- Timeline More from year 1967
- UK release date:
- Feb 17, 1967
- US release date:
- Feb 13, 1967
“Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane” was the fourteenth UK single from The Beatles, and the first one not to reach the number 1 position on Record Retailer‘s chart.
The double A-side single was issued by Capitol Records in the US on 13 February 1967 (as Capitol 5810), and by EMI’s Parlophone label in the United Kingdom on 17 February (as Parlophone R 5570). Aside from the compilation album A Collection of Beatles Oldies, issued in the UK but not the US, it was the first release by the Beatles since Revolver and their August 1966 single. It was also the first Beatles single in the UK to be presented in a picture sleeve. The front of the sleeve contained a studio photo that again demonstrated the band’s adoption of facial hair; on the back cover were individual pictures of the four Beatles as infants, which heightened the connection to a Liverpool childhood. Recalling the reaction to the new single and the expectations it created for Sgt. Pepper, music critic Greil Marcus later wrote: “If this extraordinary music was merely a taste of what The Beatles were up to, what would the album be like?” Comparing the two sides in his book Electric Shock, Peter Doggett likens “Penny Lane” to pop art in its evoking “multifaceted substance out of the everyday”, and describes “Strawberry Fields Forever” as art pop, “self-consciously excluding the mass audience”. […]
In Britain, “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” was the first Beatles single since “Please Please Me” in 1963 to fail to reach number 1 on Record Retailer‘s chart (later the UK Singles Chart). The single was held at number 2 behind Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me”, even though the Beatles record sold considerably more. This was due to chart protocol whereby only the sales of the best-selling side of a double A-side were eligible, and the record’s overall sales were effectively halved. Following the speculation that the Beatles were due to disband, their failure to secure the number 1 spot was trumpeted in the UK press as a sign that the group’s popularity was declining. At the time, McCartney said he was not upset because Humperdinck’s song was a “completely different type of thing”, while Harrison acknowledged that “Strawberry Fields Forever”, like all of the Beatles’ latest music, was bound to alienate much of their audience but would also win them new fans. On the national chart compiled by Melody Maker magazine, however, the combination topped the singles list for three weeks.
In the US, “Penny Lane” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for one week, while “Strawberry Fields Forever” peaked at number 8. As in Britain’s Record Retailer, “Penny Lane” was the side favoured by chart compilers in Australia, where the single was number 1 for five weeks. The single was also number 1 in Canada and Norway, and peaked at number 4 in France.
It’s fine if you’re kept from being Number One by a record like ‘Release Me’, because you’re not trying to do the same kind of thing. That’s a completely different scene altogether.Paul McCartney – From “The Beatles Anthology” book, 2000
The only reason that ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ didn’t go onto the new album was a feeling that if we issued a single, it shouldn’t go onto an album. That was a crazy idea, and I’m afraid I was partly responsible. It’s nonsense these days, but in those days it was an aspect that we’d try to give the public value for money.
The idea of a double A side came from me and Brian, really. Brian was desperate to recover popularity, and so we wanted to make sure that we had a marvellous seller. He came to me and said, ‘I must have a really great single. What have you got?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve got three tracks — and two of them are the best tracks they’ve ever made. We could put the two together and make a smashing single. We did, and it was a smashing single — but it was also a dreadful mistake. We would have sold far more and got higher up in the charts if we had issued one of those with, say, ‘When I’m SixtyFour’ on the back.George Martin – From “The Beatles Anthology” book, 2000
Then came Christmas, and we agreed to get together again after [The Beatles] had written some more material. But in the meantime, EMI and Brian Epstein had told me that they needed another single, since they hadn’t had one for a while. I said: ‘O.K. It means we’ll have to find extra material for the album, but let’s couple the best two we have so far – ‘Strawberry Fields’ and Penny Lane’ – and issue them as a double-A-sided record.’ To this day I cannot imagine why that single was beaten to the number one spot, because for my money it was the best we ever issued. But there it was, and now we were left with ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ on its own for the new album.George Martin – From “All You Need Is Ears“, 1979
Realizing how desperate Brian was feeling, I decided to give him a super-strong combination, a double-punch that could not fail, an unbeatable linking of two all-time great songs: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’. These songs would, I told him, make a fantastic double-A-sided disc — better even than our other double-A-sided triumphs, ‘Day Tripper’/‘We Can Work It Out’, and ‘Eleanor Rigby’/‘Yellow Submarine’.
It was the biggest mistake of my professional life.
Releasing either song coupled with ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ would have been by far the better decision, but at the time I couldn’t see it.
The all-important music charts were run by the three music papers: Melody Maker, New Musical Express, and Record Mirror. These rival charts were compiled from a fairly crude system of record retailer reports, submitted by different outlets each week. If I had stopped to think for more than about a second, I would have realized that one great title would fight another; and this is exactly what happened. The reports came in, and they showed that our double-A-side was selling extremely well. There was only one problem. The weekly sales figures showed that two singles, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’, were selling well. They were being counted separately! As far as the charts were concerned, one side was effectively cancelling out the success of the other.
I firmly believe that if the total sales of those two sides had been added together we would have squashed the opposition flat. As it was, a sentimental old-fashioned ballad called ‘Release Me’, by a new singer with the unlikely name of Englebert Humperdinck, was outstripping us. For the first time since ‘Please Please Me’ in 1963, the Beatles did not make it to the number one spot in the charts with a new single.
It broke the roll: we’d had twelve successive number ones. It had become as reliable as the sun coming up — and we took it almost as much for granted. Alas, with unlucky number thirteen, it was not to be. Despite being the best singles they had ever, in my opinion, released, the double-A-side stalled at number two in the NME charts, even though the combined sales got bigger and bigger. This little contretemps did not restore Brian’s flagging morale.George Martin – From “With A Little Help From My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper“, 1995
So another question we quite often see is, in hindsight, do you wish ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’ had been included on the album? And if so, where would you have placed them?
No, I was happy. So we won’t even get into placing them! I was happy that it was the precursor to ‘Sgt. Pepper’. And the thing was, you know, we always liked to release things fresh. We had just made those tracks, so the thought of waiting until we had completed the whole album would not have appealed to us. You know, we liked that as soon as it’s made, at the nearest point to the actual making of the song and the record, we would like to put it out. So I was glad how we did it and it was like a fanfare, that single. Another thing we liked about it was it was simple value for money. You really got two A-sides. But it kind of heralded what was to come.Paul McCartney – From paulmccartney.com, May 25, 2017
We didn’t think it was fair game for the people who had already spent their pounds on buying the ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ single to have it included on an album. We thought that we should give them virgin stuff on an album and so we excluded the tracks from the Sgt Pepper album. I wish we had left them in actually, we could have made an even better album than it was.George Martin – From “The Beatles: Off the Record” by Keith Badman, 2008
Last updated on August 2, 2023
Dec 08, 1966 • Songs recorded during this session appear on Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane
Dec 21, 1966 • Songs recorded during this session appear on Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane
Dec 29, 1966 • Songs recorded during this session appear on Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane
Dec 30, 1966 • Songs recorded during this session appear on Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane
March 1967 • From The Beatles Monthly Book