Every Beatles fan is familiar with the story, how John liked bits of one take, and other bits of another, and wanted George Martin to splice them together, an impossible request in late 1966 as the two taped versions were recorded at different tempos and different keys; but Martin was able to match them up by slowing one of them down and speeding the other up, bringing them into perfect synch, as if the Music Gods had willed it.
At top is one of the earlier versions, fully realized and gorgeous in its own right, which languished in the vault, a thing of rumour and legend, until released as part of the Anthology project. It’s a much more gentle rendition, and sounds particularly wistful and philosophical when compared to the final track, with its urgent, martial drumming, sawing cello, staccato brass, and Lennon’s weary vocal, its pitch slowed down from the original. Over many takes, and with the almost magical splicing of two versions into a coherent whole, what began as a rather sad remembrance of things past was transformed into something that was much more confused and frustrated, no longer a fond recollection of happier times, but a desperate expression of an urge to retreat into memory and escape the present.
Strawberry Fields Forever was released at the beginning of 1967 as half of a “double A-side” 45 RPM single, along with Penny Lane, two of the first songs recorded for the Sgt. Pepper album. EMI was chafing for a new single, and these exciting recordings were the best new material available, so they were pillaged, thus gutting the album to come – in those days, songs released as singles weren’t included on albums, not in England anyway, on the theory that it was unfair to make the consumer buy them twice. Sgt. Pepper suffered, two of its three greatest songs removed, but at least the world got the greatest single ever released, and Pepper went on to vast commercial and critical success anyway. Still, what might have been…George Martin kicked himself ever after, wishing he’d fended off the rapacious record company executives, and always referred to the pre-emptive release as the greatest mistake of his professional life.
It’s impossible, now, to grasp how astonishing this record was when first issued. It was barely more than three years since the North American public had first been exposed to the Beatles; while there were those, mainly professional musicians and composers, who’d understood what they were looking at that night in February, 1964, none could have imagined it would come to this, not in 36 months, not in a thousand. Something magical was going on, something that should have been impossible, and for a moment everyone was listening, astounded, and wondering what was next.
Over fifty years gone by. When will we ever feel that way again?