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Notes on "Strawberry Fields Forever"


Notes on ... Series #105 (SFF)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: B-flat (more or less)
     Meter: 4/4 (with occasional measures of 6/8)
      Form: Intro | Refrain | Verse | Refrain | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Verse | Refrain | Outro (with double fade-out)
        CD: "Magical Mystery Tour", Track 8 (Parlophone CDP7 48062-2)
  Recorded: 24th, 28th, 29th November,
            8th, 9th, 15th, 21th, 22nd December 1966, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 17th February 1967 (Double-A Single / "Penny Lane")
US-release: 13th February 1967 (Double-A Single / "Penny Lane")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note This song is an undeniable landmark breakthrough, though with the exception of the midstream switch to a different backing track and the double fade-out at the end, there is nothing on the technical side here that is quite literally so "new" as much as it is a matter of several still-novel techniques being taken to new levels of complexity, intensity, and simultaneous exploitation and juxtaposition.
  Next note The use of tape-speed variations; up close miking; limiting; playing tapes backwards; the inclusion of instruments and instrumental groups that are conspicuously non-rock in their primary association; strange chord progressions, and surprising changes of meter — all these things have their precedents on "Revolver" or its related singles, but the irony is that they are presented here in "Strawberry Fields Forever" in creative extensions such that you never feel as if the Beatles are merely repeating themselves. Also, there's a kitchen-sink presentation of so many of these tricks in a single number that is, prior to "Strawberry Fields Forever", quite unprecedented.
  Next note The evolution of the song, from home demos through the many studio takes that traverse three very different arrangements of it, is a much discussed, fascinating story of its own which is somewhat outside the scope of this note. For those who are interested, see my article in "The 910", volume 1, #2, the bulk of which I'll still stand behind with a few corrected errors in judgement, and inclusion of new information made available since it was written.
  Next note For this context, suffice it to say, the official version of "Strawberry Fields Forever" was made by the splicing together of takes 7 and 26 at the 1:00 mark in the song, just as the second refrain commences with the phrase "I'm going to". This required slightly increasing the speed of take 7 (recorded in the key of A) to the point where it sounds close to, but not quite exactly in, the key of B-flat; compared with a tuning fork, the opening of the official version is not quite on pitch. Conversely, take 26 (recorded in the key of B) was slowed down to sound in B-flat on playback. Just as Lewisohn reports, as the moment of the splice approached, it seems as though the engineers added just the right amount of additional speed to bring take 7 up to sound precisely in B-flat.
  Next note Although one might argue from the perspective of textbook poetics that the song would sound more integrated if they had stuck with one or the other arrangement throughout, I dare say that the shift in midstream from one version to the other adds a third dimension of progressive fluidity to the music which would have otherwise been missing, and whose presence nicely underscores the sense (or shall I say, nonsense) of the lyrics.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The harmony vacillates between moments of relatively standard tonal clarity and those of strange ambiguity. In several places it pulls back from seemingly inevitable cadences, and settles throughout for the less decisive IV -» I plagal cadence instead of the standard V -» I. For my money, this harmonic idiom subtly sympathizes with the uncertain vacillation between "I think" and "I know" in the lyrics.
  Next note The melodic material has a similar mix of the familiar with surprising chromatic touches as well as that dramatic rising octave leap thrown in for good measure. The swordmandel licks add a touch of flat-seven modal flavor.


  Next note The first part of the song up through the beginning of the second refrain features mellotron, guitar, and drums. The second part shifts to a heavy orchestra-like texture which sounds like a much larger ensemble than the four trumpets and three cellos actually used. This group was superimposed onto a backing track of cymbals recorded to playback sounding backwards, guitar, swordmandel (an exotic Indian instrument which looks like a table harp and sounds like a harpsichord), and several other instruments and effects, much of which get lost in the background. John's vocal is heavily distorted throughout and is double tracked in the refrains.
  Next note The orchestral backing of the second half is more pseudo and surrealistically "classical" than authentically so, and its spasmodic jumpiness works at effective cross-currents with the more flowing beat established in the first half of the song. While all of the outtakes of "Strawberry Fields Forever" are worth your hearing at least once, the take 25 which features the orchestral backing by itself is especially gripping for the intensity it conveys when heard in isolation from the vocal.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The seemingly harmless introduction is fraught with ambiguity. At what point can you tell from this intro what the home key is? And how convincing is it when it arrives?
 Chords: |F     (a)     |c     A-dim   |B-flat F      |E-flat B-flat |
 Bottom: |F      E      |Eb            |D      C      |Bb            |
 B-flat:  V              ii    vii-dim  I      V       IV     I

