Recording "Penny Lane", "Carnival Of Light"

Thursday, January 5, 1967 • For The Beatles

Album Songs recorded during this session officially appear on the Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane 7" Single.
Studio:
EMI Studios, Studio Two, Abbey Road

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About

The Beatles had recorded Paul McCartney’s “Penny Lane” in three sessions so far, on December 29 and December 30, 1966, and on January 4, 1967. On this day, from 7 pm to 12:15 am, they continued working on it, but also recorded an unreleased track known as “Carnival Of Light“.


Paul had tried to record his lead vocals for “Penny Lane” on December 30 and January 4. But he decided to try again on this day. Those new lead vocals were recorded onto track three, wiping those recorded the previous day. John Lennon also added some backing vocals to track three.


The Beatles then switched their attention to an experimental piece. It was given no official title and was listed as “Untitled” on EMI’s recording logs, but it would later be known as “Carnival Of Light“.

In late 1966, Paul commissioned the pop-art collective BEV (made up of Douglas Binder, Dudley Edwards and David Vaughan) to paint his small Alfred E. Knight piano in his music room. In December, upon delivering the finished product to Paul’s Cavendish Avenue address, David Vaughan asked Paul if he would like to contribute a piece of music for two upcoming events organized by BEV. To his delight, Paul agreed.

The events, named “A Million Volt Light & Sound Rave“, took place on January 28 and February 8, 1967. On this day, to fulfil his promise, Paul invited the other Beatles to create a 14-minute-long sound collage for the occasion.

During the recording, according to Dudley Edwards, Paul briefly sang the as-yet-unrecorded “Fixing A Hole” on the piano.

I said “all I want you to do is just wander around all the stuff, bang it, shout, play it, it doesn’t need to make any sense. Hit a drum then wander on to the piano, hit a few notes, just wander around.” So that’s what we did and then put a bit of an echo on it. It’s very free. […] I like it because it’s The Beatles free, going off piste.

Paul McCartney – From BBC NEWS, November 16, 2008

Paul wrote ‘Penny Lane’ in the music room at Cavendish Avenue, on the piano which had recently been painted with its psychedelic rainbow by David Vaughan. In December 1966, about the same time as he delivered the piano, Vaughan asked Paul if he would contribute some music for a couple of Carnival of Light Raves that Binder, Edwards and Vaughan were promoting at the Roundhouse as part of their idea of bringing art to the community, in this case in the form of light shows, experimental music and films. David: ‘I asked Paul to do it and I thought he would make more of it than he did, I thought this was a vehicle for him, if anything was. My trouble is, I expect everybody to drop everything. I forget other people have got things on.’

From “Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now” by Barry Miles, 1997

Rocking Vicar: Just one last question – ‘Carnival of Light’, does it actually exist?

Paul McCartney: It does exist, yeah. We recorded it in about 15 minutes. It’s very avant-garde – as George would say, ‘avant-garde a clue’ – and George did not like it ‘cos he doesn’t like avant-garde music.

Rocking Vicar: Who wrote it?

McCartney: It’s officially me. I instigated it. No, there’s no lyrics, it’s avant-garde music. You would class it as… well, you wouldn’t class it actually, but it would come in the Stockhausen/John Cage bracket… John Cage would be the nearest. It’s very free-form. Yeah, man, it’s the coolest piece of music since sliced bread!

Rocking Vicar: This is early ‘67?

McCartney: I was asked about ‘67 to do it by Barry Miles – you know, who did my book Many Years From Now – and he asked me to do it for this event at the Roundhouse called Carnival of Light, so that’s how it got its title. I went into the studio and said to the guys, look, we’ve got half an hour before the session officially starts, would you mind terribly if I did this thing?

Rocking Vicar: So this is with the other Beatles?

McCartney: With the other Beatles. This is a Beatle record. And they all just fell in with the spirit of it and I just said, “Would you go on that?” and “Would you stay on that?” and “Would you be on that?” and “We’ll just take 20 minutes to do it in real-time.” And they all just got into it.

Paul McCartney – Interview with Mark Ellen for the Rocking Vicar, 2001 (in this interview, Paul wrongly remembers Barry Miles asked him)

[It was] a kind of uncomposed free-for-all melange of sound.

