Let Me Take You Down, Jonathan Cott

Strolling Down the Beatles’ Penny Lane and Through Strawberry Fields

Jonathan Cott provides a concise overview of two of the Beatles’ greatest songs in his book Let Me Take You Down: Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever.

Let Me Take You Down: Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever
Jonathan Cott
University of Minnesota Press
April 2024

On 13 February 1967, the Beatles released the record that defined the second phase of their career as studio recording artists. Issued as a double A-sided 45-RPM single, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” used song arrangements and recording techniques that opened new creative vistas in the world of popular music. The Beatles first issued the songs after their last tour ended in August 1966, which began a creative surge that led to the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in May 1967.

Veteran music journalist Jonathan Cott analyzes the creative process behind the landmark single in his new book, Let Me Take You Down: Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever. Cott draws upon his interviews for Rolling Stone with John Lennon in 1968 and 1980 and Paul McCartney in 2009. He gleans context from a wealth of Beatles scholarship and draws upon psychological theory by James Hillman in parsing the songs’ lyrics.  

Let Me Take You Down contains two main sections. The first is a conventional historiography of “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” from conception to the singles’ release. The second section consists of essay-style interviews between Cott and five distinguished Beatles fans: jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, urban planner Jonathan F.P. Rose, Jungian psychanalyst Margaret Klenck, actor and musician Richard Gere, and multimedia artist Laurie Anderson.

Let Me Take You Down begins aptly with an account of the tragicomedy of errors greeting the Beatles on their final tours of Japan, the Philippines, and America in the summer of 1966. Amid the usual fan frenzy, the Beatles inadvertently caused a scandal in Japan by performing at the Nippon Budokan arena, a “sacred” space reserved for martial arts. In Manila, armed authorities temporarily detained and physically assaulted the Beatles for snubbing Imelda Marcos’ invitation to the Philippine presidential palace. Later, in America, John Lennon’s comments to a British journalist about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus” triggered a public relations nightmare, including mass burnings of their records.

These events worsened creative stagnation, leading the Beatles to explore new avenues after their final tour ended. Dressed incognito on a road trip through France, Paul McCartney conceived the “alter ego” culminating in the Lonely Hearts Club Band personas the Beatles adopted for their next album. In a rented Spanish villa, John Lennon composed the earliest demos of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. His performance of the song back at Abbey Road for the other group members inspired McCartney to write “Penny Lane”, a brighter take on Lennon’s dark nostalgia for Liverpool, England, where both men grew up.

In the strongest section of Let Me Take You Down, Cott writes a detailed account of allusions to Liverpool found in “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. He then discusses the recording sessions for both songs, produced by George Martin and engineered by Geoff Emerick. Innovative use of the studio’s four-track tape recorders and subsequent tape editing (creating the master of “Strawberry Fields” from two different takes) broke new technical ground developed later on Sgt. Pepper. “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” might have been included on that album if not for pressures from EMI for a new Beatles single by early 1967. George Martin later referenced the omission of the two songs from Sgt. Pepper as “the biggest mistake of my professional life.”

The songs were, however, included on the 1967 American LP version of Magical Mystery Tour – the form in which listeners too young to have bought the original single of “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” are more likely to have first heard the songs. Cott downplays this later context as well as the promotional films (forerunners of modern music videos) that extended the legacy of “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” in other media. Omitting such material leaves the first part of Let Me Take You Down feeling oddly truncated in an already brief book.  

The second part of Let Me Take You Down consists of the five aforementioned interviews, only two of which are relevant. In the first interview, Bill Frisell, who interpreted songs written or co-written by Lennon on the 2011 album All We Are Saying, provides a useful musicological breakdown of “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. In the final interview, Laurie Anderson analyzes the poetic flourishes she finds in McCartney and Lennon’s lyrics. Both Frisell and Anderson have the artistic credentials and insights to make their contributions to Cott’s book valuable.  

The other three interviewees –Jonathan F.P. Rose, Margaret Klenck, and Richard Gere – are eloquent about their personal connections to the Beatles’ music. However, the rambling interviews, in which Cott sometimes intrudes more than necessary, wander adrift of the book’s main focus. Why Cott sought out these three individuals – as opposed to, say, somebody with expertise in Beatles lore or recording techniques in the 1960s – is a question left hanging by the book’s conclusion.

Let Me Take You Down remains worthwhile for readers interested in Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting processes. An attractive layout and a modest price for the hardcover edition ($22.95 in the US) make it a good gift for the Beatles fan who has “read everything”. However, for those looking for definitive scholarship on two of the key songs in the Beatles catalogue, Let Me Take You Down doesn’t dig down quite enough.  

RATING 7 / 10