Penny Lane

In the studio

Download on iTunes


I remember saying to George Martin, ‘I want a very clean recording.’ I was into clean sounds – maybe a Beach Boy influence at that point.
Paul McCartney
Anthology

The recording of Penny Lane began on 29 December 1966. Working alone, McCartney recorded six takes of piano chords to form the song’s basis.

He then overdubbed another piano, fed through a Vox amplifier, and then another recorded at half speed. A tambourine was also added during this second overdub. Onto the fourth track of the tape McCartney then added some high-pitch notes from a harmonium, and finally a series of percussive effects including cymbal crashes.

The following day McCartney recorded his lead vocals, with John Lennon providing backing. They returned to the song on 4 January 1967, when Lennon added a piano track, McCartney more vocals, and George Harrison lead guitar. McCartney’s vocals were replaced the following day.

On 6 January a track was recorded featuring McCartney on bass, Lennon playing rhythm guitar and Ringo Starr on drums. Lennon then overdubbed congas, before the tracks were mixed down to free up new tracks. They then recorded handclaps, Lennon and George Martin added piano overdubs, and Lennon, Martin and McCartney sang ‘scat’ vocals where the brass would later be overdubbed.

The brass was added on 9 January: four flutes, two trumpets, two piccolos and a flugelhorn. The following day The Beatles added harmony vocals, and the ringing of a handbell whenever the fireman or his engine appeared in the lyrics.

On 12 January two trumpets, oboes, cor anglais and a double bass were overdubbed. The song was then left until 17 January, when the final touch was added. This was the song’s distinctive piccolo trumpet, played by David Mason, who McCartney had seen performing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto on BBC Two on 11 January.

Mason was paid £27 10s for his work which, in the absence of any prepared notation, he helped McCartney and Martin write and arrange.

We spent three hours working it out. Paul sang the parts he wanted, George Martin wrote them out, I tried them. But the actual recording was done quite quickly.
David Mason
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

Mason recorded two overdubs, the solo, and the flourish towards the song’s close which appeared on early US pressings of the single (and later on Anthology 2). And with that, recording on Penny Lane was complete.

Although Paul seemed to be in charge, and I was the only one playing, the other three Beatles were there too. They all had funny clothes on, candy-striped trousers, floppy yellow bow ties etc. I asked Paul if they’d been filming because it really looked like they had just come off a film set. John Lennon interjected: ‘Oh no mate, we always dress like this!’
David Mason
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

Chart success

Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever was released in February 1967. In Britain it was housed in a limited edition picture sleeve, unusual in the 1960s.

The only reason that Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane didn’t go onto the new album was a feeling that if we issued a single, it shouldn’t go onto an album. That was a crazy idea, and I’m afraid I was partly responsible. It’s nonsense these days, but in those days it was an aspect that we’d try to give the public value for money.

The idea of a double a-side came from me and Brian, really. Brian was desperate to recover popularity, and so we wanted to make sure that we had a marvellous seller. He came to me and said, ‘I must have a really great single. What have you got?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve got three tracks – and two of them are the best tracks they’ve ever made. We could put the two together and make a smashing single.’ We did, and it was a smashing single – but it was also a dreadful mistake. We would have sold far more and got higher up the charts if we had issued one of those with, say, When I’m Sixty-Four on the back.

George Martin
Anthology

Remarkably, although it was arguably The Beatles’ strongest single, it failed to top the UK singles chart. Although sales were on a par with other Beatles singles, and it received much airplay across radio stations, it was held off by Engelbert Humperdinck’s Release Me. It did, however, top the charts in the US and most other countries in which it was issued.

It was pretty bad, wasn’t it, that Engelbert Humperdinck stopped Strawberry Fields Forever from getting to number one? But I don’t think it was a worry. At first, we wanted to have good chart positions, but then I think we started taking it for granted. It might have been a bit of a shock being number two – but then again, there were always so many different charts that you could be number two in one chart and number one in another.
George Harrison
Anthology

44 responses on “Penny Lane

  1. Phil Nix

    Paul’s bass playing brilliance at it’s best. The note selection is just incredible. Ranks in my book as one of the best pop tunes ever recorded. It’s right up there with God Only Knows by Brian Wilson. For anyone studying melody construction, there is much to learn from this composition. I will never ever get tired of hearing this song.