George Martin – From The weirdest Beatles track of all may be released, 41 years on | The Independent

Midway through the recording of “Penny Lane,” we spent the better part of an evening creating a tape of sound effects, under Paul’s direction, for a live “happening” called the Carnival of Light. (A “happening” was a sixties term that embraced any kind of counterculture gathering.) It was a bit of nonsense, really, but everyone had fun doing it. Whenever the Beatles tried something really outrageous, George Martin would roll his eyes and mutter a clipped “Oh my God” under his breath. Looking back, I guess that everyone was tripping his brains out that night, but we didn’t know it then. When John started shouting “Barcelona” repeatedly in one of his Goon-like voices, Phil and I were doubled over in laughter. That line, and other bits and pieces from that night’s session, were later used in the sound pastiche “Revolution 9,” on the White Album.

Geoff Emerick – From “Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles“, 2006

Track one of the tape was full of distorted, hypnotic drum and organ sounds; track two had a distorted lead guitar; track three had the sounds of a church organ, various effects (the gargling of water was one) and voices; track four featured various indescribable sound effects with heaps of tape echo and manic tambourine.

But of all the frightening sounds it was the voices on track three which really set the scene, John and Paul screaming dementedly and bawling aloud random phrases like ‘Are you all right?’ and ‘Barcelona!’

Paul terminated the proceedings after almost 14 minutes with one final shout up to the control room: ‘Can we hear it back now?’

From “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions” by Mark Lewisohn

The tape has no rhythm, though a beat is sometimes established for a few bars by the percussion or a rhythmic pounding on the piano. There is no melody, though snatches of a tune sometimes threaten to break through. The Beatles make literally random sounds, although they sometimes respond to each other; for instance, a burst of organ notes answered by a rattle of percussion. The basic track was recorded slow so that some of the drums and organ were very deep and sonorous, like the bass notes of a cathedral organ. Much of it is echoed and it is often hard to tell if you are listening to a slowed-down cymbal or a tubular bell. John and Paul yell with massive amounts of reverb on their voices, there are Indian war cries, whistling, close-miked gasping, genuine coughing and fragments of studio conversation, ending with Paul asking, with echo, ‘Can we hear it back now?’ The tape was obviously overdubbed and has bursts of feedback guitar, schmaltzy cinema organ, snatches or jangling pub piano, some unpleasant electronic feedback and John yelling, ‘Electricity’. There is a great deal of percussion throughout, again much of it overdubbed. The tape was made with full stereo separation, and is essentially an exercise in musical layers and textures. It most resembles The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet, the twelve-minute final track on Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! album, except there is no rhythm and the music here is more fragmented, abstract and serious. The deep organ notes at the beginning of the piece set the tone as slow and contemplative.

From “Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now” by Barry Miles, 1997

The work on “Penny Lane” continued the following day, on January 6.

Last updated on February 16, 2023

Songs recorded


1.

Penny Lane

Written by Lennon - McCartney

Recording • SI onto take 7



3.

Carnival of Light

Written by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison

Recording • SI onto Take 1


4.

Carnival of Light

Written by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison

Mixing • Mono mixing - Remix 1 from take 1

Staff

Musicians on "Carnival of Light"

Paul McCartney:
Organ
Ringo Starr:
Drums
?:
Electric guitar, Tambourine, Organ, Vocals, Sound effects

Production staff

George Martin:
Producer
Geoff Emerick:
Engineer
Phil McDonald:
Second Engineer

Going further


The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions • Mark Lewisohn

The definitive guide for every Beatles recording sessions from 1962 to 1970.

We owe a lot to Mark Lewisohn for the creation of those session pages, but you really have to buy this book to get all the details - the number of takes for each song, who contributed what, a description of the context and how each session went, various photographies... And an introductory interview with Paul McCartney!

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The Beatles Recording Reference Manual: Volume 3: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band through Magical Mystery Tour (late 1966-1967)

The third book of this critically - acclaimed series, nominated for the 2019 Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) award for Excellence In Historical Recorded Sound, "The Beatles Recording Reference Manual: Volume 3: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band through Magical Mystery Tour (late 1966-1967)" captures the band's most innovative era in its entirety. From the first take to the final remix, discover the making of the greatest recordings of all time. Through extensive, fully-documented research, these books fill an important gap left by all other Beatles books published to date and provide a unique view into the recordings of the world's most successful pop music act.

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If we like to think, in all modesty, that the Paul McCartney Project is the best online ressource for everything Paul McCartney, The Beatles Bible is for sure the definitive online site focused on the Beatles. There are obviously some overlap in terms of content between the two sites, but also some major differences in terms of approach.

Read more on The Beatles Bible

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