Notes on "Strawberry Fields Forever" (SFF)
KEY B flat (more or less)
METER 4/4 (with occasional measures of 6/8)
FORM Intro -> Refrain -> Verse -> Refrain -> Verse -> Refrain ->
Verse -> Refrain -> Outro (w/double fadeout)
GENERAL POINTS OF INTEREST
Style and Form
- This song is an undeniable landmark breakthrough, though with the exception of the midstream switch to a different backing track and the double fadeout at the end, there is nothing on the technical side here that is quite literally so "new" as much as it is a matter of several still-novel techniques being taken to new levels of complexity, intensity, and simultaneous exploitation and juxtaposition.
- The use of tape-speed variations; up close miking; limiting; playing tapes backwards; the inclusion of instruments and instrumental groups that are conspiculously *non*-rock in their primary association; strange chord progressions, and surprising changes of meter -- ALL these things have their precedents on _Revolver_ or its related singles, but the irony is that they are presented here in SFF in creative extensions such that you never feel as if the Beatles are merely repeating themselves. Also, there's a kitchen-sink presentation of so many of these tricks in a single number that is, prior to SFF, quite UNprecendented.
- The evolution of the song, from home demos through the many studio takes that traverse three very different arrangements of it, is a much discussed, fascinating story of its own which is somewhat outside the scope of *this* note. For those who are interested, see my article in _The 910_, volume 1, #2, the bulk of which I'll still stand behind with a few corrected errors in judgement, and inclusion of new information made available since it was written.
- For this context, suffice it to say, the official version of SFF was made by the splicing together of takes 7 and 26 at the 1:00 mark in the song, just as the second refrain commences with the phrase "I'm going to". This required slightly increasing the speed of take 7 (recorded in the key of A) to the point where it sounds close to, but not quite exactly in, the key of B flat; compared with a tuning fork, the opening of the offical version is not quite on pitch. Conversely, take 26 (recorded in the key of B) was slowed down to sound in B flat on playback. Just as Lewisohn reports, as the moment of the splice approached, it seems as though the engineers added just the right amount of additional speed to bring take 7 up to sound precisely in B flat.
- Although one might argue from the perspective of textbook poetics that the song would sound more integrated if they had stuck with one or the other arrangement throughout, I dare say that the shift in midstream from one version to the other adds a third dimension of progressive fluidity to the music which would have otherwise been missing, and whose presence nicely underscores the sense (or shall I say, nonsense) of the lyrics.
Melody and Harmony
- The harmony vascillates between moments of relatively standard tonal clarity and those of strange ambiguity. In several places it pulls back from seemingly inevitable cadences, and settles throughout for the less decisive IV-I plagal cadence instead of the standard V-I. For my money, this harmonic idiom subtly sympathizes with the uncertain "I think/I know" vacillation in the lyrics.
- The melodic material has a similar mix of the familiar with suprising chromatic touches as well as that dramatic rising octave leap thrown in for good measure. The swordmandel licks add a touch of flat seven modal flavor.
- The first part of the song up through the beginning of the second refrain features mellotron, guitar, and drums. The second part shifts to a heavy orchestra-like texture which sounds like a much larger ensemble than the four trumpets and three cellos actually used. This group was superimposed onto a backing track of cymbals recorded to playback sounding backwards, guitar, swordmandel (an exotic Indian instrument which looks like a table harp and sounds like a harpsichord), and several other instruments and effects, much of which get lost in the background. John's vocal is heavily distorted throughout and is double tracked in the refrains.
- The orchestral backing of the second half is more pseudo and surealistically "classical" than authentically so, and its spasmodic jumpiness works at effective cross-currents with the more flowing beat established in the first half of the song. While all of the outtakes of SFF are worth your hearing at least once, the take 25 which features the orchestral backing by itself is especially gripping for the intensity it conveys when heard in isolation from the vocal.
- The seemingly harmless introduction is fraught with ambiguity. At what point can you tell from this intro what the home key is? And how convincing is it when it arrives?
