On March 18th 1967, The Beatles released Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever as a double A-side which scored their 13th US No. 1 single. In light of his recent death on March 8th, a welcome acknowledgement of George Martin’s significance is taking place; both of these songs would not have been possible without his studio mastery as the band’s producer through their most creatively fruitful years. He was dubbed by many, the fifth Beatle. It was Martin who introduced the band to the possibilities of tape loops, reverse-recorded instrumentation and orchestral music in pop, much of which went onto their groundbreaking album, Revolver in August the previous year.
That same month The Beatles played their final ever concert and subsequently focused entirely on making records, pouring all their energies into studio-craft. This double single kicked off their most prolific three-year period of quality output including, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a self-titled double-LP, and Abbey Road, each widely considered to be among the greatest albums of all time. These two songs would later be included with the collection of singles on the second half of perhaps my favourite Beatles record, Magical Mystery Tour, in November 1967.
Side-by-side they epitomise the contrasting style and approach to songwriting brought to the table by John Lennon and Paul McCartney; Lennon’s forward-thinking psychedelia juxtaposed with McCartney’s timeless pop sensibility. Strawberry Fields Forever is the result of splicing together three different versions of the song, each at a different tempo, each mapped onto the other. In a process lasting five weeks, numerous arrangements were recorded and the task fell to George Martin to perform his sonic wizardry with rudimentary tape recorders and scissors (the days before digital production methods) and conjured the version we hear today. It is one of the band’s crowning achievements and owes a great debt to its producer.
Penny Lane is McCartney’s response, and whilst less technically interesting than its experimental partner, it is nevertheless a quintessential piece of pop mastery. McCartney had an uncanny ability to bridge the gap between personal specificity (the title and lyrics refer to a street in their home city of Liverpool) and universal appeal, a talent perfectly complemented by Lennon’s dynamism. This partnership was the driving force behind one of the very few acts that can rightly claim to have changed the world. They really were that good.