The story of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is more or less the story in miniature of the Beatles' reinvention after they swore off touring in 1966 and disappeared into the studio to make their most innovative albums. It was not, as some Beatles fans might remember, an easy transition right away. Some of their fans, it turned out, were fickle, easily swayed by gossip as the latest TV trends. “While unsubstantiated break-up rumors swirled, some music fans became disenchanted with the group,” writes Ultimate Classic Rock. “You need only watch a 1967 clip from American Bandstand to see how many teenagers in the audience thought the Beatles were has-beens.”
Eager to get something out and fight the whims of fashion, Parlophone and Capitol both released John Lennon’s latest, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” with Paul McCartney’s “Penny Lane” as the B-side, in 1967. Since the band no longer toured, they were “directed to make film clips to accompany each song and promote the single.”
Here, they debuted their new psychedelic look, and in the singles they demonstrated the new direction their music would go. Thematically, both songs are nostalgic trips through childhood, with Lennon taking a mystical, psych-rock approach and McCartney diving headlong into his sentimental music hall ambitions.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” also firmly established the band as studio wizards, thanks to the wizardry, primarily, of George Martin. In the video at the top from You Can’t Unhear This, we learn just what a marvel—as a technical achievement—the band’s new single was at the time, containing “the craziest edit in Beatles history.” The song itself went through a very lengthy gestation period, as Colin Fleming details in Rolling Stone, from sketchy, ghostly early acoustic demoes called “It’s Not Too Bad” (below) to the wild cacophony of crashing rhythms and looping melodies it would become.
Recording take after take, the band spent 55 hours in the studio working on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Nothing seemed to satisfy Lennon, though he was leaning toward a darker, heavier take, Fleming notes:
This was a version approaching proto-metal. Lennon couldn’t decide if he wanted to go the ethereal route, or the stomping one, and famously told George Martin to combine the two versions. This was less than practical.
“Well, there are two things against it,” Martin informed Lennon. “One is that they’re in different keys. The other is that they’re in different tempos.”
But for a man who had started his most personal, honest musical journey, within the parameters of a single song, back in Spain, this was merely part of the process.
“You can fix it, George,” Lennon concluded, and that was that, with Martin now tasked with finding a solution to a problem that seemingly violated the laws of musical physics.
Martin's solution involved slowing one version down and speeding up the other until they were close enough in pitch that “only a musicologist, really, would know that there was that much of a difference,” Fleming writes. Speeding up and slowing down tracks was common practice in the studio, and is today, but given the incredible number of instruments and amount of overdubbing that went into making “Strawberry Fields,” the endeavor defied the logic of what was technologically possible at the time.
While the time spent on the song might seem extravagant, we should consider that these days bands can pluck the sounds they want, whatever they are, from pull-down menus, and splice anything together in a matter of minutes. In the mid-60s, Brian Jones, Brian Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and other studio pioneers dreamed up sounds no one had heard before, and brought together instrumentation that had never shared space in a mix. Producers and engineers like Martin had to invent the techniques to make those new sounds come together on tape. Learning the ins-and-outs of how Martin did it can give even the most die-hard Beatles fans renewed appreciation for songs as widely beloved as “Strawberry Fields Forever.”