Recording "Strawberry Fields Forever" #1

Thursday, November 24, 1966 • For The Beatles

Part of


Recording "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"

Nov 24, 1966 - Apr 20, 1967 • Songs recorded during this session appear on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (UK Mono)

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’ last recording session as a group took place on June 22, 1966, when they finalized “Revolver“. After a summer spent touring internationally, including stops in Germany, Japan, the Philippines and the USA, the band took a break and each Beatle spent time doing solo activities. During this time, Paul McCartney vacationed in France, Spain and Kenya, and also composed the soundtrack for the film “The Family Way“. He also spent time in recording studios with Donovan and The Escorts.

On this day, November 24, 1966, from 7 pm to 2:30 am, The Beatles were back at EMI Studios, Abbey Road, to start recording their next single and album. They spent this day recording John Lennon’s new song, “Strawberry Fields Forever“.


Now we were off the road and in the studio with new songs. ‘Strawberry Fields’ is the song that John had, about the old Salvation Army home for kids he used to live next door to in Liverpool. We related it to youth, golden summers and fields of strawberry. I knew what he was talking about.

The nice thing is that a lot of our songs were starting to get a little bit more surreal. I remember John having a book at home called Bizarre, about all sorts of weird things. We were opening up artistically and taking the blinkers off.

Paul McCartney – From “The Beatles Anthology” book, 2000

After five months away from the studio, and three apart from each other, the Beatles came together at Abbey Road on Thursday 24 November 1966, encumbered no longer by deadlines and touring schedules, and keen to explore new song ideas and methods of recording. In the next five months they would deliver the two sides of their forthcoming single, Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever, and the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. After issuing 116 titles in 46 months, a rate of 30 per year, in between concert dates, film shoots, TV recordings and radio sessions, the Beatles were clearly giving themselves and their music a chance to breathe. The result was startling – few could dispute that this was an era of tremendous creativity.

Strawberry Fields Forever typifies this: a succession of fine recordings captured the gist of the song but no one performance wholly seizes its spirit (at least, not to the satisfaction of its composer), and the final master was not completed almost a month after this initial session. As it took shape on 24 November, with an alternative lyric order and arrangement, [Take 1] was considerably different from that master.

From Anthology 2 liner notes
From Facebook – 24 November 1966 – Photo by Larry Ellis ©
From Recording of Strawberry Fields Forever – The Beatles History (beatles-chronology.ru) – Photo by Larry Ellis

In his memoir, engineer Geoff Emerick remembered this first day of recording “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the new album:

John Lennon was even more agitated than usual. ‘Look,’ he said to George Martin, ‘it’s really quite simple. We’re fed up with making soft music for soft people, and we’re fed up with playing for them, too. But it’s given us a fresh start, don’t you see?’

From the expression on his face, it was clear that George Martin didn’t see. ‘We can’t hear ourselves onstage anymore for all the screaming,’ Paul interjected earnestly, ‘so what’s the point? We did try performing some songs off the last album, but there are so many complicated overdubs we can’t do them justice. Now we can record anything we want, and it won’t matter. And what we want is to raise the bar a notch, to make our best album ever.’

Another blank look from George Martin. I could tell what he was thinking. Who ever heard of a band that only makes records but doesn’t promote them by doing concerts?

Lennon persisted, talking rapid-fire – a sure sign that he was starting to get annoyed. ‘What we’re saying is, if we don’t have to tour, then we can record music that we won’t ever have to play live, and that means we can create something that’s never been heard before: a new kind of record with new kinds of sounds.’ […]

It had been five months since I’d last seen the group, but it might as well have been five years. For one thing, they all looked so different. Garbed in colorful clothes and sporting trendy moustaches – George Harrison even had a beard – they were utterly hip, the epitome of swinging London circa 1966. […] John was the one who had changed the most: having shed the excess weight he’d put on during the ‘Revolver’ sessions, he was trim, almost gaunt, and he was wearing granny glasses instead of the thick horn-rimmed National Health spectacles I was used to seeing. He also had very short, distinctly non-Beatlish hair. […]

It was our first night back in the studio, and we were huddled around the mixing console, discussing how we wanted to approach the new album.

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

George Martin [asked]. ‘Right, then, let’s get to work. What have you got for me?’ Paul started to say something, but before he could answer, John shouted out, ‘I’ve got a good one, for a starter!’ John could talk over most anyone if he wanted to, and he was never shy about jumping the queue; in fact, the first session for almost every Beatles album was devoted to recording one of his songs. A half smile played across Paul’s face as he shrugged his shoulders, backing down gracefully.