  2. richard calvert

    ‘Penny Lane’ to all those growing up in the 60′s, this ‘was’ the way we saw life in our own small comunities. We had a girl living down the block named, ‘Penny’, who just loved this song! How wonderful we thought for a ‘Musical Group’ to write such an ‘every person’ song to fit all places, for all times! Such we’re ‘The Beatles’, true heros’ to a young generation in search of their ‘Voice’. Thank You, Beatles,…Forever!

    1. Joseph Brush

      Paul was easily the most prominent bass player in pop music at the time with John Entwistle of the Who and Rick Danko of the Band as the closest competition, in my opinion.
      (By the way, I thoroughly recommend Entwistle’s first solo album “Smash Your Head Against The Wall”!).
      Of course there were other bass players at the time that were consistently solid (especially Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones and Pete Quaife of the Kinks).

      1. Von Bontee

        Don’t see how Rick Danko could really be called prominent in 1967 – a handful of unbilled appearances on Bob Dylan singles would be his only contribution to the pop charts. James Jamerson was the era’s most prominent bassist, aside from Berry Gordy’s keeping him totally anonymous.

        1. Joseph Brush

          Danko did not have to appear on the pop charts to be a prominent bass player prior to 1968. His work with Dylan on the 1966 world tour speaks for itself.
          Sonny Boy Williamson was going to collaborate with the Hawks prior to his untimely death in the mid-sixties.
          That is the nature of Danko’s credibility.

            1. Joseph Brush

              Yes, obviously we are interpreting differently.
              I believe “influential” is a better word, especially for James Jamerson, in relation to his singular inspiration to so many well known bass players.
              After all, how could James Jamerson be “the era’s most prominent bassist” and be “totally anonymous” at the same time?

              1. Von Bontee

                OK: it’s his playing, his sound, his influence that were prominent, and not the man himself, except in retrospect.

  3. Aleks

    “Penny Lane there is a fireman with an hourglass
    And in his pocket is a portrait of a queen
    He likes to keep his fire engine clean
    It’s a clean machine”

    The English is not my native language. I have found in the Dictionary of the English military slang that “an hourglass” means a thin waist synched by the belt. This would fit better with the character of the Fireman. Can anybody who’s native language is English confirm that?

    1. Joe Post author

      Not quite. An hourglass is a glass timing device with two chambers and a narrow bit in the middle. There’s a picture and explanation here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hourglass
      An ‘hourglass figure’ is when a woman has wide hips and a thin waist, and derives from the shape of the hourglass. The fireman in Penny Lane had the timing device in his pocket, not the woman’s figure!

      1. Aleks

        Joe, you are not right. Hour glass in the fireman’s pocket? No, we only know about the portrait of a Queen. But thank you for the explanation based on female body geometry. I like it.

        “Penny Lane there is a fireman with an hourglass
        AND in his pocket is a portrait of a Queen
        He likes to keep his fire engine clean
        It’s a clean machine”

  4. Sergio A. Genzon

    I don’t know if anyone is aware of the death of David Mason, the trumpeter who played the famous trumpet solo on Penny Lane. He was 84. When he was called for the recording he was playing for the London Symphonic Orchestra and didn’t know who The Beatles were. Paul had seen him play on TV The Brandemburg Concerto, by Bach. He thought of using a trumpet played in that style, told George Martin about it and this guy was called. There was no written chart for it, so Paul sang the melody he wanted played, Martin wrote, Mason played two takes, and it was done. He got payed $45.00. Although he played for the LSO for 30 years or so, he was most famously known for his part on Penny Lane.
    Thank you, Mr. Mason. RIP.

  5. Charles_in_UK

    Lovely, beautiful track on every level – one of my fav’s. One of two great McCartney’s Beatle tracks where the lyrics absolutely shine! (My post for “Eleanor Rigby” — regarding the lyrics — pertains here as well:
    `Indeed, this track is quite good. Can we safely assume that Lennon’s contribution was rather prodigious, based on the banality of McCartney’s post-1970 lyrics?’).

