In the studio
I remember saying to George Martin, ‘I want a very clean recording.’ I was into clean sounds – maybe a Beach Boys influence at that point.
The recording of ‘Penny Lane’ began on 29 December 1966. Initially working alone, Paul McCartney recorded six takes of piano chords to form the song’s basis, onto track one of the tape.
He then overdubbed another piano part onto track two, fed through a Vox amplifier with a tremolo effect at a low speed, while Ringo Starr simultaneously added a tambourine part.
McCartney added more piano onto track three, using EMI’s ‘Mrs Mills’ honky-tonk piano. He also recorded some high harmonium notes, fed through a guitar amplifier, onto track four. At this stage all four tracks of the multitrack tape were full. The instrumental work-in-progress can be heard on the 2017 Special Collector’s Anniversary Edition of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The following day, 30 December, a reduction mix was made which moved all the recordings thus far onto track one. This was known as take seven. McCartney and John Lennon then recorded vocals, with the tape machine running slightly slower than normal, at 47.5 cycles per second, so it sounded faster upon playback.
The Beatles returned to ‘Penny Lane’ on 4 January 1967. McCartney recorded more lead vocals onto track three, and Lennon played piano and George Harrison added lead guitar to track two. Both these tracks were unused.
McCartney redid his vocals the following day, 5 January, on track three, with additional vocals from Lennon.
On 6 January drums, congas, electric guitar and bass guitar were added to track two, again with the tape machine running slow at 47.5 cycles per second. A reduction mix was then made – take eight – with instruments moved to track one and vocals to track four, leaving a further two tracks for the remaining overdubs.
The first brass overdub was 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. ‘Penny Lane’ was then left until 17 January, when the final touch was added. This was the song’s distinctive piccolo trumpet part, played by David Mason, whom 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.
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!’
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
‘Penny Lane’/‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was released on 13 February 1967 in the USA, and on 17 February 1967 in the UK. 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.
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.
Several versions of ‘Penny Lane’ were included in the 2017 deluxe reissue of Sgt Pepper. They were: Take six (instrumental); vocal overdubs and speech, containing suggestions for the brass parts; a new stereo mix; the original mono mix; and the Capitol Records mono US promo mix.