‘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.
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.
‘Penny Lane’ was written by Paul McCartney in the music room at his London home, 7 Cavendish Avenue, near to EMI Studios at Abbey Road. 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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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!
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.