augments it.


Hearing a frustrated Lennon (on the extended “Strawberry Fields Forever” work-in-progress from the second installment of The Beatles Anthology) sigh “Canna do it, I canna do it” less than thirty seconds into the first take reveals a Lennon most of us are not accustomed to, or comfortable, hearing. He sounds almost defeated and entirely human. That he stuck with it and saw it through is illuminating as it is inspiring. It is also intriguing to hear one of the ultimate psychedelic dreamscapes in its formative stages as a simple acoustic song. While it is always insightful to see the scribbled notes of a poem or story in process, hearing the development of a song so indelibly enshrined in our collective consciousness is arresting, and invaluable. It still doesn’t mean we can comprehend how exactly this song (these songs!) came to be, but it helps us understand and appreciate. One more time, for the first time, forever.


Nothing is real. And nothing to get hung about.


Strawberry Fields Forever.


Cranberry sauce.


What he said.


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