Don't you love the ridiculous promo video? Filmed in London, by the way, except for some incidental footage of the Liverpool buses. I, for one, am a big fan of Paul's coat.
Paul might have begun writing "Penny Lane" as early as mid-1965, around the time John was working out "In My Life," which was itself originally envisioned as a more specific tribute to growing up in Liverpool. Apparently, Paul liked the idea of a nostalgic song and wanted to write his own version of one. By the time they came back to the studio after the enormous triumph of Revolver, the song seems to have been pretty much done, and it was one of the first ones they started working on. Though it was originally envisioned for inclusion on what-would-become-but-what-was-not-yet Sgt. Pepper, the push from EMI and Brian Epstein to release a new single was so strong that "Penny Lane" was thrown onto a double A-side single with "Strawberry Fields Forever," mostly because they were the only songs that were done. George Martin apparently still regrets that they didn't make it to the album, but the Beatles didn't really love to put their singles onto the LPs, at least not in Britain where they had some control over the matter, and anyway Martin has also said that he thinks the "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Field Forever" single is the best record that's been released, by anybody, ever. Frankly, though "Penny Lane" would have been fine on Sgt Pepper, I agree with Martin that it's perfect as a single too, and its yin-yang relationship with "Strawberry Fields Forever" has been much commented on elsewhere.
Sometimes I think "Penny Lane" might be the best song Paul's ever written, actually. And never mind the production flourishes for the moment (though, doesn't this song sound a little Pet Sounds to you?)-- the melody itself is so unbelievably strong, just this total masterpiece. Melody is funny-- one never knows what to say about it except "WOW," but everyone knows a good melody when they hear one even if they can't say why. (And speaking of which, doesn't the melody, too, sound just slightly Pet Sounds to you? I mean, it's all Paul, but I think you can hear what he's been listening to.)
The melody floats with this inherent optimism and sunshiney-ness which, if handled improperly, might have become cloying after a while, and would have also made the song's characters seem just a little too cute. So Paul sets up a harmonic structure that cleverly vacillates between the song's home key, which is major, and its relative minor (B and g#, if you're interested). You can hear those little shifts into minor in each verse: on "and all the people that come and go," "the banker never wears a mac," and so forth. To my ear, this lends the song some great contrasting color and some, well, depth, for lack of a better word. What's particularly neat about this is that Paul's walking bass line leads us into minor so seamlessly.
The other really odd thing Paul does is bring the refrains into the very different key of A major, which is not only strange for moving lower down the scale from the home key (in pop music, the opposite is far more common), but because A major is kind of a weird key for a B major song to modulate to anyway, at least in traditional theory. But since the refrain is the "Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes" bit, and the only time we hear the singer commenting on himself in this picture he's sketching, the A major key takes on almost a different personality from the B major verses. Even if you don't know or care what exactly is happening here (I sat down at a piano as a teenager to figure it out, because I was obsessed) you can hear the difference between the verses and refrain. I mean, the whole thing is just so SMART. And even smarter is that in the last refrain, when Paul does do the traditional pop music thing and modulate up one key (something the Beatles almost never did, by the way, even if a zillion other pop stars did), he's actually going back to the key of the verses, which just brings the whole thing full circle.
You know what else is really cool and smart about "Penny Lane"? EVERYTHING. But there's only so much time in the day, so just a couple more things from me. Listen to those staccato piano chords on the beat-- they run through practically the whole song, and they sound simple and ringy and kind of old-fashioned, or something. But they're actually the product of painstaking studio tinkering that I've never even completely understood. Paul played the line on one piano, then overdubbed another on top of it, then recorded another line at half-speed and sped it up for overdubbing to change the quality, then had John play yet another piano part on top of it, and then messed around with extra percussion effects on that. Nuts, right? And that's only one instrument in the mix. (It's worth noting that "Carnival of Light," a Holy Grail lost Beatles track that's notorious for being 10 minutes of Stockhausen-influenced noise and madness born of studio tinkering, was recorded during the "Penny Lane" sessions, so clearly they were in some kind of mood to do this. By the way, Walrus Gumboot recently linked to this story claiming that Paul, who has the master tapes of "Carnival of Light," will finally release it this year, but he's said that before, so maintain some healthy skepticism.)
But the most famous musical element in "Penny Lane" is probably the piccolo trumpet that makes commentary throughout before playing that memorable solo. If you listen to the version of the song on Anthology 2, it's incredibly jarring to NOT hear that trumpet. Interestingly, the trumpet was kind of a last-minute addition-- Paul happened to hear a performance of some Brandenburg Concertos one night while working on this, and decided he wanted that trumpet sound in his song as well. And it was he who wrote the solo line by singing it to George Martin, who wrote it down for the trumpeter to play. My understanding is that piccolo trumpets are really difficult to play even for professionals, which is probably why there have been rumors before that the solo was played at half-speed and then sped up in the studio-- but in fact the trumpet part might be the only piece of the song that wasn't mucked about with this way. The trumpeter was just that awesome.
It's a pretty sunny day today after a couple days of rain and gloom, and playing "Penny Lane" over and over like this just freaking swells my chest up, truly. Gotta be one of Paul's finest moments, and one of the Beatles' best tracks. Hope it gets you over the Wednesday hump in this Week of Paul.
"Penny Lane," released in the U.K. as a double A-side single with "Strawberry Fields Forever," February 13, 1967; in the U.S. February 17, 1967.