After the wild success of the LP’s Rubber Soul and Revolver, and the paranoid nightmare of their final tours, The Beatles settled down in early 1966 to record what would become arguably their most influential and ground-breaking record, Sgt. Pepper.
By all accounts Sgt. Pepper’s took a long time to record, at least compared to the standards of the day. For a band that had released six to seven records (singles, EP’s, and LP’s) a year for the last three years, taking six months to record a single album was practically unheard of. The record company got restless, so The Beatles obliged one final time, made the final payment on their three-year installment plan on mega-stardom. They released a double A-side single that just about blew the lid off the underground psychedelic scene, and sonically heralded the wild U-turn the rest of the decade would take.
And to think, John and Paul were just writing about their childhoods.
In classic Paul mode “Penny Lane” doesn’t have a single drop of Paul in it. He wrote about what it felt like to be in that bustling commercial hub through a series of subtly bizarre images and set pieces that add up to a chiming display of youthful exuberance. Only in the chorus does he say anything like “me” or “my,” and that is only to place himself at the scene. He is the watcher, not the subject itself. Compared to John’s musically ambitious, but cold and cynical, “Strawberry Fields,” which uses an arcane childhood reference to otherwise complain about his boredom and confusion, “Penny Lane” is actually about youthfulness itself, the magic, the excitement, the potential.
For all the complaints of shallowness leveled at Paul, it is these complaints themselves that lack depth. Subtlety was never John’s strong suit. He was brilliant, and dangerous, and caustic, and extraordinarily witty, but he was rarely refined. John could never have written anything as perfect as “Yesterday.” He would have second-guessed himself, and ultimately blasted the song in the media as his self-consciousness got the better of him. But Paul, on the other hand, had no problem writing such a long-legged pop gem. It was in his blood, the showmanship, the bravado, the professionalism.
Paul was probably too refined. He was so sleek and skillful that it is easy to miss how clever his compositions are. And “Penny Lane” is a master class.
Musically “Penny” is no more ambitious than tracks like “Eleanor Rigby” or “Got To Get You Into My Life.” Other than the first ever use of the piccolo trumpet in a pop recording, “Penny Lane” is pretty standard Paul McCartney-penned pop magic. It’s so standard, in fact, that it has become the practical template for the oft-cited short-hand Beatlesque (e.g., “Let’s make this track Beatlesque. You know, like “Penny Lane.”). No track quite sounds so Beatle-y as this one, and that is no small feat, to create the definitive track for a band as expansive and impossibly complex as The Beatles.
It is the lyrics, though, that are most interesting part of this song. Sure it’s catchy and the piano and vocal arrangement are pitch-perfect, but the juxtaposition of this most distinctive of Beatles-sounding songs with the bizarre dream-world created in the lyrics is what makes the song so compelling. If you’re only listening to the melody you’ll completely miss the depth.
It is in the dichotomy of lyrics and music that “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” are the most easily compared. “Strawberry Fields” has a quintessential psychedelic sound, while the lyrics are astoundingly postmodern. Essentially the lyrics are John talking to himself about his confusion and pain, with all the attendant “errs” and “umms” included. It’s all very meta:
“No one I think is in my tree/I mean, it must be high or low/That is, you can’t, you know, tune in/but it’s all right/That is, I think it’s not too bad.”
“Penny Lane,” on the other hand, is superficially postmodern (ie, the music is a self-conscious pastiche of big band), while the lyrics themselves are psychedelic. Each stanza is effectively a portrait of a character Paul sees in Penny Lane (the barber, the fireman, the banker, the pretty nurse) yet nearly every description is filled with slang or hidden meanings. It starts off simply enough with a barber who keeps pictures “of every head he’s had the pleasure to know,“ but eventually we meet a banker that never wears a mac in the pouring rain, a fireman who keeps a picture of the Queen in his pocket and spends all day cleaning his “machine,” and then of course you have the nurse who both feels as if she’s in a play, but also is in one, whatever that means. The song increases its surrealism throughout, and ends with the one-two punch of “Four of fish and finger pies” and “Then the fireman rushes in/from the pouring rain/very strange.” “Four of fish” is slang for a cheap form of fish and chips, while “finger pies” can both alternately mean a small meat pie, and a certain sexual activity favored by teenage boys the world over. The inclusion of such a blatant and well-used slang term certainly casts the earlier lyrics in a new light. This fireman, who is his queen, after-all, and is his machine truly his fire engine, or is it another “machine”?
None of these questions are answered. The song ends with the fireman rushing into the barber shop from the pouring rain. To say what, we’re never told. Very strange, indeed.
The ukulele version of Penny Lane is just that – Ukulele on it’s own. We have been criticized, often correctly, for obscuring our featured instrument. Today we put this right with a true master of the ukulele Mr Gerald Ross.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
One of Gerald Ross’ early claims to fame was a commercial he made with a friend in high school for Kazoozie Kazoos that ran everyday for 2 months on the Captain Kangaroo Show. And while it may have been his talent on a kazoo that kick-started his musical career, Gerald also played bass in a rock band during high school, and electric guitar with a Western swing band and acoustic guitar with a bluegrass band while in college, finally graduating to ‘The Lost World String Band” playing guitar, bottleneck National guitar, and Cajun accordion, appearing several times on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.
Today, however, Gerald Ross is known more for his work with the ukulele and Hawaiian lap steel guitar and has recorded five solo CD’s. In addition to being an extremely polished performer, Gerald is a prepared, organized, and thoughtful teacher, and such a nice guy! Whew!
He has performed in concert with Bonnie Raitt, Arlo Guthrie, Doc Watson, Johnny Gimble, Riders In The Sky, Earl Scruggs, Brownie McGhee and other nationally known artists. He was the winner of the 1993 WEMU Jazz Competition (solo artist). He’s been a featured performer at The New York Uke Fest, The Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, The Wine Country Uke Fest, The Lone Star Uke Fest, The Portland Ukefest, The Sevilla (Spain) Uke Fest, Augusta Heritage Swing Week, The Ashokan Western Swing Week and many other prominent Roots music festivals.
It’s no wonder Gerald Ross has been called an entire music camp and festival in one.