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The Beatles (McCartney): Penny Lane

This is the text of an e-mail I fired back to a co-worker on a day when the papers reported the death of David Mason, the baroque trumpeter of the London Philharmonic, who famously lent his piccolo trumpet to Penny Lane.  She attached a link and asked if I’d seen the item. 

I decided I rather liked my missive, and kept it. So this is my response, written in 2012.

Yes – this article is actually nicer than the one that appeared in the print version this morning, which was headlined “The Guy Who Played Trumpet on Penny Lane has Died”, and went on to dismissively equate Mason with various oddball celebrities who were famous for only one silly little thing, trifles like the “peppy little riff” of trumpet that “launches” Penny Lane (the trumpet of course appears first in the middle, and doesn’t launch the song at all).

Made me quite angry, actually!  “The Guy” indeed.  Sets me off on one of my rants.

Penny Lane has always had an extra special place in my heart – it was the first song I ever loved, as a six year old, listening to its graceful melody wafting out of innumerable open windows and car radios along the streets where I lived, which in memory are always bathed in sunshine (a phenomenon that happens to be the theme of the song).  It remains my favourite, 45 years on, and I’m always dismayed when people underrate it.  It’s usually described as cheerful and upbeat, which it is on the surface, but as with so many McCartney compositions of the period (like the gorgeous Mother Nature’s Son off the White Album), it contains nuance that hints at layers of yearning and sadness underneath, and also a doubting self-awareness, exemplified by the chord changes that occur in the middle of every verse (on the last word – “know” – before “and all the people that come and go”, on the word “back” just before “and the banker never wears a Mac”, and so on.)  It has a quizzical feel to it, a hint that the singer suspects something isn’t quite right about this mental image of the Penny Lane of his youth, even though the song immediately snaps back into the dominant chord of the verse, and that nagging feeling is quickly set aside. Watch this:

And indeed, something is amiss. Author Ian Macdonald sensed a part of this in commenting that the song is “as sly and knowing as a group of mischievous and observant kids straggling home from school”, and there is that element of bemused mockery, but in the service of a much bigger idea – for Penny Lane is about the frailty of memory, and the sad awareness that the way one remembers things, all blue skies and happy goings-on, is not really the way things were.  Thus the pretty nurse, dressed up and selling poppies for Remembrance Day, not only has a self-conscious feeling that she’s in a play – she is anyway, just another archetypal character in the pleasant fiction. The Penny Lane that today fills his ears and eyes never really existed, and the narrator knows it. That’s just the way nostalgia works, and even if it wasn’t quite like this, wouldn’t it have been wonderful if it was?  Who says you can’t miss something that never was? Penny Lane implies that all of us probably do.

Musically, the song is deceptively and dazzlingly complex, beginning not with trumpet, but a flourish of bass guitar, which sets up a marvellous contrapuntal “walking” bass line, loping along in almost jaunty fashion. Like nearly all McCartney bass lines, this one is tuneful and ingenious, crucial to the song’s harmonic structure. In Paul’s hands, the bass sings a song all its own, and much of the joy to be had in repeated listens of Penny Lane is in the way it intertwines the separate melodies of the bass and vocal lines. Also magical is that the chorus is in a different key to the verse, the song hopping from B to A, with A representing the current reality, and B the distant memory, until the very end, when a modulation brings the chorus into B.

This is expert songwriting.

Apart from the piccolo trumpet, the arrangement boasts a conventional horn section, flutes, a fire bell, and a droning upright double bass that highlights the banker settling in to the barber’s chair for his trim.  Of greatest note is the uncanny staccato piano sound that anchors the verses, the product of an arduous recording process that made the most of the four track tape technology then available. No single piano produced the timbre that Paul heard in his head, so he kept layering piano on top of piano on the master tape, until it is not a single instrument, but four playing in unison, some at accelerated pitch, with added hints of percussion (bells, or some sort of xylophone perhaps?) to supply finishing touches. Both Lennon and George Martin contributed overdubs to this uber-piano, creating an effect that is at once indefinable yet perfectly natural; the listener doesn’t know why, but it just sounds right.  This is perhaps best heard after the exclamation about the nurse, that “she is anyway” – Ian MacDonald again supplies the apt turn of phrase, referring to this moment as a “shivering ecstasy of grace notes”.  There is nothing quite like it in any other recording.

All the elements come together in the final verse, the piccolo trumpet, the flutes, the horns, the super-piano – here we turn to author Jonathan Gould for the evocative image of  the “toy trumpet and penny whistles snapping like pennants in the wind” as the final modulation leads to an abrupt and almost disconcerting conclusion. The song just ends. There is a sudden shimmering flourish of close-miked cymbal, leading the listener to experience a sort of aural representation of the reverie ending, almost literally the sound of an illusion dissolving, and as the narrator exclaims one last longing “Penny Lane!” the moment simply passes.  It’s almost like somebody has yelled “Snap out of it!” at the day-dreaming singer. Someone once commented that Penny Lane doesn’t so much conclude as hit a wall and ricochet, which I’ve always thought is a good way to put it, yet this doesn’t quite capture the underlying melancholy, the sense of loss. Those who decry McCartney’s shallow good cheer seem never to sense the tears that so often lie just beneath the laughter.

In the initial mix, Mason plays one last plaintive trumpet riff over the cymbals, but this was gilding the lily, and it was removed after a first pressing of singles was sent out for airplay. You can hear the original on one of the Anthology discs, and the decision to remove the trumpet coda can be heard to make perfect sense. While pleasing, it’s an ornament that dilutes the finality.

To top it all off is a vocal performance of piercing clarity, typically free of even a hint of tremor or strain. That high-pitched flute-like sound that provides counterpoint to the piccolo trumpet solo in mid-song is McCartney’s own voice.  Bob Dylan has said that there never was singer better than McCartney is, or Lennon was, and this is an aspect of their work that is often overlooked, as if it’s just too much that they should have been gifted that way too.

All that subtlety and complexity, yet you can sing it in the shower – the mark of a truly great song.  To me, there never has been one better.  Yet when Rolling Stone set out to rank the 500 greatest songs of all time, they placed Penny Lane at #449. Four hundred and forty-ninth.  Rolling Stone thinks that there are four hundred and forty-eight songs that are better than Penny Lane!!  It’s depressing to be reminded how few can really appreciate music; even in rankings of Beatle songs, Penny Lane often arrives somewhere in the middle of the pack, characterized as the acme of good cheer and a typically McCartneyesque counterpoint to the inappropriately more highly rated Strawberry Fields Forever, the flip-side to Penny Lane on what George Martin calls the greatest single ever made.  It’s a pretty good litmus test, actually. If you think Penny Lane is a simple and relentlessly cheerful little ditty, you have a tin ear, limited imagination, and quite possibly no soul.

Penny Lane resides on a rarefied plateau alongside the best of Gershwin, Porter and Rogers.  It is surely one of the greatest popular songs ever written. So for me it’s really quite sad that “the guy who played trumpet” is no longer with us.  David Mason’s contribution is the final touch that elevated Penny Lane into supernatural territory, and I hope it seemed to him that the fame he earned from his afternoon’s work at Abbey Road studios was well deserved.  To think he might never have been recruited had McCartney not happened upon Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 on the television one evening, seen Mason play, and realized that’s the sound I need.T

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