Phil McDonald and I strained to hear what was going on downstairs. […] Down in the studio, George Martin was perched, as usual, on his high stool, positioned in the midst of the four Beatles…John was standing directly in front of him, playing an acoustic guitar and singing softly. Because he wasn’t close to any of the microphones we had arranged around the room, I had to push the faders up quite high to hear him.

From the very first note, it was obvious that this new Lennon song was a masterpiece. He had created a gentle, almost mystical tribute to some mysterious place, a place he called ‘Strawberry Fields.’ I had no idea what the lyric was about, but the words were compelling, like abstract poetry, and there was something magical in the spooky, detached timbre of John’s voice.

When he finished, there was a moment of stunned silence, broken by Paul, who in a quiet, respectful tone said simply, ‘That is absolutely brilliant.’ Most of the time when Lennon played one of his songs through for the first time on acoustic guitar, we’d all think, ‘Wow, that’s great,’ but this song was clearly something special.

‘I’ve brought a demo tape of the song with me, too,’ John said, offering to play it, but everyone agreed there was no need – they wanted to get straight into recording. The energy in the room was staggering: it was almost as if the band’s creative energies had been bottled up for too long.

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

The Beatles recorded take 1 of “Strawberry Fields Forever” with John on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Paul on mellotron, and Ringo Starr on drums. Take 1 opened with a verse, starting “Living is easy with eyes closed“, instead of the chorus, which starts the released version. The first verse also led directly to the second, with no chorus between. It was recorded at 53 cycles per second, to sound faster on replay. This version was released on Anthology 2 in 1996.

This was the first time The Beatles used a mellotron in the studio:

There was a new addition to the mound of equipment that Mal and Neil had set up in Studio Two: a cumbersome keyboard in a polished wood cabinet. It was called a Mellotron, and it was John’s newest toy, brought down from his Weybridge mansion specially for the sessions. […] It was the first time the other Beatles and George Martin had ever seen the instrument, and they were all very curious, with each taking a turn behind the keyboard, trying out different sounds. It was Paul, as usual, who discovered the musical potential instead of just the novelty value. Dialing up the flute sound, he began experimenting with the chords to John’s new song. Within a remarkably short time he’d worked out an arrangement that beautifully complemented Lennon’s haunting vocal line. It was pure serendipidity that the sound fitted the mood of the song so perfectly.

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

I remember when the Beatles first brought in the mellotron. It was made mostly for producing sound effects but it also had flutes, brass and string sounds on it. The Beatles used it in a way nobody had ever thought of.

Jerry Boys, tape operator – From The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn, 2004

It was a new instrument then. John had one of the first ones, in a polished wooden cabinet. In the end the Musicians’ Union tried to stop manufacture because of the way it reproduced the sounds of other instruments.

Geoff Emerick – From The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn, 2004

We used a mellotron on ‘Strawberry Fields’. I didn’t think it would get past the Musicians’ Union, so we didn’t advertise it; we just had it on the sessions. It had what would now be called ‘samples’ of flute, which are actually tapes that play and then rewind. We had eleven seconds on each tape, which could be played on each key.

Paul McCartney – From “The Beatles Anthology” book, 2000

I got to know John, Paul, George and Ringo over the years and I introduced them to the mellotron… Within a week all four of them had a Fab-Tron. I knew that I would be rewarded, and the first time I heard ‘Strawberry Fields’ I was in bliss. It was the closest thing to recording with them, other than my visits to Abbey Road during their recording sessions.

Mike Pinder – From the Moody Blues

You’ve also got an Abbey Road Mellotron! Does that bring back any particular memories?

Oh, yeah! We used to go into Abbey Road every day; it was our workplace. One day, in the middle of the studio, there was this… piece of furniture that none of us had ever seen before. It was a kind of wartime grey colour. It wasn’t glamorous at all. We said, “What’s this?” The engineer started explaining it to us: “It will synthesise strings. You can get flutes and organs and all sorts of stuff.” So we became fascinated with it. We used it on a few things, like the intro to “Strawberry Fields Forever”. There’s a Spanish guitar line on “Buffalo Bill” – that’s actually the Mellotron. These days, if you go a bit crazy on it and don’t allow it to do its full sample, you end up with a wacky piece of music.

