Saturday, January 3, 2009

Strawberry Fields Forever

Happy birthday to George Martin! George Martin was, of course, the Beatles' producer on just about all their albums, and his genius is behind many of the best tracks, whether as arranger or performer or engineer or whatever.

Today I wanted to listen to a song that really would not have been the same without George Martin's talents, not to mention his infinite patience-- "Strawberry Fields Forever." It's sort of a daunting song to take on, clearly one close to John Lennon's heart and probably one of the greatest songs the band ever did. Plus, fans have four official versions to listen to (the master single version, plus three earlier takes on Anthology-- plus unofficial others on bootleg, shh), which is neat, but also somehow just adds to the song's already weighty mythology.

So it's Saturday, hurray, so I have the time to listen to all the versions of the song and relish once again what a genius George Martin is. The song is lovely even quite naked, as in John's demo recording with acoustic guitar. But this was the first song the band tackled in the Sgt. Pepper sessions, after all, so no one would be content until there was much, much more sound. After a bunch of takes, they had one version that's a bit lighter-sounding, with prominent Mellotron and, it must be said, awesome drumming, as well as a second version with Martin-scored instrumentation, featuring lots of brass and cellos. John maddeningly decided that he wanted a final version that combined the best elements of both, which was a problem, since they were in two different keys and tempos.

So Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick spliced together the two versions by futzing with the tempi, slowing down the latter two verses of the orchestral version such that they fit together with the first verse of the other. So in the master recording, after the first verse, if you're listening for it, you can hear two separate edits just a few seconds apart from each other. But you have to be listening for it-- it's amazing how seamless it is. The effect is that, on the second chorus, John's vocal sounds deeper and stranger, as if he's singing from the bottom of a rabbit hole. And the orchestra makes the repeats seem broader and more intense. You've gone deeper into some kind of strange wonderland, following John's weirdo vocal along... "Strawberry Fields Forever" is pretty much what psychedelia came to sound like, though because the song is just so good anyway, it stands up today as a masterpiece by any standard. In my opinion, anyway. (A little more dated, but still loads of fun to watch, is the promotional film for this song-- check it out here.)

So happy birthday, George Martin! The Beatles really could not have been the Beatles without you for a whole host of reasons-- "Strawberry Fields Forever" is only one of them.

"Strawberry Fields Forever," released as double A side single w/ "Penny Lane." Released in U.K. February 17, 1967, in U.S. February 13, 1967.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous

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