    1. robert

      Interesting that this is the phrase you mention, because I was 9 years old when Penny Lane came out and I didn’t know what the word “suburban” meant so I asked my mom and learned a new word – thanks Paul!

  6. FrankDialogue

    Don’t like to engage in ‘John vs. Paul’, but permit me a brief comment”:

    “Can we safely assume that Lennon’s contribution was rather prodigious, based on the banality of McCartney’s post-1970 lyrics?”

    Hmm…Lennon’s post 1970 prodigious lyrics:

    ‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain…I’ll say it again’

    All of ‘Working Class Hero’ from the only middle class Beatle….

    ‘Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too…’

    ‘Beef Jerky, beef jerky, beef jerky’

    Yes, Lennon was quite ‘prodigious’!

    On ‘Penny Lane’ I’m sure he helped with a line or two…Thanks.

    1. Joe Post author

      I really don’t want this comments section to become a John v Paul debate, particularly if it encompasses the solo years too. Can we keep the discussion to Penny Lane please?

  7. Joao Querido

    I always wondered, when the chorus bridges back to the vs., does John Lennon sing, “I sit and….” then Paul, “Meanwhile back..” On headphones that’s what I’m hearing. What do you think?

  8. jimbo

    Love the airy feel of this, almost like a summer’s day under blue suburban skies! Of course, there is an explanation for this. No bass drum you see – nothing to root the rhythm. Would love to get the the multitrack of this.

  9. BILLY SHEARS

    Penny Lane is a “complete song” in that it tells a story in a circular fashion – by returning the verses back to the beginning with a great twist of irony. If only It and Strawberry Fields Forever were originally included on SGT. Pepper…wow. Great combo of songs for a single double-side release. Penny Lanes is a Happy tune that balances the mystery and strangeness of Strawberry Fields Forever – also a personal story for John.

  10. James Ferrell

    I think it is very interesting to read that Paul wanted this to be “a very clean recording,” because compared to, say, the songs on Rubber Soul, this one sounds much less real and immediate, probably because of the many piano tracks fading in and out and all of the reduction mixes. It distances you from the performance in a very 1967 kind of way. It would be interesting to hear this one with one piano track, one guitar track, one drum track, etc.

    That said, this is still one of my very favorite Beatle songs. Maybe one of my three favorite Paul songs (with Eleanor Rigby and Hey Jude) and one of my six favorite Beatle songs overall (with A Day in the Life, I Am the Walrus, and Strawberry Fields). I find it unbelievable that this band was plucking these plums out one after the other.

    1. Dan

      I believe he meant clean in the sense that all of the instruments and pieces of the song are crisp, clear, and nicely layered almost like a modern song, no rough edges. Not clean in the stripped-down straightforward type of way. He wanted an intricate pop song that sounded bright and full without sounding busy and bloated, something the Beach Boys were doing since 1965 with stuff like California Girls or In the Back of My Mind. Something similar recorded with more modern technology would be something like Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois album.

  11. wborys

    David Mason, the trumpeter was mentioned.

    Geoff Emerick’s book relates how he played an incredibly hard part (out of the range of the instrument) note-perfect, and then after the take, Macca was going to ask him to try again! George M convinced him it was not going to happen…

  12. Joe

    Does anybody else find the high-pitched sound at the end and right before the bridge especially annoying?

    Sure wish that had been kept out of this otherwise fantastic recording!

    1. Julian

      That sound is from (I think) the first Penny Lane session – December 29th, 1966. One of the tracks from the four-track tape that day featured those high-pitched notes from an accordion along with some cymbals, as you say especially heard at the end. You can isolate it from one of the channels of the surround sound Anthology DVD mix. There’s audio of it somewhere on YouTube, I’ve heard it myself!

  13. Jay

    Yeah Joe, I think that’s a feedback of an instrument or a mic? They produce the feedback to the pitch of B-note, same key of the last chord of the song. I just don’t how they made it.

Leave a reply