Paul McCartney – Interview with UNCUT Magazine, January 2021

Overdubs on take 1 comprised George Harrison on mellotron, Paul on bass, Ringo on maracas, John’s double-tracked vocals, and backing vocals by Paul and George. This version was released on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (50th anniversary boxset) in 2017:

Too much criticism to George Martin because on Anthology CDs Vol. 2 he “erased” Paul and George’s backing vocals, when in reality, he gave us the actual TAKE 1 without any overdubs as Mark Lewisohn documented, a version that wasn’t bootlegged before that. The very same day of this recording, November 24th, 1966, John recorded a second vocal (double tracked vocal) and Paul and George added backing harmonies, all over that first take and that’s the version that was bootlegged before and it’s the same version appearing now. Now, on this Deluxe edition: Giles edited out some mellotron warm up sounds after the “Take One” announcement, missing 22 seconds that are available on bootleg, and also he faded out 8 seconds of post-take studio sounds.

From Sgt Pepper – what’s new – The Daily Beatle (webgrafikk.com):

Work on “Strawberry Fields Forever” would continue on November 28, 1966.


We began recording ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in Studio No. 2 of EMI’s Abbey Road complex on Thursday, 24 November 1966. No arrangement had been written for the song; the four Beatles sat down to work it out in the studio as they went along. John had sketched out the basic structure: ‘We’ll start straight in with the verse, no intro, follow with the chorus, then back for another verse, and so on.’ Right, John.

John wanted to keep his acoustic guitar for this session, so Paul took over on the mellotron. With Ringo on drums and George on electric guitar, the song was heavier-sounding that I had imagined it from my initial run-through with John, but it came together very quickly. Almost immediately, we arrived at a take that we thought would be the final one. That first take is brilliant, especially John’s vocal: clear, pure, and riveting. As he sang it that night, the song became hypnotic: gentle and wistful, but very strong too, his sparse vocal standing in sharp contrast to the full sound of George’s electric guitar, Paul’s imaginative mellotron and Ringo’s magnificent drums.

George Martin – From “With A Little Help From My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper“, 1995

It was a magical evening. We all loved the beginning to our new album, and went home in the early hours of the next morning, Friday, tired but satisfied.

George Martin – From “With A Little Help From My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper“, 1995

United again

The Beatles are back in session at Abbey Road recording studios in St. John’s Wood. The group arrived last Friday to begin work on a new album and have booked the studio from 7 pm for the next few weeks. It is also expected that a new single will be cut at these sessions, to be released before Christmas.

Three Beatles are back to their normal image – Ringo has shaved off his beard and George his moustache, while John’s hair has grown again following the pruning it received for his solo film role in “How I Won The War”. Paul has kept the moustache which he grew while on safari in Kenya recently.

The recording sessions are being conducted in the strictest privacy and although the Beatles have the studio booked almost continuously for the next few weeks it is unlikely they will turn up every evening.

It is understood that the Beatles annual Christmas message to their fan club has been recorded and takes the shape of a satirical pantomime. Paul McCartney is thought to be designing and writing notes for the disc’s sleeve. The reccord will be issued soon.

From New Musical Express – December 3, 1966
From New Musical Express – December 3, 1966

BEATLES BACK FOR NEW SINGLE

NOW that all four Beatles are back in London – Paul returned this week from a holiday in Kenya – the group will be working on material for their single release. They are due to go into the studios at the end of this month. A single is not now expected to be released until after Christmas.

Beatles press officer Tony Barrow said on Monday that there was no further news on the proposed third film, the script for which has been written by writer Owen Holder.

From Melody Maker – November 26, 1966
From Melody Maker – November 26, 1966
From The Beatles Monthly Book – March 1967

Last updated on October 23, 2023

Songs recorded


1.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Written by Lennon - McCartney

Recording • Take 1

Album Officially released on Anthology 2


2.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Written by Lennon - McCartney

Recording • SI onto Take 1

Album Officially released on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (50th anniversary boxset)

Staff

Musicians on "Strawberry Fields Forever"

Paul McCartney:
Mellotron, Backing vocals, Bass
Ringo Starr:
Maracas, Drums
John Lennon:
Acoustic guitar, Vocals
George Harrison:
Backing vocals, Mellotron

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!

Shop on Amazon


The Beatles Recording Reference Manual - Volume 2 - Help! through Revolver (1965-1966)

The second book of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC)-nominated series, "The Beatles Recording Reference Manual: Volume 2: Help! through Revolver (1965-1966)" follows the evolution of the band from the end of Beatlemania with "Help!" through the introspection of "Rubber Soul" up to the sonic revolution of "Revolver". 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.

Shop on Amazon


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


http://www.beatlesebooks.com/strawberry-fields-forever


http://www.columbia.edu/~brennan/beatles/strawberry-fields.html

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