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October 20, 2004

Songs for a Desert Island V

lennon.jpg Boy, it has been a while since I've picked a song in my Songs for a Desert Island series. The last song, All This Time by Sting, I wrote about way back in June. Well, the wait is over. The next song is by the Beatles. While it is probably a bit cliched to pick a Beatles song for this honor, how could you not pick a Beatles song to go with you to a desert island? Really, the trouble is picking just that one Beatles song to bring along. Consider that they only recorded for 7 years, and yet they were able to come out with 16 studio albums and record 186 songs. 186 potential songs is a lot to choose from. Could it be "Hey Jude" or "Here Comes the Sun"? How about "A Day in the Life" or "We Can Work it Out"? Not to mention "Eleanor Rigby" or perhaps "Revolution". All of these, and many more, are certainly worthy of selection, but for me no song captures the essence of the Beatles better than "Strawberry Fields Forever."

No other song in the Beatles catalog captures the essence of the Beatles than "Strawberry Fields Forever." Written by John Lennon, recorded in 1966, and released as a double A-sided single (along with McCartney's Penny Lane) in 1967, "Strawberry Fields" is full of Beatles' nostalgia, heavy musical and substance experimentation, anguish, and happiness all at the same time. The actual Strawberry Fields was a former orphanage near Lennon's childhood home. As a child Lennon attended summer fesitvals there and in his spare time he played in the surrounding field. One could argue that for him it represented a happy time in his life, or perhaps it even represented the overall peace and tranquility of childhood in general. There is little doubt that the events preceding the recording of "Strawberry Fields Forever" caused Lennon a lot of strife and maybe made him long for the simplicity of childhood. The lyrics begin:

Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields.
Nothing is real and nothing to get hungabout.
Strawberry Fields forever.

Only months before the recording of "Strawberry Fields" Lennon was villified and even sent death threats for his statement that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. It is easy to see why he would long to return to Strawberry Fields, where everything was make believe, and there was nothing to worry about. Why not "Strawberry Fields forever"? Lennon continues:

Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.
It's getting hard to be someone but it all works out, it doesn't matter much to me.
Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields.
Nothing is real and nothing to get hungabout.
Strawberry Fields forever.

Here we have one of the first examples of Lennon challenging society as a whole, by accusing people of taking the easy way out rather than actually trying to understand another point of view. Lennon next seems to claim that it is difficult to be someone of integrity living around so much hypocrisy and fakeness. It seems fame has taken its toll on Lennon as he realizes that everything he says will be scrutinized and misconstrued. But he also seems to be saying that either it "doesn't matter" and that he has decided he will just be himself, or that he is just genuinely tired and that none of it really matters at all. Lennon continues:

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.
Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields.
Nothing is real and nothing to get hungabout.
Strawberry Fields forever

If you've ever listend to the second Beatles Anthology you will hear on the "Strawberry Fields" demos that this stanza is actually the first stanza Lennon wrote for the song. Lennon always knew he was different, but as this song gives away, he couldn't figure out if that was good or bad. Later in life Lennon would admit that this stanza refers to the fact that no one seems to be on the same wavelength as him. He would say, "therefore I must be crazy or a genius." No doubt he wishes people could "tune in" to his way of thinking, but he half heartedly admits that "its not too bad." If you've read any Beatles biographies you will probably remember that Lennon was a jerk as a young adult. Cocky, self assured, and sometimes downright nasty he would probably be considered a bully in schools today. This stanza may sound like arrogance to some, but there is also a tinge of anguish that gives away the crumbling of his self assurance that he hinted at in the song "Help!"

Always, no sometimes, think it's me, but you know I know when it's a dream.
I think I know I mean a 'Yes' but it's all wrong, that is I think I disagree.
Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields.
Nothing is real and nothing to get hungabout.
Strawberry Fields forever.

How much of his problems are his own fault? Always? Sometimes? He is almost Hamlet-like in his indecision. At least he knows the difference between reality and a dream (a hawk from a handsaw?), but even then he only thinks he knows before finally deciding that he disagrees. Are we listening to Lennon mature or actually go a little crazy? Whatever the case, Lennon longs for a return to Strawberry Fields where perhaps none of this matters, where his uncertainty and confusion are gone, and he can just be himself again.

Usually I would stop there, but more needs to be said about the actual music of this song. "Strawberry Fields Forever" carried on the psychedelic experimentation Lennon started with "Tomorrow Never Knows" but it does it so successfully the listener can't help but feel the effects of LSD coursing through the speakers. More than any other Beatles song, "Strawberry Fields" epitomizes their musical experimentation as they used every instrument and effect at their disposal to create a psychedelic dream through which everyone could visit Strawberry Fields.

What makes the song even more remarkable, however, is that it is actually two songs (or versions of the song) spliced together. The first 60 seconds of "Strawberry Fields" is actually one of the first versions featuring only the group's electronic and acousitc instrumentation, with a healthy dose of overdubs and effects. However, Lennon became dissatisfied with this and asked George Martin to create an orchestral score for the song which would feature cellos and trumpets. After recording this version Lennon would later decide that he liked the first part of the first version, and the second part of the second version and that he wanted them both on the final version. Martin tried to explain to Lennon that it was impossible given that the two versions weren't even recorded at the same speed or tone. Lennon was adamant and after a lot of work Martin was able to do the impossible. If you listen closely to the version they finally released, at the one minute mark you should be able to hear the switch to the second version of the song. Overall the song becomes much heavier and dense as the extra instruments flow into the song.

I don't think it is an overstatment to say that "Strawberry Fields Forever" ushered in the era of the rock or pop song as an art form. As Ian MacDonald writes in Revolution in the Head:

"'Strawberry Fields Forever' extended the range of studio techniques developed on Revolver, opening up possibilities for pop which, given sufficient invention, could result in unprecedented sound images. Such moods and textures had formerly been the province of classical music, and when George Martin described the recording as 'a complete tone poem -- like a modern Debussy', he did so with a certain justification ... While there are countless contemporary composers capable of music vastly more sophisticated in form and technique, few if any are capable of displaying feeling and fantasy so direct, spontaneous, and original."

So, that is why I have selected "Strawberry Fields Forever" as my fifth Song for a Desert Island. I truly feel it captures the essence of the Beatles from the lyrics, to the music, to the experimentation, both in terms of sound and drugs. I hope you agree with my selection.

Posted by snackeru at October 20, 2004 11:34 PM


Lennon was a phenominal singer/song-writer. "Fields" definately has some of the Phil Spector 'Wall of Sound' influence to it. Very good choice of songs, I like others more, but not gonna criticize this choice.

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at October 20, 2004 3:01 PM

Good choice, Shane. I might even choose the same song. My problem with it is that it's always been impossible for me to think of SFF as a complete work on its own -- I can't separate it from "Penny Lane." They were released together as a double-A side single, so they are almost literally two sides of the same coin. I think I'd have to stretch my desert-island list to include both of them.

Posted by: Stacie at October 21, 2004 3:06 PM

Penny Lane is too fluffy for me. Don't get me wrong, I think it is good, but it doesn't have the same ... weight, I guess, as SFF. McCartney is singing a light and happy song, while Lennon is singing an anguish filled song inside of a psychedelic dream. Anyway, you can certainly put both on your list, that is for sure. That is the great thing about being on a desert island. You are all alone and can listen to anything you want!

Craig, I am intrigued by your wall of sound reference. I'm not aware that Spector influenced SFF at all, although we all know he produced the original Let it Be album. I shall endeavor to explore his influence on Lennon more.

Posted by: Shane at October 21, 2004 5:58 PM

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