Chords |F (a) |c A-dim. |B F |Eb Bb |
Bottom |F E |Eb |D C |Bb |
Bb: V ii vii-dim. I V IV I
- On paper, it doesn't look so far out, but do you hear the opening chord as V, especially when the a-minor chord is implied in the second half of the measure? Similarly, toward the end of the phrase I hear the B flat chord as IV of F and expect F to be the home key only to be fooled by that sort of forced 6/4->5/3 plagal cadence at the end. Note, by the way, how the final measure of the intro contains an additional 2 beats!
- And should you suspect this kind of sophistication to be a hallmark of John's work at this particular point of his career, I hasten to point out how similar this intro is, harmonically, to the one found a couple years earlier in, of all songs, "Help!"
- The metrical phrasing of the refrain is made somewhat indeterminate by the interpolation at one point of a fore-shortened half-measure, (on the words, "nothing to get"), and at another point of a single measure in 6/8 (on the words, "Strawberry Fields for ..."), with the eighth-note pulse holding constant. There is also the fact that the vocal part starts up in the middle of the first measure, giving a feel that the actual downbeat for the section is at the start of the second measure, (on the word "down."):
|Bb |- |f |- |
Bb: I v
|D-dim |- |Eb F|G |
vii-of-IV IV V V-of-ii
** 6/8 **
|Eb |Bb |
- The refrain is the most tonally ambiguous and roundabout of the sections. The v chord of the home key is presented in the minor mode, a diminished chord sets up an excursion toward either IV or ii, there's an unrequited second flirtation with ii, and ultimately, a plagal cadence.
- If you want to get really fussy about detailed differences among the several repeats of this refrain you'll note how in the first refrain the diminished chord in the fifth measure is presented with G in the bass as a V9-of-ii, and the penultimate measure interpolates a c minor ii chord in between the Eb and Bb chords.
- In contrast to the refrain, the verse section is a predictable eight measures long that you can parse into four even phrases. The harmonic rhythm is also contrastingly faster in this section.
- Harmonically, the verse opens on V and moves toward, but still we encounter the approach/avoidance tactic every time you think the V chord will resolve to I. Note here, how the opening V "deceptively" resolves to vi, and the closing V moves to I only by roundabout way of the IV chord:
|F |F7 f# dim. |g |Eb |
Bb: V vii-dim/vi vi IV
|Eb F |Bb g |Eb F |Eb Bb |
IV V I vi IV V IV I
- The novelty per se of the song's initial release of the fade back in and then out again is not to be under-estimated at the time of the song's initial release.
- This familiar outro can be heard to take shape in takes 25 and 26. Especially in take 26, you can easily trace the following synopsis of events over the background of muttered screaming and percussion effects: fanfare-like phrases by the swordmandel and mellotron, followed by something that sounds like a pulsating doppler effect panning across the stereo picture, followed by more mellotron fanfares, followed by the infamous "cranberry sauce" remarks, and on take 25, you can hear John remark "alright, calm down, Ringo." I believe that the fade effects of the official version were directly superimposed over what we hear on take 26.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
- One of my repeated points of emphasis in this series is how wherever you find the Beatles at their most seemingly experimental, you almost always find them also at their most tradtionally conservative. Here, in SFF, underneath whatever else is "far out" you find mostly a folk-ballad-like form with a late breaking tip of the hat to the pop song format.
- On the folksy side, there is the opening with a refrain rather than a verse, and the strict alternation of refrains and verses with no bridge or instrumental solo. Lyrically, all three verse sections have unique words: "Living is easy ...", "No-one, I think ...", and "Always, no, sometimes ...". The late breaking pop song gesture is in the once-twice-three-times-you're-out repetition that elides the final refrain with the outro.
- In the realm of musical vocabulary just typically John Lennonesque, you have an uncanny number of slow triples in the lead vocal, as well as the backing track.
- What I'm trying to say is, yeah, the song is very far out in many ways, but in others, it's quite typical of its creator(s). This ain't no "What's the New Mary Jane;" IMHO, thank goodness :-)
"As a kid, John would visit the orphanage when garden shows were presented
in its beautiful setting off Beaconsfield Road ..." 102995#105
Copyright (c) 1995 by Alan W. Pollack
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