In the studio
Strawberry Fields Forever was one of The Beatles' most complicated recordings. With George Martin they spent some time working on the arrangement, going through various re-makes and spending an unprecedented 55 hours of studio time completing the song.
It was recorded over eight dates in the final weeks of 1966. Take one of Strawberry Fields was recorded on 24 November. The backing track had Mellotron played by Paul McCartney in the introduction and coda, and bass guitar in the rest of the song; John Lennon on lead vocals, George Harrison playing electric guitars; and Ringo Starr on drums.
John Lennon overdubbed his lead vocals onto a second track, with Harrison simultaneously adding a slide guitar sound played on the Mellotron. These were recorded with the tape machine running faster than normal, so the sound was slower upon playback.
Onto a third track Lennon double tracked his vocals in the first chorus and third verse. The fourth track was then filled with harmony vocals from Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. These latter two parts were omitted when the song was remixed for Anthology 2 in 1996. The backing vocals were included on the remix of Strawberry Fields Forever on the Love album in 2006.
The complete version of take one was made available on the 2017 super deluxe box set edition of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
On 28 November the group recorded three more takes, numbered 2-4. The song was arranged slightly differently – this time it started with a Mellotron introduction followed by the chorus. The key was also changed from C to A major.
The line-up on take two was the same as on take one, with the addition of maracas played by Starr. This attempt was largely complete, despite some guitar errors during the second chorus. It ended after the final chorus, and so missed the extended coda of the later versions.
Take three broke down during the introduction, after Lennon complained that the Mellotron was too loud. The fourth take was complete, however, and featured Mellotron, drums and maracas on track one; Lennon's electric guitar on track two; McCartney's bass guitar on three, along with Harrison's Morse code-style notes played on the Mellotron's guitar setting; and Lennon's lead vocals on track four. The vocals were recorded with the tape running faster than normal, so it was slower upon playback. Take four can also be heard on the 2017 box set.
This version was marked 'best', albeit temporarily. Three rough mono mixes were made for reference purposes but, after further reflection, The Beatles decided to re-record the rhythm track.
The Beatles used the same arrangement and line-up for the 29 November session. It began with lengthy rehearsals and discussions before the band recorded take 5. It was a false start, but take 6 was complete, and had an extended coda.
Lennon added slowed down vocals and McCartney recorded a bass guitar part, and a reduction mix – take 7 – was made to free up two tracks on the tape. Lennon then double-tracked his vocals during the choruses, and an overdub using the Mellotron's guitar and piano settings was the last item to be recorded. Three rough mono mixes, numbered 1-3, were then made and four acetate discs were pressed for The Beatles' reference.
The first minute of take 7 was eventually incorporated into the final release, and the full version was included on the 2017 super deluxe box set and double-CD editions of Sgt Pepper.
John Lennon was dissatisfied with the results so far, and asked George Martin to score a new version for brass and strings. The first task was to re-record the rhythm track. On 8 December 1966 this took 15 attempts, numbered 9-24. Only nine of the takes were complete, they were faster than the previous attempts, and there was no take 19.
George Martin and Geoff Emerick arrived late to the studio as they had tickets for the première of the Cliff Richard film Finders Keepers. As The Beatles were keen to start recording, technical engineer Dave Harries oversaw the early part of the session.
They had tickets for the premiere of Cliff Richard's film Finders Keepers and didn't arrive back until about 11 o'clock. Soon after I had lined up the microphones and instruments in the studio that night, ready for the session, The Beatles arrived, hot to record. There was nobody else there but me so I became producer/engineer. We recorded Ringo's cymbals, played them backwards, Paul and George were on timps and bongos, Mal Evans played tambourine, we overdubbed the guitars, everything. It sounded great. When George and Geoff came back I scuttled upstairs because I shouldn't really have been recording them.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
The recordings from this session were a far cry from the previous versions of Strawberry Fields Forever. Ringo Starr was on drums, and the other Beatles played various percussion instruments including cymbals, hi-hat, snare drum, bongos, maracas and tambourine. Some of the cymbals were recorded backwards.
Towards the end of the session two takes were edited together. The first 2:24 of take 15 was combined with the latter part of take 24, which featured Lennon muttering phrases including "Cranberry sauce" and telling Starr to calm down. Some of this day's recording was included on Anthology 2, crossfaded with part of take seven. An attempt at a reduction mix was made at the end of the session, but it was redone the following day.
On 9 December a new reduction mix became known as take 25, and put the percussion onto a single track of the tape. Paul McCartney then recorded a lead guitar part, George Harrison added some svarmandal, an Indian zither instrument, and George Martin and John Lennon played two Mellotron parts, using the 'swinging flutes' and, towards the end of the song, 'piano riff' settings.
It was decided that Martin should score Strawberry Fields for strings and brass. Four trumpets and three cellos were recorded on 15 December, onto track three of the tape. The trumpeters were Tony Fisher, Greg Bowen, Derek Watkins and Stanley Roderick, and the cellists were John Hall, Derek Simpson and Norman Jones.
A reduction mix, numbered take 26, was then made to free up space for more overdubs. It had The Beatles' drums and percussion parts on track one, and electric guitar, Mellotron, cellos and trumpets on track two.
Also on 15 December, John Lennon recorded his lead vocals onto track three. He double tracked them during the choruses onto track four, with George Harrison simultaneously adding two descending svarmandal arpeggios.
Five mono mixes, numbered RM5-9, were made towards the end of the session, and the following day four acetate discs of RM9 were cut for each of The Beatles to take home.
21 December saw the addition of new Lennon vocals, plus snare drum and piano. These were recorded on track three, erasing the 15 December recording. The full take 26 can be heard on the Sgt Pepper box set and double-CD sets released in 2017.
That was the end of the recording, but it the song wasn't yet complete. John Lennon decided that he liked both 29 November's take seven, and the more elaborate and intense remake, and asked George Martin for a combination of the two.
He said, 'Why don't you join the beginning of the first one to the end of the second one?'
'There are two things against it,' I replied. 'They are in different keys and different tempos. Apart from that, fine.'
'Well,' he said, 'you can fix it!'
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
On 22 December 1966 Martin and Emerick studied the tapes to see if Lennon's wish was possible. The two recordings were a semitone apart, but they found that by speeding up the first version and slowing down the second they were able to match, "With the grace of God, and a bit of luck," according to Martin.
Take 7, which opened the song, was left in its original key of A major. Take 26, meanwhile, was recorded in C major. The tape speed of the remake was slowed by 11.5%, which brought the tempos and keys of both versions into line.
The edit can be heard on the final version at precisely 60 seconds, immediately prior to the words "going to" in the second chorus. The joining of the two versions marked the completion of Strawberry Fields Forever, nearly a month after recording began.