In looking over John Lennon’s finest compositions as a Beatle, choosing his greatest song is a rather tough assignment. There’s “Help,” his not-so-hidden actual cry for help during his “fat Elvis” period. There’s “In My Life,” his autobiographical tribute to an unnamed friend or lover. “If I Fell” (John’s “first proper ballad”), “Across the Universe” (which John himself considered perhaps the finest poem he ever wrote), and “A Hard Day’s Night” (John’s title song to the Beatles first film) are all worthy too of consideration..
In September of 1966, the Beatles were at liberty. The Fab Four had performed their final official concert in Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29th. What to do now?
Paul decided to compose the title song and the soundtrack of the Hayley Mills movie The Family Way. George went off to India to study sitar under the instruction of his new mentor, Ravi Shankar. And Ringo chose simply staying at home and spending more time with his wife and new son, Zak.
Dick Lester, who had directed the Beatles’ first two movies (A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) asked John if he’d like to take a role in his new film How I Won the War and John accepted. Filmed in Almeria, Spain, How I Won the War turned out to be a rather forgettable film. But John used his free time off-camera in Almeria to write a new song. This very unusual song, originally called “It’s Not Too Bad,” was later be considered, by many, to be John’s finest accomplishment in his acclaimed and prolific career as a Beatle composer.
As a young boy growing up in Liverpool, John and his pals, Pete Shotton, Nigel Whalley and Ivan Vaughan, would play in the garden at a Salvation Army children’s home around the corner from John’s home. It was called “Strawberry Field” (John took the liberty of adding the “s” at the end). Strawberry Field had its own Salvation Army band.
Each summer, there was a fete at Strawberry Field, with the band playing their brass and bass drum music. John’s aunt Mimi recalled, “As soon as we could hear the Salvation Army band playing, John would jump up and down, shouting ‘Mimi, come on, we’re going to be late!'”
John and his pals would enjoy the music, check out the girls and sell lemonade bottles at the fete, giving them some much-needed pocket money. John was never to forget those idyllic, halcyon days, and they were to be the main influence of the song he was to compose a decade and a half later.
Recording of “Strawberry Fields Forever” began on November 24, 1966 and would last, off and on, for the next five weeks. The Beatles were to spend 45 hours working on recording it, in total.
The song begins dreamily with Paul’s main contribution, the haunting introduction played on the mellotron. John’s lyric “No one, I think, is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low” was John saying, “Well, I was too shy and self-doubting. No one seems to be as hip as me was what I was saying. Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius.” John’s lyric “and nothing to get hung about” came from how Aunt Mimi would warn John not to play in Strawberry Field, to which John would reply, “they won’t hang you for it.”
The song’s final line was to cause much controversy and speculation. While he is playing the mellotron at the song’s conclusion, it sounds as if John is saying “I buried Paul.” This common misinterpretation was to contribute to the infamous “Paul is dead” rumors which would sprout up in 1969, resulting in millions of fans actually believing that Paul McCartney was, indeed, dead.
But John is actually saying “cranberry sauce,” a typically Lennonesque non-sequitur, having no meaning whatsoever. Note: countless other fans thought John was saying “I’m very bored.”
After the Beatles had worked on the song for several weeks, John said he liked two different recorded versions, one fairly slow and the other faster. He asked producer George Martin if he could merge the two versions together, saying he liked the first half of the slower version (the first version) and the second part of the faster version.
Martin patiently explained that this would be impossible, as besides the two different tempos, the two versions were also recorded in two different keys. Never willing to accept no for an answer in any facet of life, John simply said, “I know you can fix it, George” and walked out.
It was left to George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick to do the seemingly impossible assignment, but do it they did. By speeding up the first half of the first version and decreasing the speed of half of the second version, Martin and Emerick combined the two and created the perfect “Strawberry Fields Forever” blended final version.
The added bonus was that by both increasing and decreasing the speed of the music, the final version of the song gave John’s voice a slightly haunting and “swimming” quality. “He wanted it to be a gentle dreaming song,” George Martin recalled.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” was originally intended to be used as a song on the Beatles 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was actually the very first song recorded for Sgt. Pepper. Along with Paul’s “Penny Lane,” both songs were planned to evoke a nostalgic feel, perfect for the Sgt. Pepper album. But Beatles manager Brian Epstein implored Martin that the Fab Four needed a new single immediately and Martin conceded and released the two as a double-A sided record.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” was released on February 13, 1967 in the UK and on February 17th in America. Not saving these two masterpieces for the Sgt. Pepper album was an act George Martin would always call “the biggest mistake of my career.”
Incredibly, although often regarded as the greatest single ever released (not just by the Beatles, but by anyone), “Strawberry Fields Forever” became the first Beatles single not to reach the number one spot on the British charts since “Love Me Do” (the boys’ debut single) back in 1962. To rub salt in the wound, the record topping it was Engelbert Humperdinck’s rather insipid “Release Me.”
In America, “Strawberry Fields Forever” peaked on the charts at number eight. The fact of “Strawberry Fields Forever” ending the Beatles 12 consecutive number ones notwithstanding, the song was instantly acclaimed as one of John’s best.
(Image credit: Jack)
Time magazine hailed “Strawberry Fields Forever” as “The latest sample of the Beatles astonishing inventiveness.” In 2010, Rolling Stone ranked it number three on their list of Greatest Beatle Songs. Mojo magazine rated it slightly higher on their similar list, number two- with only “A Day in the Life” beating it and coming in at the top spot. In 2017, Beatles biographer Hunter Davies called “Strawberry Fields Forever” the “best song I’ve ever heard in my entire life.”
In an interview in the ’70’s George Martin was asked to rate both John’s and Paul’s best-ever songs. George answered “‘Strawberry Fields’ for John, ‘Yesterday’ for Paul.”
John Lennon himself always mentioned the song anytime he was asked for his favorite Beatle songs. But John was a moody and often irascible creature. In 1980, in an interview shortly before his death, he said the song was “badly recorded” and accused Paul of subconsciously sabotaging the recording.
John was also a very capricious character. He never liked living in the past and was always one to look toward the future and his next project.
In the ’70’s, John invited George Martin to have dinner with him at the Dakota, his New York home. During their chat that evening, John and George got on to the subject of the Beatles songs. Martin was, if course, duly proud of the great canon of music he had created with John and the other Beatles. But to George’s great surprise (shock) John told him “You know, George, there’s not a one of them I wouldn’t like to re-record.”
“Even ‘Strawberry Fields?’ George asked, astonished.
“Especially ‘Strawberry Fields,'” John answered.