Forty years ago this month, The Beatles recorded their most complex track. Robert Webb reveals how 'Strawberry Fields Forever' took shape in the studio 29 November 2006
It was 40 years ago, in November 1966, that the four Beatles, chilled after a recuperative break, rolled up at EMI's Abbey Road studios to begin recording their eighth album. They'd had enough of touring, churning out the hits to shrieking fans who couldn't tell which song they were playing, let alone whether it was in tune. Spurred on by their experiments in sound on Revolver, notably "Tomorrow Never Knows", the new album would comprise songs that could be performed only in the studio. They had a flexible timetable and no ceiling on the budget. They couldn't wait to turn us on.
The project would morph into Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Paul McCartney's grandiose plan to send out a fictitious touring band in their place - on vinyl, instead of on the road. It ended up just a collection of tracks, as John Lennon put it. It was, of course, a masterpiece: the mindblower against which all envelope-pushing rock albums would be critically evaluated for years to come.
The session kicked off, as did virtually all Beatle sessions, with a Lennon song. During his break, the bespectacled Beatle had bunked off to Almeria in southern Spain where he wrote "Strawberry Fields Forever". Back at his Weybridge home, he demoed a version with an acoustic guitar (this early take was made public with the release of the Anthology 2 CD in 1996). The song was titled after a Salvation Army children's home, Strawberry Field (he added the "s"), in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton. The Victorian edifice was a landmark from his boyhood and he had fond memories of attending the annual fête there with his Aunt Mimi. Filtered through his drug-addled imagination, however, the song had little to do with orphanages, fêtes or the Sally Army.
In Abbey Road's Studio Two, Lennon strummed the somnolent, opening bars: "No one I think is in my tree..." Up in the control room, Geoff Emerick was bowled over. Emerick, then only 19 years old, was the Beatles' sound engineer. His inventive and nimble fingers had spliced tape and nudged faders alongside the steady hand of the producer George Martin on Revolver and would do so on most of the Beatles' subsequent recordings.
"It was just a great, great song, that was apparent from the first time John sang it for all of us, playing an acoustic guitar," Emerick says. "Everyone was fired up and full of creative ideas after the break. Most exciting was the idea that, freed from the rigours of touring, they no longer had to worry about having to play the new material live, so we literally could take the song in any direction."
McCartney loved it. "His main contribution, as I remember, was coming up with the signature Mellotron flute intro," says Emerick. "From that very first moment, you know something special is about to follow." George Harrison was keen to employ his new toy, a slide guitar. Ringo busied himself draping towels over his kit to achieve the song's distinctive muffled drum sound. A few takes later, it was finished and the Beatles moved on to the next song for the album, McCartney's "When I'm Sixty-Four". There was just one hitch: "John had been listening to his acetate of 'Strawberry Fields'... and he decided he didn't like it," recalls Emerick. It needed to be "heavier".
On Thursday 8 December, they reconvened and took it from the top. That evening, Emerick and Martin were attending the premiere of a Cliff Richard film in the West End. When they finally made it to the studio, it was midnight, and the session was in full swing. The band were on a roll and stayed until the early hours: Martin scored some trumpets and cellos, while Emerick experimented with backwards tapes to meet Lennon's demands for the song. Over the coming days, the sessions became increasingly intense as the sounds of strings, horns and other, more exotic instruments (such as Harrison's Indian svarmandal) filled Studio Two. Eventually it was done. The final mix, stretched and pummelled out of all recognition from its acoustic beginning, was labelled "best".
The open-ended sessions soon took their toll on the recording team. "More time was spent on 'Strawberry Fields Forever' than any other Beatles song," says Emerick. "It was, I believe, the first time a Beatles song had been re-recorded in its entirety."
But even with the revised version in the can, Lennon still wasn't satisfied. "John could sometimes be difficult to please because he was quite impatient," says Emerick. He had been listening to the early acetate again, and now preferred the original opening bars. In his recent memoirs, Here, There & Everywhere, which provide an intimate, first-hand view of the Beatles' recording process, Emerick recalls how Lennon casually told his recording team that he wanted the two versions joined together: "My jaw dropped. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see George Martin blinking slowly. I could almost detect his blood pressure rising."
Martin patiently explained that it simply wasn't possible: they had been played in different keys, at different tempos and the arrangements were radically different. "John appeared nonplussed," writes Emerick. "I'm not sure he even understood why that presented a problem." Today, a computer can easily alter pitch and tempo. In 1966, all Emerick had at his disposal was a pair of editing scissors, two tape machines, and a varispeed control to modify the pace of the recording. Martin glanced at Emerick. They elected to give it a go.
As December drew to a close, the final master of the song was made. They worked late into the evening, as Emerick, Lennon and McCartney skilfully edited the tapes together. Such close collaboration, says Emerick, was unusual. "In general, Paul and John didn't watch over my shoulder; they trusted George Martin and me to translate their ideas into reality. For the most part, they stayed in the studio working on the music and we stayed up in the control room working on the sounds." Emerick discovered that by speeding up the playback of the first take and slowing down that of the second, he could match them in both pitch and tempo. The join was made exactly one minute in. "George [Martin] and I decided to allow the second half to play all the way through at the slower speed," says Emerick. "Doing so gave John's voice a smoky, thick quality that complemented the psychedelic lyric and swirling instrumentation."
By the new year, EMI was demanding a single. With only three songs completed, the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, made his selection. Originally "Strawberry Fields Forever" was to be paired with "When I'm Sixty-Four", but fate - or Martin - intervened and it was diverted to seven-inch as a double A-side with "Penny Lane", in February 1967. Astonishingly, it was kept from the No 1 spot by Engelbert Humperdinck's cabaret evergreen, "Release Me".
When Sgt Pepper finally exploded into the Summer of Love four months later, "Strawberry Fields Forever" was not sequenced into its hallowed grooves - a decision Martin now says he regrets. If the song had taken its place as intended, instead of, say, the Lennon throwaway "Good Morning, Good Morning", would we love the album more or less?
It is now heard afresh on the new Beatles album, Love, in a spacey remix courtesy of Martin and his son Giles. Emerick is satisfied that they got it right first time around: "It wouldn't have been any better if it had been recorded on 24-track, rather than four-track." The sound engineer sticks by the mono mixes released in the Sixties. "Certainly the CD releases, made from masters done in the 1980s, sound very little like the original vinyl records - some of them, in my opinion, are almost unlistenable to."
'Love' is out now on EMI; 'Here, There & Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles' by Geoff Emerick is published by Gotham Books
All that you have is your soul (Tracy Chapman).