| home | authors | calendar colophon | links | newsgroups | newsfeed | new | printer version |  
alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "Penny Lane"


Notes on ... Series #104 (PL)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: B Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Verse | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Verse | Verse (solo) | Refrain |
                  | Verse | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Refrain / Outro (with complete ending)
        CD: "Magical Mystery Tour", Track 9 (Parlophone CDP7 48062-2)
  Recorded: 29th, 30th December 1966,
            4th-6th, 9th January 1967, Abbey Road 2;
            10th, 12th January 1967, Abbey Road 3;
            17 January 1967, Abbey Road 2 
UK-release: 17th February 1967
            (Double-A Single / "Strawberry Fields Forever")
US-release: 13th February 1967
            (Double-A Single / "Strawberry Fields Forever")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note On a bad day, Paul's keen interest in trying out diverse musical styles could produce a kind of undigested whole-cloth parody that you either have to love or simply cannot stand; e.g. "Honey Pie" or "Maxwell's Silver Hammer". On a good day, though, he could demonstrate an extraordinary talent for melting several such styles so that the whole becomes something not just "greater than," but somehow Different From and Elevated Above, the mere Sum of its Parts. And "Penny Lane", in my humble opinion, was the product of a very good day.
  Next note It's more "classical" than "Got To Get You Into My Life" but maybe less so than "For No One"; more "popular" and "hard rocking" than "Eleanor Rigby" but maybe less so than "Good Day Sunshine". Go and figure; I defy you to easily classify it!
  Next note The completely cyclical form is rather folk-like, though the transposition upward of the final refrain is quite reminiscent of the late fifties / early sixties cliché of stepping up a half-step for the last chorus. The Beatles only other use of this latter gambit, to this point of their career, is found as far back as "And I Love Her" (... and, gee, which one of them wrote that one? :-)).
  Next note The rhythmic pulse is march-like with an undercurrent of fast triplets and localized syncopations that emphasize, rather than challenge, the rigidity of the four-in-the-bar meter.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The melody and harmony are both extraordinarily flexible in a quiet, subtle sort of way. The overall modality of the song is clearly Major, yet the verse has a deft touch of the parallel minor key, and the refrain is modally inflected by the melodic flat seventh.
  Next note The setting of the refrain in the key of flat-VII, though, is the single most unusual feature — again, I challenge you, this time, to find another example of it from anywhere! And structurally, it provides ironic motivation for the upward transposition of the final refrain. The refrain is musically set off from the verse not only by this harmonic gambit, but by the additional technique of its being placed on melodically higher ground than the verse.


  Next note The mix has a wall-of-sound thickness that is surprisingly more reminiscent of the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" aesthetic than it is of Phil Spector; though thankfully, you'll have a much harder time here detecting the splices in the tape than you do in plotting the progress of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" :-) Yes, there are brass, flutes, a piccolo, a bass fiddle, a fire bell, and voices mimicking sirens that you can hear. There are also oboes (not to mention overdubbed keyboard parts) that you cannot hear!! At least, I cannot.
  Next note The final track also shows some of the tell-tale signs of having been recorded with the tape running slow, in order to sound faster (not to mention "higher") on playback; the most noticeable to my ears being the unnaturally fast vibrato in Paul's voice.
  Next note The refrains feature an effect somewhere between true counterpoint and antiphonal obbligato in the way that the thread of the lead vocal is picked up by either the backing vocals or trumpet solo.
  Next note The appearance of a so-called "Bach" (i.e. Baroque-era piccolo) trumpet in this Beatles' song is both uncanny and out of character; to the extent that any similarity between the licks played here and the solo part of a certain "Brandenburg Concerto", said by Macca to have inspired him, is (maybe by intention) both remote and ironic. Yes, it's obviously a period instrument, but casting himself against type for a change, Mr. Martin coaxes out a solo that is not quite so classical evocative as the ones he had come up with for such occasions as "In My Life" or "For No One".
  Next note Certainly, the layering of this solo is strictly according to the Beatles' book of style — see "For No One" for another example: first off, save the strange instrument for a rhythmically unbound solo section in the middle, to be followed by more subtle appearances as a single note in the first of the next pair of verses, and a slow-paced obbligato in the penultimate refrain; finally capped off an another unbound lick (a nice reprise of the solo) in the final section.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The finished track has no formal "intro" to speak of, though, while Paulie comes in on "three-and", there is a one-eighth-note's trace of the backing track starting right on "three", which suggests the possibility of a more extensive intro in the studio that was deftly masked off; you see, outtakes potentially solve riddles just such as these, when we can get our hands on them!
  Next note The verse is a standard eight measures long and parses into an AA'B (2 + 2 + 4) structure.
  Next note The same stylistic blend that is so well manifested in the overall production shows up as well within the musical fabric. This verse section starts off with a classically predictable walking bass cliché, but with a single surprisingly minor seventh chord on I in measure three. The section continues onward in a Jazzy / French Impressionistic vein for several measures only to cadence with, again, a classically inspired "4-3" progression:
         m.1                        2
   Chords: |B                       |E     c#    F#          |
 Bassline: |B     A#    G#    F#    |E     C#    F#    F#8   |
        B:  I                        IV    ii    V

         m.3                        4
   Chords: |B                       |b7                      |
 Bassline: |B     A#    G#    F#    |B                       |
            I                        ************************

         m.5                        6
   Chords: |g#                      |G                       |
            ************************ flat-VI

         m.7                        8
   Chords: |F#                      |-                       |
            V4    -     -     -      -     -     3