   [Figure 105.1]
  Next note On paper, it doesn't look so far out, but do you hear the opening chord as V, especially when the a-minor chord is implied in the second half of the measure? Similarly, toward the end of the phrase I hear the B-flat chord as IV of F and expect F to be the home key only to be fooled by that sort of forced 6/4 -» 5/3 plagal cadence at the end. Note, by the way, how the final measure of the intro contains an additional two beats!
  Next note And should you suspect this kind of sophistication to be a hallmark of John's work at this particular point of his career, I hasten to point out how similar this intro is, harmonically, to the one found a couple years earlier in, of all songs, "Help!".


  Next note The metrical phrasing of the refrain is made somewhat indeterminate by the interpolation at one point of a fore-shortened half-measure, (on the words, "nothing to get"), and at another point of a single measure in 6/8 (on the words, "Strawberry Fields for ..."), with the eighth-note pulse holding constant. There is also the fact that the vocal part starts up in the middle of the first measure, giving a feel that the actual downbeat for the section is at the start of the second measure, (on the word "down"):
           |B-flat      |-           |f            |-           |
   B-flat:  I                         v

                                      **  half   **
                                      ** measure **
           |D-dim       |-           |E-flat F     |G           |
            vii-of-IV                 IV     V      V-of-ii

            **  6/8   **
           |E-flat      |B-flat      |
            IV           I

   [Figure 105.2]
  Next note The refrain is the most tonally ambiguous and roundabout of the sections. The v chord of the home key is presented in the minor mode, a diminished chord sets up an excursion toward either IV or ii, there's an unrequited second flirtation with ii, and ultimately, a plagal cadence.
  Next note If you want to get really fussy about detailed differences among the several repeats of this refrain you'll note how in the first refrain the diminished chord in the fifth measure is presented with G in the bass as a V9-of-ii, and the penultimate measure interpolates a c-minor ii chord in between the E-flat and B-flat chords.


  Next note In contrast to the refrain, the verse section is a predictable eight measures long that you can parse into four even phrases. The harmonic rhythm is also contrastingly faster in this section.
  Next note Harmonically, the verse opens on V and moves toward, but still we encounter the approach-avoidance tactic every time you think the V chord will resolve to I. Note here, how the opening V "deceptively" resolves to vi, and the closing V moves to I only by roundabout way of the IV chord:
   |F            |F7     f# dim    |g            |E-flat         |
    V                    vii-dim/vi vi            IV

   |E-flat F     |B-flat g         |E-flat F     |E-flat B-flat  |
    IV     V      I      vi         IV     V      IV     I

   [Figure 105.3]


  Next note The novelty per se of the song's initial release of the fade back in and then out again is not to be under-estimated at the time of the song's initial release.
  Next note This familiar outro can be heard to take shape in takes 25 and 26. Especially in take 26, you can easily trace the following synopsis of events over the background of muttered screaming and percussion effects: fanfare-like phrases by the swordmandel and mellotron, followed by something that sounds like a pulsating doppler effect panning across the stereo picture, followed by more mellotron fanfares, followed by the infamous "cranberry sauce" remarks, and on take 25, you can hear John remark: "Allright, calm down, Ringo." I believe that the fade effects of the official version were directly superimposed over what we hear on take 26.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note One of my repeated points of emphasis in this series is how wherever you find the Beatles at their most seemingly experimental, you almost always find them also at their most traditionally conservative. Here, in "Strawberry Fields Forever", underneath whatever else is "far out" you find mostly a folk-ballad-like form with a late breaking tip of the hat to the pop song format.
  Next note On the folksy side, there is the opening with a refrain rather than a verse, and the strict alternation of refrains and verses with no bridge or instrumental solo. Lyrically, all three verse sections have unique words: "Living is easy ...", "No-one, I think ...", and "Always, no, sometimes ...". The late breaking pop song gesture is in the once-twice-three-times-you're-out repetition that elides the final refrain with the outro.
  Next note In the realm of musical vocabulary just typically John Lennonesque, you have an uncanny number of slow triples in the lead vocal, as well as the backing track.
  Next note What I'm trying to say is, yeah, the song is very far out in many ways, but in others, it's quite typical of its creator(s). This ain't no "What's the New Mary Jane"; in my humble opinion, thank goodness :-)
  Alan (102995#105)
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.