When was it recorded? Dec. 29-30, 1996 and Jan. 4-17, 1967
When was it first released, and on which album? Feb. 13, 1967 as a single (later on “Magical Mystery Tour”)
Who wrote it? McCartney (with noteworthy contribution from Lennon)
Have I heard this song before? Yes
What my research dug up:
I have heard this song every day on my local radio station for the past week. The signal here is so strong it cuts into the other stations I listen to. This will either give me a new appreciation for the song or tip me over the edge.
Paul wrote “Penny Lane” at his London home on Cavendish Avenue.
“A lot of our formative years were spent walking around those places. Penny Lane was the depot I had to change buses at to get from my house to John’s and to a lot of my friends. It was a big bus terminal, which we all knew very well. I sang in the choir at St Barnabas Church opposite.” — Paul McCartney (Anthology)
For the record, Penny Lane is the name of a street but also what the surrounding area is called. Wikipedia knows more about the center’s history than I do, so here’s a photo of what one street looks like today.
According to Paul, John helped him write the third verse of “Penny Lane.” Specifically, most sources attribute the line/Liverpudlian sex joke “four of fish and finger pie” to him.
Reviewer Richie Unterberger was fascinated by the ending of “Penny Lane,” writing, “One more indication that the world of ‘Penny Lane’ might have more disturbing, complex undertones than are evident on the surface arrives at the very end, when the song ends on a pleasing piano chord, which briefly sustains before an unexpected swell of distorted-sounding cymbals. It’s a marvelously spooky (and surprisingly little commented-upon) touch that… adds a sinister edge to an apparently lighthearted nostalgic reflection on a time and place that maybe never was as magnificent as they were thought to be in the mind’s eye.” Interesting.
Paul recorded six takes of “Penny Lane” solo on the piano on Dec. 29, 1966. After getting the basic track, he overdubbed two more manipulated piano parts and a tambourine. Quoth the Beatles Bible, “Onto the fourth track of the tape McCartney then added some high-pitch notes from a harmonium, and finally a series of percussive effects including cymbal crashes.”
The next day Paul roped John into recording backing vocals while Paul recorded the lead. “Penny Lane” then sat untouched until Jan. 4, 1967 when John added another piano part, Paul added more vocals (which he then redid the following day), and George added lead guitar. Then a lot more stuff happened.
- Jan. 6 = Added bass, drums/congas, rhythm guitar, handclaps, piano overdubs, and ‘scat vocals’ to serve as guides for the brass section
- Jan. 9 = Four flutes, two piccolos, two trumpets & a flugelhorn added
- Jan. 10 = Harmony vocals and hand bell (to signify the fireman) added
- Jan. 12 = Two trumpets, two oboes, cor anglais and a double bass added
Finally, on Jan. 17 English trumpeter David Mason recorded the piccolo trumpet solo. According to the Beatles Bible, Paul had seen Mason “performing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto on BBC Two on 11 January” and was inspired… but not inspired enough to write his own trumpet part for the song. Mason helped Paul and George Martin write his solo when got to the studio.
The ninth take of “Penny Lane” with this horn part added appeared on “Anthology 2.”
According to the Beatles Bible, “‘Penny Lane; was originally intended to be a part of The Beatles’ eighth album, which would turn out to be ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’” However, George Martin and Brian Epstein figured the Beatles needed to release a single ASAP and pulled “Penny Lane” and another song intended for “Sgt. Pepper” – “Strawberry Fields Forever” – to create a double A-side record. In later interviews, George Martin seems to regret the decision to keep both songs off the “Sgt. Pepper” album.
According to Wikipedia, “Beatles producer George Martin has stated he believes the pairing of ‘Penny Lane’ with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ resulted in probably the greatest single ever released by the band.” Richie Unterberger agreed, writing “Penny Lane’ was one-half of the ultimate pop single — one which boasted all-time classics on each side that neatly complemented each other in subject matter and also subtly illustrated the complementary strengths of the greatest songwriting partnership in rock music.”
Alas, this beautiful single peaked at #2 on the British charts.
“It was pretty bad, wasn’t it, that Engelbert Humperdinck stopped ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ from getting to number one? But I don’t think it was a worry. At first, we wanted to have good chart positions, but then I think we started taking it for granted. It might have been a bit of a shock being number two – but then again, there were always so many different charts that you could be number two in one chart and number one in another.” — George Harrison (Anthology)
Sure enough, “Penny Lane” was the Beatles’ 13th #1 single in the US and Canada. The RIAA certified it Gold and Rolling Stone later ranked the song #456 of its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Perhaps “Penny Lane” fared better across the pond because the original US single version “had an additional flourish of piccolo trumpet notes at the end of the song” (Wikipedia). (You heard it already on Take 9 from “Anthology 2.”) It was quickly swapped out for the version heard everywhere else, but pressings of that record remained rare for a long time. The final flourish version of “Penny Lane” appeared on the compilation “US Rarities” and Britain’s “The Beatles Box” in 1980.
“Penny Lane” also boasts a promotional film (not actually filmed on Penny Lane, though). Directed by Peter Goldmann, the Beatles first filmed Feb. 5, 1967 in Stratford London. On Feb. 7, they shot more footage at Knole Park in Sevenoaks, Kent (though Wikipedia claims this footage was shot the same day as the “Strawberry Fields Forever” music video).
Another interesting factoid about “Penny Lane” – In 1969 the media company ATV acquired Northern Songs (which I talked about recently), the company that owned the Beatles catalogue. In 1985, the company’s head, Australian entrepreneur Robert Holmes à Court, sold the Beatles catalogue to American superstar Michael Jackson. However, before the sale, “he offered his 16-year-old daughter Catherine the chance to keep any song “in her name” from the catalogue. She chose “Penny Lane” as it was her favorite – despite her father’s urging to choose ‘Yesterday,’ which was by far the biggest royalty earning song on the books” (Wikipedia). To this day, Catherine Holmes à Court-Mather holds the copyright to “Penny Lane,” making it one of five Beatles songs not owned by Sony/ATV.
OK, that’s all the “Penny Lane” I can take for one day.