Penny Lane

Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever single artwork - United KingdomWritten by: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: 29, 30 December 1966, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 17 January 1967
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Geoff Emerick

Released: 17 February 1967 (UK), 13 February 1967 (US)

Paul McCartney: vocals, piano, bass, harmonium, tambourine, percussion
John Lennon: backing vocals, piano, guitar, congas, handclaps
George Harrison: backing vocals, guitar
Ringo Starr: drums, handbell
George Martin: piano
Ray Swinfield, P Goody, Manny Winters, Dennis Walton: flutes, piccolos
David Mason, Leon Calvert, Freddy Clayton, Bert Courtley, Duncan Campbell: trumpets, flugelhorn
Dick Morgan, Mike Winfield: oboes, cor anglais
Frank Clarke: double bass

Available on:
Magical Mystery Tour
1
Anthology 2

Penny Lane was released in February 1967 as a double a-side with Strawberry Fields Forever, in what has been described as the greatest single ever released.

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The single found The Beatles at their artistic and creative peak, and Penny Lane – as much as any of their songs released in 1967 – summed up the technicolour world that burst forth from the monochrome early 1960s, and the positive spirit that anything was possible.

A lot of our formative years were spent walking around those places. Penny Lane was the depot I had to change buses at to get from my house to John’s and to a lot of my friends. It was a big bus terminal which we all knew very well. I sang in the choir at St Barnabas Church opposite.
Paul McCartney
Anthology

Penny Lane was written by Paul McCartney in the music room at his London home, 7 Cavendish Avenue, near to Abbey Road Studios. It was composed on an upright piano which he had recently had painted in psychedelic rainbow patterns by artist David Vaughan.

When I came to write it, John came over and helped me with the third verse, as often was the case. We were writing childhood memories: recently faded memories from eight or ten years before, so it was a recent nostalgia, pleasant memories for both of us. All the places were still there, and because we remembered it so clearly we could have gone on.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

John Lennon is said to have contributed the line “Four of fish and finger pie”, which derived from a crude Liverpudlian sexual term.

It’s part fact, part nostalgia for a great place – blue suburban skies, as we remember it, and it’s still there. And we put in a joke or two: ‘Four of fish and finger pie.’ The women would never dare say that. except to themselves. Most people wouldn’t hear it, but ‘finger pie’ is just a nice little joke for the Liverpool lads who like a bit of smut.
Paul McCartney, 1967
Anthology

The song’s title had been toyed with by the two writers since Rubber Soul, when an embryonic In My Life had Lennon imagining a bus journey through Liverpool, listing names of places remembered. When released alongside Strawberry Fields Forever, both songs saw both Lennon and McCartney looking back to their childhood in markedly different ways.

We were often answering each other’s songs so it might have been my version of a memory song but I don’t recall. It was childhood reminiscences: there is a bus stop called Penny Lane. There was a barber shop called Bioletti’s with head shots of the haircuts you can have in the window and I just took it all and arted it up a little bit to make it sound like he was having a picture exhibition in his window. It was all based on real things; there was a bank on the corner so I imagined the banker, it was not a real person, and his slightly dubious habits and the little children laughing at him, and the pouring rain. The fire station was a bit of poetic licence; there’s a fire station about half a mile down the road, not actually in Penny Lane, but we needed a third verse so we took that and I was very pleased with the line ‘It’s a clean machine’. I still like that phrase, you occasionally hit a lucky little phrase and it becomes more than a phrase. So the banker and the barber shop and the fire station were all real locations.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

Penny Lane was a street in Liverpool, which also lent its name to the surrounding area. Lennon and McCartney both lived nearby, and often met at the Penny Lane junction to catch a bus into the city centre.

The bank was there, and that was where the tram sheds were and people waiting and the inspector stood there, the fire engines were down there. It was just reliving childhood.
John Lennon, 1968
Rolling Stone

Penny Lane was originally intended to be a part of The Beatles’ eighth album, which would turn out to be Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

We started off with Strawberry Fields, and then we recorded When I’m Sixty-Four and Penny Lane. They were all intended for the next album. We didn’t know it was Sgt Pepper then – they were just going to be tracks on The New Album – but it was going to be a record created in the studio, and there were going to be songs that couldn’t be performed live.
George Martin
Anthology

Promotional film

Once it was decided that Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever would be released as a double a-side single, The Beatles agreed to make a promotional film for distribution to television companies. Both songs’ films were produced by Tony Bramwell and directed by Peter Goldmann.

On 5 February 1967 The Beatles were filmed in Stratford, London, where they rode horses and walked in and around the Angel Lane area. Two days later they went to Knole Park in Sevenoaks, Kent, where the Strawberry Fields Forever film had been made a few days earlier. They rode horses through an archway, and then sat at a dinner table where they were served with their musical instruments.

The Penny Lane one on the horses wasn’t quite that exciting for me; it was a bit real!
Ringo Starr
Anthology

The footage was intercut with material shot in Liverpool, of the areas mentioned in the song and of the Liverpudlian green buses. The Beatles did not feature in these segments, which were filmed on an unknown date.

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.

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