In the studio

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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

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

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