Song of the Week – Strawberry Fields Forever, The Beatles

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This weekend marks two very important anniversaries for me. It is the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arrival in the US and their “where were you when…” performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. It is also the 6th anniversary of the SotW – originally inspired by the Beatles anniversary. (The very first SotW was the Ed Sullivan recording of “All My Loving.”)

In honor of my affection for all things Beatles, I’ve decided to celebrate these anniversaries by tackling a project that has been on my “to do” list for quite some time. I’m going to lay out the famous story of the recording of “Strawberry Fields Forever” complete with audio. So buckle up!

The story begins here in San Francisco, where on August 29, 1966 the Beatles played their last concert at Candlestick Park. Freed from touring, the band members had the time to pursue other (solo) projects. John went off to Spain to shoot the movie How I Won the War, with Richard Lester who also directed both A Hard Day’s Night and Help!. It was on location in Spain that John wrote and first demoed SFF under the working title “It’s Not Too Bad.”

On Thursday, November 24th, the band assembled at Abbey Road Studios to start their next recording session. In his fine memoir, Here, There and Everywhere, Beatles’/Abbey Road engineer Geoff Emerick describes how the session started.

Down in the studio, George Martin was perched, as usual, on his high stool, positioned in the midst of the four Beatles; he liked being looked up to, so he never sat in a normal chair during routining. John was standing directly in front of him, playing an acoustic guitar and singing softly. Because he wasn’t close to the microphones we had arranged around the room, I had to push the faders up quite high to hear him…

When he finished, there was a moment of stunned silence, broken by Paul, who in a quiet, respectful tone said simply, “That is absolutely brilliant.”

It must have sounded something like this.

This demo, released on The Beatles Anthology 2, was recorded at John’s home when he returned from Spain, sometime between November 7th and the November 24th recording session. Of note is that the demo version of the song is missing the famous intro and instead begins with the “no one I think is in my tree” verse (that will ultimately be the 2nd verse in the official release).

Immediately after hearing John’s demo, the boys got down to work. They spent the next several hours “routining” – figuring out who would play which instruments and which parts. They settled on John playing rhythm guitar, Paul played the band’s newest toy, the Mellotron, George was experimenting with slide guitar and Ringo manned the drums, but placed towels on the drum heads to give them the muffled sound he was after.

They laid down one take that night.

Take 1 is generally unremarkable – the Beatles were just trying to get the feel of the song on tape – but it did result in a couple of advancements. John had come up with the verse that would end up as the first verse – “living is easy with eyes closed” – and near the end, Paul came up with the Mellotron part that ultimately became the intro.

On the evening of Monday, November 28th, the boys were back at Abbey Road to continue working on SFF. Over a session that lasted about 7 hours, they laid down Takes 2-4.

2 and 4 were full rhythm tracks (3 was a false start with John scolding Paul for playing too loud) with more guitars, bass and maracas overdubbed onto the basic tracks. They deemed 4 as “best”, so John added a vocal track. By now, the song structure had evolved to include the intro followed by the chorus to start, but still had the first verse immediately followed by the second without another chorus in between.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, November 29th, work on SFF progressed further. Two more Takes, 5-6, were recorded.

Take 5 was a false start, but Take 6 was completed. Take 6 was then “reduced” to Take 7 with another Lennon vocal overdub.

This recording is the complete Take 7 with the drum edit piece from Take 26 tacked on. More on that later. Take 7 also added ADT (automatic double tracking) to John’s vocal. This mix was deemed the new “best” and sat idle until the band took up work on SFF again over a week later.

During this break John had been listening to the acetate of Take 7 and wasn’t fully satisfied with it. He told producer George Martin he wanted to take another run at it and suggested bringing in some outside musicians. Lennon and Martin worked together to create a score for trumpets and cellos. But before they could be overdubbed, the band would have to record new rhythm tracks.

On Thursday, December 8th the work began. Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive book, The Beatles Recording Sessions, summarizes the session this way:

By the end of the session 15 more takes had been recorded, numbered nine to 24, all of them rhythm only (i.e., no vocals). But although nine of those 15 were complete (there was, for some reason, no take numbered 19, nor was there an 8), it was two of the incomplete versions – takes 15 and 24 – which were chosen to take the song into the next stage. Before the end of this long night George Martin and Geoff Emerick edited together the first three-quarters of take 15 with the last quarter of take 24. An attempt to mixdown the two four-track edits into take 25 was started but then aborted for the night, to be continued the next day.

The work was completed on Friday, December 9th.

On Thursday, December 15th four trumpets and three cellos were brought in to overdub the score onto the rhythm track – Take 26. Over this, John recorded a vocal that sounds manic compared to his original demo. This is where John utters the non sequitur “cranberry sauce” (twice) – not “I buried Paul” as the “Paul is dead” conspiracy theorists claimed.

Of interest is the much faster tempo (and different key), George’s addition of a swordmandel (an Indian instrument) part, and backward taped cymbals.

Finally, we come to the famous edits. On Thursday, December 22nd, Lennon told Martin that he liked both versions of SFF (Takes 7 and 26). He wanted to join the beginning of Take 7 to the ending of Take 26. When Martin explained that they were recorded in different keys and tempos, John said “Well, can you fix that?”

Again, from Lewisohn’s book:

George and Geoff carefully studied the two versions and realized that if they speeded up the remix of the first version (take seven) and then slowed down the remix of the second (take 26) they might match. They were originally a semitone different. “With the grace of God, and a bit of luck we did it,” says Martin. All that was left now was to edit the two pieces together and the song – almost a full month after it was started – was finally finished. “We gradually decreased the pitch of the first version at the join to make them weld together,” says Geoff Emerick.

The final, official release begins with the intro, chorus and first verse from Take 7. Then another chorus from Take 7 was edited in to bridge to verse 2 which is where Take 26 begins. This was necessary because on Take 7, verse 1 and 2 were consecutive, without a chorus in between. The next verse (2), chorus, verse (3), chorus, and coda are all from Take 26, making the final released version of the song a musical palindrome.

There was another “edit” during the coda at the end. Ringo was having trouble keeping up the intensity of his drumming during the coda. There was one short lapse, but the section after it was very good too. The solution? The false ending fade out, then fade back in.

Happy Beatles weekend!

Enjoy… until next week.

2 thoughts on “Song of the Week – Strawberry Fields Forever, The Beatles

  1. This is epic and awesome, or awesome and epic, or some such. I do wonder if they got tired of working on the song after a month? I certainly know I hate playing Dead Flowers and Moondance simply because every band i have ever been in insisted on playing them.

    BTW, I did actually see “How I Won the War” when it came out. I read the book, too. And, Richard Lester was a really great film maker. He also made the wonderful Three and Four Musketeers of the 70’s (with Michael York, Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, Faye Dunnaway, and Raquel Welch among others).

    And, he was part of the Goon Squad with Peter Sellers and Spike Miligan (who was in Help and A Hard Day’s Night) from which Python owes some chops (and, Milligan was in several Python films as well).

    Either way, this was just great Tom!

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