The Beatles Songs: "Penny Lane"

The history of this classic Beatles song

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Fontenot, Robert. "The Beatles Songs: "Penny Lane"." ThoughtCo, May. 2, 2016, thoughtco.com/the-beatles-penny-lane-history-2523744. Fontenot, Robert. (2016, May 2). The Beatles Songs: "Penny Lane". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-beatles-penny-lane-history-2523744 Fontenot, Robert. "The Beatles Songs: "Penny Lane"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-beatles-penny-lane-history-2523744 (accessed September 25, 2017).
beatlesplus45sleeve.jpg
The original 45 sleeve for "Penny Lane". fab4collectibles.com

Penny Lane

Written by: Paul McCartney (90%), John Lennon (10%) (credited as Lennon-McCartney)
Recorded: December 29-30, 1966; January 2, 5-6, 9-10, 12, 17, 1967 (Studio 2, Abbey Road Studios, London, England)
Mixed: December 29-30, 1966; January 9, 12, 17, 25, 1967; September 30, 1971
Length: 2:57
Takes: 9

Musicians:

John Lennon: harmony vocals, pianos (Alfred E. Knight), congas, harmonium, tambourine
Paul McCartney: lead vocal, bass guitar (1964 Rickenbacker 4001S), pianos (Alfred E.

Knight), harmonium, tambourine
George Harrison: conga drum, firebell
Ringo Starr: drums (Ludwig), bells
George Martin: piano (Alfred E. Knight)
Frank Clarke: Arco acoustic string bass
David Mason: piccolo trumpet solo
Ray Swinfield: flute, piccolo
P. Goody: flute, piccolo
Manny Winters: flute, piccolo
Dennis Walton: flute, piccolo
Leon Calvert: trumpet, flugelhorn
Freddy Clayton: trumpet, flugelhorn
Bert Courtley: trumpet, flugelhorn
Duncan Campbell: trumpet, flugelhorn

First released: February 13, 1967 (UK: Parlophone R5570), February 17, 1967 (US: Capitol 5810); double a-side with "Strawberry Fields Forever"

Available on: (CDs in bold)

Magical Mystery Tour (UK: Parlophone PCTC 255, US: Capitol (S)MAL 2835, Parlophone CDP 7 48062 2)
The Beatles 1967-1970 (UK: Apple PCSP 718, US: Apple SKBO 3404, Apple CDP 0777 7 97039 2 0)
The Beatles 1 (Apple CDP 7243 5 299702 2)

Highest chart position: US: 1 (March 18, 1967), UK: 2 (March 2, 1967)

History:

Lyrically this song, written by Paul in the fall of 1966, was the product of two major inspirations. First was John's Rubber Soul ballad "In My Life," which began life as a nostalgic look back at places from the singer's early life, including Penny Lane itself (hence the opening line "There are places I'll remember / All my life, though some have changed").

The other guiding force behind the theme was Paul's own original concept for the next album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which began life as a concept album about childhood.

Penny Lane, like John's Strawberry Field, was and is unremarkable, a "roundabout," or traffic circle, located in a Liverpool district of the same name. (While the other Beatles grew up near the district, only John can said to have lived in it, until the age of four; his first wife Cynthia and his mother Julia once worked in the roundabout, and Paul was a choirboy in a nearby church.) Paul's lyrics, in a style that would become his trademark, take otherwise mundane events and report on them in a way that reveals a shared humanity. John Lennon was responsible for much of the third verse (about the nurse and her poppies).

Musically, this track was, by Paul's own admission, greatly influenced by the Beach Boys 1966 single "God Only Knows" in its heavily syncopated rhythm and excess orchestration.

Several lyrical phrases in "Penny Lane" are very specific to England or even Liverpool, and require some translation for Americans. The "mac" never worn by the banker is short for "mackintosh," or a waterproof raincoat.