   [Figure 104.1]
  Next note The harmony of those measures I've highlighted above with a string of asterisks is extremely chromatic. We've seen many cases along the way where "analysis by roman numeral" breaks down and you can only understand a certain progression as a matter of persuasive voice leading. This particular example goes one step further in that the underlying chromatic progression is itself embellished and stretched out.
  Look at it this way — The overall progression is from I -» V by way of flat-VI chord, which is borrowed from the parallel minor. Here is the unembellished-yet-chromatic progression (measures 3 up to 8); transposed up to C to make it easier reading (please pardon my unsolved parallel octaves and fifths):
    C           -           -           -           B           -
    G           -           -           Ab          G           -
    E           -           -           Eb          D           -
    C           -           -           Ab          G           -

    I                                   flat-VI     V

   [Figure 104.2]
  And here is the embellished progression. By lining them up one under the other I think it becomes easier to see how the voices of the texture move out of synch, blurring or blunting the otherwise clear overall thrust of the progression:
   C           Bb          C           -           -           B
   G           -           -           Ab          G
   E           Eb          -           -           D
   C           -           A           Ab          G

   I                                   flat-VI     V
                                                   4    ---»   3

   [Figure 104.3]
  Next note The implicit shift to the parallel minor, and the continued harping on it by the keyboard part lends an ominous tone to the song, one that is curiously at cross-currents with the otherwise sunny lyrics.
  Next note The first verse of each pair has the "4-3" suspension over the F# chord repeated in its last two measures. The second verse of each pair, the ones that are followed by a refrain, use the final two measures to make an unusual pivot to the key of the flat-VII, A Major:
      |F#                       |E                       |
       V4     -    3
   A:  VI#3                      V

   [Figure 104.4]
  In this case, the F# chord is not indigenous to A Major, though the f#-minor chord is.


  Next note The refrain is eight measures long, in a standard AA' (4 + 4) form, and features much simpler harmony than the verse:
      |A           |-           |D           |-           |
   A:  I                         IV

      |A           |-           |D           |F#          |
       I                         IV
                             B:  III          V

   [Figure 104.5]
  Next note The harmonic pivot back to the home key of the verses is based on the borrowing of a chord from the parallel minor. In this case, the D-Major chord is indigenous to b minor, not Major.
  Next note Measures 2 and 6 of this section feature the I chord in its so-called "first" (or 6/3) inversion. In the realm of classical music, this 6/3 chord is an ordinary staple of the dialect. In terms of the Beatles' songs we've studied to date, it's appearance is sufficiently rare to merit comment.


  Next note The "rare" alternate mix of this song with the one last trumpet lick at the very end proves that the less-is-more aesthetic of the official mix without the trumpet is to be preferred.
  Next note The complete ending here kind of hits a wall and then ricochets. Paul's last "Penny Lane" vocal lick is executed in hard syncopation against the final downbeat, and is followed by a suspenseful few seconds before the cymbal crescendo finishes up for good.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note "Penny Lane" is dominated, both in music and words, by a type of blue-skied charm that nicely sets a foil for the "Strawberry Fields Forever" flip-side of the single, but in terms of "Penny Lane" per se, could easily over-do if not undo itself entirely. There are, however, counter-balancing forces of what I might describe as "ambiguity" at work which help to pull it off successfully.
  Next note The music for example, contains scattered flecks of the ominous in both the harmony (which we've already discussed) as well as the arrangement; my favorite example of which is the sustained low note on the bass fiddle in the penultimate verse. This bitter-sweet undercurrent is left unexplained and effectively cuts what could otherwise leave an excessively sweet after taste.
  Next note The words, even more so, are put together in a way that elevates them above the superficial clip-art/cutsey quality of much of their imagery. You can see this from a comparison of "Penny Lane" with "Eleanor Rigby". Both songs open up with disparate, contrasting story elements. But, whereas in the earlier song, effective irony is conjured by Paul's going out of his way to interlock the two stories at the end, in "Penny Lane" he allows whatever correspondences develop among the many more then two story elements (barber, banker, fireman, pretty nurse, and The Rain, for starters) to appear as random and coincidental.
  Next note Indeed, the whole panorama is described in terms so non-judgemental and matter of fact, that the ultimate effect is quite transcendent. No matter how much more realistic "Penny Lane" is in language and imagery, compared to "Strawberry Fields Forever" you might say the two songs share this impressionistic, entirely subjective point of view.
  Alan (072395#104)
Copyright © 1995 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.