An excellent mate of mine did me a solid recently when he spotted The Beatles box set on sale at a department store for an absurdly cheap price and offered to buy it for anyone who wanted it on Twitter. Three weeks later I have the exquisite delight of being in possession of all 217 of the Fab Fours’ songs, complete with new artwork and extended liner notes, which is essentially what being a music geek is all about. It also absolves the horrible gnawing guilt I felt about being a music journalist who only owned two actual Beatles albums (Revolver and Rubber Soul) in hard copy despite having digital and vinyl versions of the stuff floating around my general vicinity. But best of all, it means that every time I get in the car there’s a new shrink-wrapped disc of delight for me to discover (or in some cases, fall in love with all over again.) And the more you invest in Beatles records – properly, by listening to them top to bottom – the more you start to realise how staggeringly brilliant their output was in such a small time period. Perhaps the best example of this that I’ve encountered recently is 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour. It’s actually absurd how much gold there is on a constructed soundtrack for a film that nobody even really liked.
‘Penny Lane’ was released as a double A-side with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Obviously some people will disagree, but it’s hard to go past this combination when speaking of the best singles the group released. In both of these songs, particularly the former, you hear the whole of The Beatles’ world, past, present and future, wrapped up in accomplished songwriting and production. An ode to a street in John Lennon’s hometown suburb, ‘Penny Lane’ has resonated over the years not only for its whimsy and rich harmonic tapestry, but also a simple, stunning melody that has withstood New Wave, grunge and dubstep. A number of my good friends who lived near our university campus while we were studying named their house ‘Penny Lane’, too. It’s the kind of thing that just sticks.
Aside from being wonderful to sing along to, ‘Penny Lane’ was also remarkably ahead of its time in terms of where rock and roll was at in the sixties. This concentrated period was when Lennon and McCartney – when they weren’t hating each other – really flourished creatively. That brass which answers McCartney’s lyrics in the chorus are rich and vibrant, as are the plonking, descending piano chords which force Ringo into a swing almost by second nature. If you listen hard enough, you’ll notice a substantial amount of woodwind in there, too; oboes, bassoons and flutes entering the mix, only to be completely blasted away by the piccolo trumpet which steals the show from the second chorus. When they’re all firing together, including Lennon’s backing vocals (which to my mind, always sounded better than the other way around – it’s a timbre thing), there is actually very little on this Earth that can match it. And the imagery! ‘Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes’. What a line.
The great thing about ‘Penny Lane’ is that it’s harmonically quite complex but hides it extremely well. It literally drops in and out of minor chords in the verse two or three times before that glorious turnaround, and some of the flute solos really are quite sombre and venture into a sort of Nick Drake-esque territory before the grand salvo that we now all know it coming. I can’t even imagine how great it would have been to slip this onto a turntable for the first time and try and figure out what was happening. That process of discovery is why both my parents still know the words to this song after some fifty years of other pop culture jamming through their brain. Penny Lane belongs to everybody. And thank God for that.
The Beatles – ‘Penny Lane’