The "pretty nurse" selling poppies from a tray is a reference to a common practice on England's Remembrance Day (their version of America's Veterans Day, also observed in Canada); blood-red poppies are sold to benefit veterans, the poppy being a symbol of sacrifice, specifically dating back to the poppy fields in Flanders during WWI. "Four of fish" is a popular order representing four pennies' worth of fish and chips, while "Finger pie" is a reference to a bit of sexual stimulation no doubt practiced by the locals in one of the district's nooks and crannies. (For months after the song's release, female chip shop employees in the area were propositioned with orders for "a four of fish and finger pie.")

This song featured some of the more demanding recording sessions in the Beatles' history.

Four piano tracks were used, one being fed through a Vox amplifier to produce the feedback that crops up from time to time. An outside bass player was brought in to add acoustic bass to Paul's electric, heard in the line about "the banker sitting waiting for a trim." Tracks featuring John and George on guitar were eventually edited out of the final mix, as was an arrangement for two oboes and its alto cousin, the <i>cor anglais</i>. Almost none of the piano or vocal tracks are left as is; McCartney's vocal is noticeably sped up, and most other tracks were recorded slower or faster than necessary and then adjusted to match, creating an surreal, daydreamy feeling.

The famous piccolo trumpet solo was an invention of McCartney's; after hearing David Mason play one in a live BBC performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #2 only a few days earlier, he asked Mason to come in and play a solo, written by Paul. The original promo copy of "Penny Lane" featured a different mix where Mason plays a fanfare over the ominous ending; this mix (often thought inferior to the released version) was first made available to the public on 1980's Rarities LP. It can be found these days on Anthology 2.

Trivia:

  • Although it shares a single with "Strawberry Fields Forever," the original double-a side was meant to be Paul's "When I'm Sixty Four," the second song after SFF to be recorded for the historic Sgt. Pepper sessions. Paul, realizing "Penny Lane" was the more commercial song, selected it instead.
  • Along with SFF, this was the first single sent out as a promo to DJs in England. It was also the first Beatles single not to reach Number One in the UK since 1963's "Please Please Me" -- breaking a streak of eleven straight chart-toppers!
  • There is indeed a bank in the real-life roundabout mentioned in "Penny Lane," as well as a barbershop, run by one Roger Bioletti, who has claimed to have cut John, Paul, and George's hair as children. The fire station mentioned in the song exists, though slightly off the Penny Lane road itself; the "shelter," a covered bus stop, was turned into a trendy restaurant called "Sgt. Pepper's Bistro," and is, as of this writing, abandoned. The area itself, however, has become quite trendy among college students, not to mention tourists.
  • Penny Lane was named for 18th-century slave trader James Penny; when, in 2006, the Liverpool town council proposed to rename all such streets named after slavers, this disconcerting fact came up. Penny Lane was left as it was.
  • "Penny Lane" road signs were stolen as souvenirs for years until the Liverpool government decided to simply paint the signs on area walls. In 2007 a new theft-proof sign was introduced... which was promptly stolen.
  • The trumpet that David Jones plays on this track was sold at Sotheby's in 1987 for the equivalent of nearly eleven thousand US dollars.
  • A number of businesses have adopted the Penny Lane name, as well as characters in the films Wonderwall (1968; score by George Harrison) and 2000's Almost Famous, and the TV show Daria. Ex-adult film star Penny Flame credits her name to her love of the song -- and her love for marijuana.

    Covered by: Amen Corner, John Bayless, Judy Collins, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, Ray Hamilton, Englebert Humperdinck, James Last, Enoch Light, Kenny Rankin, Jorge Rico, John Valby, Newton Wayland, Kai Winding

    Format
    mla apa chicago
    Your Citation
    Fontenot, Robert. "The Beatles Songs: "Penny Lane"." ThoughtCo, May. 2, 2016, thoughtco.com/the-beatles-penny-lane-history-2523744. Fontenot, Robert. (2016, May 2). The Beatles Songs: "Penny Lane". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-beatles-penny-lane-history-2523744 Fontenot, Robert. "The Beatles Songs: "Penny Lane"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-beatles-penny-lane-history-2523744 (accessed September 25, 2017).