Rarely has a song of the Beatles built so strong a fascination for such a completely anonymous real place as Penny Lane. The tableau vivant built by McCartney around a roundabout is probably the greatest homage to his home city.
The song was recorded in 9 days between 29th December 1966 and 17th January 1967, during the sessions that created the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). PENNY LANE first appeared on a double A-side single, together with “Strawberry Fields”, released in February 1967, and was later also featured on the album Magical Mystery Tour (1967). The single is credited to Lennon / McCartney, although both in interviews and according to critics and fans, the authorial credits could be shifted to McCartney for PENNY LANE and to Lennon for “Strawberry Fields”.
Interestingly, both songs deal with childhood memories of places in Liverpool not so distant from each other. Liverpool is the city that gave birth to each member of the band and to the band itself (although Ringo Starr joined it in Hamburg), but these are the only songs in the band’s repertoire which specifically address that particular geographical place.
Peter Goldmann filmed a promotional film for the song. Curiously enough the Beatles didn’t travel to Liverpool, therefore scenes of the northern city bus showing “Penny Lane” destination and of the roundabout are cut with images of all the members of the band in London, riding with red uniform jackets in parks and of John Lennon walking in a crowd. The Beatles at that time had already adopted distinctive haircuts and facial hairstyles (with Lennon sporting the famous “granny” glasses).
Lyrically the song is a tableau vivant portraying simultaneous everyday happenings on a roundabout called “Penny Lane”. A hint of oddness characterizes all the characters of the song: the barber, the banker, the fireman and the nurse. This could originate from the attempt to capture the reality of the place through the eyes of a child. In the refrain, the authorial “I” tells the listener that the place is in his ears and in his eyes. The song in fact recreates the memory visually, but also aurally: there are references to laughing and saying hello, to engines and to the pouring rain. McCartney tried to incorporate some noises in the recording of the song to underline some of the most aural lyrical descriptions. The reference to the blue sky is also very much connected to childhood and to the dogmatic understanding of colours in children. “Suburban” is very exact from the urban planning point of view and this is probably the first appearance of the word in a pop song.
Musically, PENNY LANE presents the complex orchestrations of the late Beatles, whose studio work became very sophisticated, thanks also to the work of producer George Martin. It features a piccolo trumpet solo by David Mason, either mocking of paying homage by the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto by Bach (see Miles/Charlesworth 1998).
The success of the song established the real Penny Lane as a place of pilgrimage for Beatles fans. It is one of the highlights of the “Magical Mystery Tour” bus tour of the city, which brings tourists to places where the Fab’ Four lived and to the ones they evoked in songs. Some of the landmarks featured in the song, such as the roundabout itself, the bank and the barbershop, are still present on the street, while others have vanished. Surrounding new establishments, bistros, etc. repeat the name of the lane to brand themselves within the legend. However, just like in many other places made famous by popular music, there is little out of the ordinary in the actual Penny Lane, apart from the aura of myth created by the song itself. The song has been covered widely and translated into several languages, among others into Finnish. “Rööperiin” (1967) as performed by the Jormas operates a double localisation of the original song, first linguistically from English into Finnish and second spatially, by transferring the “extraordinary everyday” from a suburb of Liverpool to a suburb of Helsinki (Rööperi, today known as Punavuori).
Lead vocals: Paul McCartney
Harmony and backing vocals: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison
Piano: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Martin
Piccolo Trumpet Solo: David Mason
Flutes, Piccolos: Ray Swinfield, P. Goody, Manny Winters
Trumpets, flugelhorn: Leon Calvert, Freddy Clayton, Bert Courtley, Duncan Campbell
Oboes, Cor anglais:Dick Morgan, Mike Winefield
Double-Bass: Frank Clarke
Bass: Paul McCartney
Drums: Ringo Starr
Percussion: Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison
Production, Orchestration: George Martin
Lyrics: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Recorded: December 29th, 1966 – January 17th, 1967
Length 3:03 (single edit)
2:57 (album version)
- The Beatles. “Penny Lane”. On: Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane, 1967, Parlophone, R 5570, UK (7”/Single).
- The Beatles. “Penny Lane”. On: Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane, 1967, Odeon, O 23 436, Germany (7”/Single).
- The Beatles. “Penny Lane”. On: Magical Mystery Tour, 1967, Parlophone, SMAL 2835, UK (LP/Album).
- Pepe Willberg & Jormas. “Rööperiin”. On: Pepen Parhaat, 1968, EMI, 5 E 048-34728, Finland (LP/Compilation).
- Kruse II, Robert J.: The Beatles as Place Makers: Narrated Landscapes in Liverpool. In: Journal of Cultural Geography 22/2 (2005), 87-188.
- Kruse II, Robert J.: The Geography of the Beatles: Approaching Concepts of Human Geography. In: Journal of Geography 103/1 (2004), 2-7.
- Miles, Barry/Charlesworth, Chris: The Beatles: A Diary. London: Omnibus 1998.
- Moore, Allan F.: The Beatles: Stg. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997.
- http://www.jeffdstahl.com/worksfiles/lennonmccarney.pdf [07.11.2011].
- Artist homepage: http://www.thebeatles.com/ [07.11.2011].
- Database: http://www.discogs.com/artist/Beatles%2C+The [07.11.2011].
- Download: http://www.apple.com/the-beatles/ [07.11.2011].
- Music video: http://www.myvideo.de/watch/6439175/The_Beatles_Penny_Lane [07.11.2011].
- Lyrics: http://www.thebeatles.com/#/songs/Penny_Lane [07.11.2011].
About the Author
All contributions by Giacomo Bottà
Giacomo Bottà: “Penny Lane (The Beatles)”. In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/pennylane, 02/2010 [revised 10/2013].Print