Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Penny Lane

Here's a third persona of McCartney's to celebrate in this Week of Paul: Paul the Storyteller. Or maybe I should say Paul the Poet, though John would disdain such a term used anywhere near "Penny Lane," especially when his own "Strawberry Fields Forever" is hanging out on the other side of the disc. But I'm going to stick to it-- despite its vivid characters, the text of "Penny Lane" is more of a lyric poem than a real story anyway. And besides, I'm already overthinking it, because don't you just want to listen to the song already? I do!

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.


  1. The trumpeter IS awesome. Have you seen the video of him playing the solo again sometime this century, I believe with the Fab Faux? I mean, what is he, 70? Nailed it, too.

    Once again, awesome job unlocking what I feel is really the nut of this song. I'm not sure on how many other songs Paul put together both basslines and vocal melodies of this caliber, and the two changes you mention -- the major/minor in the verse, and the one to the chorus -- are just really deft. Note how he changes the style of what he's playing on bass, from a McCartneyesque walking bassline to a more traditional (but still awesomely Paul) rooted line in the chorus -- even as he changes what he's doing vocally in a similar manner. Awesome.

    And who's holding it all together? That's right, R-Dog, with that awesome beat that sounds like it's just a snare drum on 3. The way it cracks in the chorus ... amazing. And do you have the mono version?

    I've had a listening rennaissance with this song lately, and it kind of helps me with a new way to classify Beatle songs. I mean, sure, there's the top end, the stuff you never didn't love. And there's the bottom end, which has a couple of layers: stuff you could never stand, and stuff you always were indifferent to.

    And then there's this middle layer. Songs you didn't appreciate when you were younger, and then came to love (for me, Across the Universe), and songs you listened the ass off of when you were younger and now have little interest in hearing (Eleanor Rigby), and then songs like this one: obviously brilliant, you overlisten, you cool off a bit ... and then years go by, and because the Beatles are the Beatles, and not some band that had three hits in 1996 off what you were sure at the time was the best album ever but now you realize is fantastically dated, you want to hear it again ... and it's still brilliant.

  2. Hee-- you said R-Dog. But good point, and one I neglected to talk about-- Ringo is ON in this song. I'm now also going back to listen to the bass switch you mean, because although I think I know what you're getting at I want to hear it...

    Your song categorization is interesting. For me, I'd venture there are fewer songs I actually don't like (I count two or three at most), and "Across the Universe" has had the opposite trajectory for me-- I WAY overlistened when I was young, and I feel a little bit over it now. But the Beatles almost always reward you upon further listening, dude. Give even "Eleanor Rigby" a try again with an open mind and you never know.

    But "Penny Lane" is a universal love for me. "Strawberry Fields" tends to get the artsy fartsy credit on this single, but, although I'm usually on John's side of an argument, "Penny Lane" is genius on so many levels that it might actually surpass it.

  3. Sorry, my friend, I cannot go there with you. Strawbeery Fields rules. Literally.

  4. Wish I could blame that typo on beer.

  5. Most days I agree with you, I think. But I spent the morning listening to "Penny Lane" like 10 times-- and it just kept getting better and better. I dunno, man.

  6. Is this too subjective a subject to debate? What's that? Yes, but I should do it anyway? Terrific!

    Penny Lane can be rated accordingly, by me, in the categories I am just making up right now for these purposes:

    Lyrics: Very lyrical. Definitely not hokey. Not terribly deep, though. B+ (Grades are against the Beatle canon, not music in general, or else everything'd be an A.)

    Vocals: Really nice and smooth. Great cameo by Lennon, too. Melody very appealing. No harmonies. B+

    Songwriting (music/progression): Well, I'm always a big fan of those descending basslines. You covered this part pretty well, anyway. B+

    Musical performance (Beatles): Terrific bassline. Drums not technically brilliant, but we're ignoring that because they're so well conceptualized. You're keener than me with the keyboards; I tend not to notice them. No guitars. Just sayin'. A-

    Arrangement (and outside musician performance): Really very nice. Is there a decision here that doesn't work? A

    Production: Also excellent, although the sonic space feels a little flattened out, a little mono. I'll bow to you if you want to overrule me, because I'm at work and going off memory. A-

    Now Strawberry Fields:

    Lyrics: Some of my favorites. Not just John being obtuse for the sake of being obtuse; he's really got something to say here, and just choosing to say it beautifully instead of didactically. The first line of the first verse is one of my favorite things anyone's ever written. A

    Vocals: Recording at a different speed has a killer effect, as you well know. I just think the melody is more haunting, and connects more with the soul. A

    Songwriting (music/progression): More of that descending progression, in the verses (just like Penny Lane!), this song's biggest hook for me is the move from G (Straw-berry Fields ...) to G-flat (No-thing is real ...). That's an all-timer right there. And then after the next line (hung about), which also ends on G-flat, it goes from there to D to A for the refrain. That's awesome. A

    Musical performance (Beatles): Where's Paul? Just curious. Ringo's even better here, with those crazy fills, and am I wrong, or is he doing a similarly innovative beat, where you're hearing the snare way more than the high hat the first time or two through? The guitar is awesome, again among my favorite. And that goes double for the solo line near the end that's played to match some of the Indian instrumentation here. Oops, almost forgot how beautifully he plays the Mellotron. Can't have that, can we? A

    Arrangement (and outside musician performance): Can't top Penny Lane here, right? Well ... the horns are brilliant, and you get the swordmandel, which, you know, what's better than that? I actually don't care for the backwards part very much, which is why I didn't grade this higher. A

    Production: Yes, seriously, better than Penny Lane. I could talk all day about the panning of the swordmandel, the sound they got for that solo guitar line near the end, and for John's vocals ... hmm, am I forgetting something? I feel like I am. What could it be? Oh yeah, that's right; George Martin matched two completely different takes in different tempos and pitches and no matter how many times I read about the exact spot where I might notice them welded together, I never catch it. Maybe the single greatest production achievement, indexed against its era. A+

    So yeah, I'm not going to say Penny Lane isn't great, because we both know that'd be a lie. But better than Strawberry Fields? I'd need an awful lot of convincing.

  7. Oh, here i come, late to the party. I agree that both songs are terrific (and should have been included on albums back then) and to choose favorites between them is a bit like naming a favorite child. Can't do it.
    I love how both of you guys can break down a song. Well done.
    But in the end, for me, it's a question of when the song comes on the radio, do i crank it up and enjoy? The answer to that is yes to both songs.

  8. You're the one who keeps this family together, Frank.

  9. Marvelous! Megan, I love your blog! Penny Lane's a great choice for today. (And why does Strawberry Fields have to be better, or vice-versa? they're both so fantastic.) Keep up the good work!

  10. I love spirited discussions! I agree with each of you here (Troy, you swayed me, though I agree with you most days anyway, and I think I'm just too exhausted to contemplate a point-by-point rebuttal). And hi, Hugh! Thanks for the props!

  11. Hugh: Strawberry Fields has to be better only because I'm always right, and everyone has to agree with me before I'll shut up. But beyond that, obviously there's no good reason, or such thing as 'better.'