By Bill Clift
Strawberry Fields Forever is my absolute, number one favourite record of all time, bar none, and will most likely remain so until the day I finally bid farewell to my long established habit of breathing. Prior to that happening, Strawberry Fields is the last thing I desire to hear before my auditory faculties fade to nothing, or failing that, I hereby request a posthumous broadcasting of it at my funeral so that friends and family have at least one good reason to turn up. It was the piece of music I played to my son Gus when we brought his newborn self home from hospital for the first time. It has encouraged me through times of doubt and adversity, love-tangles and shambles, disappointments and celebrations. It somehow manages to cheer or level me, depending on what’s required, and I still can’t really tell you exactly why.
The technical shenanigans surrounding the recording of Strawberry Fields is well documented. Its various takes went through all manner of massage and manipulation. They were diced and spliced, vari-sped, overdubbed, reversed and key changed. The instruments chosen for its peculiar texture, cellos, drums, guitar, trumpets, svarmandal etc, leave a hotchpotch of sounds from pop/rock, classical and world music. The recording has a suspiciously thrown together, more luck than judgement feel which is probably one reason I find it so appealing. Compare it to the flip-side, Penny Lane, with its carefully studied and slickly arranged pop perfection that never appears in danger of losing its chipper, self assured way and you’ll find something much more hesitant and uncertain in its journey (trip?)
I was an acne daubed, too tall and bulky for my age twelve year old Beatle nut when I first heard this heady concoction creep, like strange smelling smoke from the transistor radio in our kitchen. I had never heard the like. I suppose I’d been prepared for its mad palette of sounds, noise and freakiness by the final track of Revolver, Tomorrow Never Knows, but even that, because of its relentless drive and energy maybe, never quite anticipates the sheer complexity and disorienting vibe of Strawberry Fields Forever. It perfectly encapsulated my budding adolescent state, confused, belonging, not belonging, tentative and naively bold, and I think that goes someway towards explaining my immediate then growing fascination.
I’m not claiming it’s merely a song about adolescence. If that was the case I would have outgrown it years ago but its lyrics suggest the feelings that accompany our teenage years much more than the nostalgia for childhood which some commentators invest in them.
“No one I think is in my tree”- nobody knows what I’m going through. I’m so interesting and alone.
“It’s getting hard to be someone, but it all works out” – I’m struggling at the moment, what with all these hormones crashing about, but I feel I’m becoming mature enough to start some philosophical musings.
“It doesn’t matter much to me”- Whatever!
“I think I know, I mean, ah yes, but it’s all wrong. That is I think I disagree”- I’m very, very confused at the moment and find it difficult and incredibly tedious trying to express myself. Anyway, I’m bored…
The vocal melody is a very strange kettle of fish. In keeping with the meandering tone of the piece it feels constantly unsettled and eel like. From the extended monotonic line at the start of each verse to the octave jump half way through the chorus, “ and noth(ing to get hung about)”. The melody is forever slipping out of our hands and swimming away from us, sometimes stepping in a comfortable way before leaping tones apart, it swoops and slides and seemingly only arrives safely home on the very last note of both verse and chorus.
There are too many pieces of the production puzzle that is Strawberry Fields to ponder over so here are but two.
Firstly, Ringo! Gawd bless you sir, a proper giant of the sticks and no mistake. The drums and percussion, toms especially, thunder, rumble, hammer and gallop. But not relentlessly. There are swathes of the song where there’s no percussion at all, Paul’s gentle mellotron opening and George’s descending, raga-like svarmandal for example, never letting the texture anticipate or settle . However, whenever the percussion is introduced, it’s done so with an inventiveness and spirit unusual to pop music thus far. Backward high-hats? Where the hell did that come from? Ringo’s gobsmacking fills are playful, daring and perfect. They are often imitated but never surpassed. His contribution is invaluable to the record’s beguiling strangeness.
Secondly, George Martin’s cellos. Up until that point in my life I’d only been aware of the things being tucked between the legs of spinsterly women who stroked them, awkward and listless, to produce maudlin, romantic sounding dross ( I’ve since become aware of Jacqueline Dupree , thank you very much) but never imagined they could produce such power and soul stirring emotion. As well as using traditional western classical effects to produce this result, Martin displays a sensitive awareness of the piece’s Indian influences and reflects them in a lovely, brutal, heavenly/hellish barrage of sound that completely entrances.
It never fails to amaze me how Strawberry Fields Forever seems to be able to change its mood to suit mine. If I’m happy it can enhance my joy or send me off on some sad sentimental reverie; if I’m angry it can harness that energy or soothe and calm; if I’m down it can make me cry buckets or wrap me in its familiar warm duvets of sonic loveliness until I’m comforted and cheered.
What more could you want from a song?
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Patsy Monteleone has been singing all his life and playing ukulele half that long. He began his career in music at age 3 when he stood up on the bar at a tavern in New York’s Little Italy and sang Neapolitan love songs for his paisans. Patrons would throw him nickels and dimes. Once, a miserly elder tossed Patsy a quarter (a lot of money for the old cheapskate), which prompted gasps of amazement among the bar crowd.
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