WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE? Extract Four : Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane (Part Two)


Strawberry Fields Forever begins with what sounds like a distorted, distant flute (actually a mellotron) playing an evocative, yearning intro which sets up the melancholic tone of the song. There is a single bass note, and then we hear John’s voice, doctored to sound rather high, emotionally detached, ethereal. The backing is sparse, with George playing delicate slide guitar licks and Ringo providing some deceptively complex drum patterns …Let me take you down… John begins, immediately reassuming the shamanic, invocatory role he had taken on in Tomorrow Never Knows and Rain, inviting the listener into his psychic realm. He introduces us to a place where …nothing is real…. The first verse begins with a simple philosophical statement …Living is easy with eyes closed/Misunderstanding all you see… It sounds at first like he may be making a pronouncement, from the heights of some position of spiritual enlightenment. But John is no preacher. The strange couplet which follows undercuts such pretensions dramatically. …It’s getting hard to be someone…he tells us, the deep sadness and world-weariness in his voice suggesting a crisis of identity. But then he changes the mood again, dismissing any notion of a spiritual struggle as if it is inconsequential …But it all works out/it doesn’t matter much to me… As we have seen, John’s biggest strength as a singer lies is his ability to switch convincingly between different emotions within a few seconds – to convey both great confidence and great insecurity in the same line. Here, after luring us in to believing that this will be a ‘sad song’, he then flatly denies it.

As soon as this complex, apparently contradictory, feeling is established, the music begins to build into a rich tapestry. As John launches into the second chorus, a wash of cellos comes in, giving his repeated invocation to the listener to join him  more colour and urgency. There is a peal of vibrant notes played by George on a svarmndal, an Indian sitar-like stringed instrument, a suitably strange-sounding intro to the first lines of the second verse, which intensify the narrator’s apparent confusion: …no one I think is in my tree/I mean it must be high or low…. We may imagine that the narrator has climbed a tree in the garden of ‘Strawberry Fields’ and is sitting in it as he sings, in a kind of splendid isolation. He may be asserting that ‘his tree’, or his ‘state of mind’ is so ‘high or low’, so ‘out there’, so extreme in its feelings, that nobody can join him there. In that case the bizarre line that follows…that is you can’t/ you know/ tune in… actually seems to make some sense. John may have invited us on this journey but we he knows that there’s no way we can ‘tune in’ to his state of mind. …Tune in, turn on, drop out… was Timothy Leary’s famous slogan of ‘psychedelic liberation’. But is John himself ‘tuned in’? It seems certain that no-one can reach him. His image is imprinted in this sacred garden, this landscape of the mind of a gifted but isolated child, who has never quite coped with the trauma of abandonment. But before he can indulge in any kind of despair, there are some more dismissive lines …But it’s all right/That is I think it’s not too bad… With another shrug of his shoulders John wipes his arm on his sleeve, refusing to show his emotions. But the music, rising in intensity into the third chorus, belies this. Now the cellos are joined by a single repeated note played on a trumpet and louder, more insistent drums, suggesting that the singer is on the edge of panic.

Eventually John descends into confusion, the plethora of instruments building up around him suggesting he’s conducting some kind of weird orchestra in his head. The first line of the final verse….Always no sometimes think it’s me… again shows John prevaricating over what is going on, identifying himself with the lonely boy in the tree but then unsure about whether he ‘always’ or ‘sometimes’ is that boy. He confides directly in the listener, sharing his uncertainty: … But you know I know when it’s a dream… There seems to be no solution to this uncertainty: …I think I know I mean a ‘Yes’ but it’s all wrong/that is I think I disagree…he concludes, contradicting himself several times in the same line. So John himself challenges the reality of the image he has created. It’s just a dream. Or is it? Whatever the answer, John cannot escape from the shadow his ‘tree’ has cast. As he mouths these contradictions we hear the discordant sound of snatches of tape run backwards in the background. Then the final ‘Nothing is real’ is accompanied by the full ‘orchestra’ of drums, horns, cellos, and guitars. The title line is repeated, and the cellos, svarmandal, drums and guitar lead us into a fade out, with the drums chugging like a train disappearing into the distance. But the song is not over. A distorted version of its melody suggests a reprise of the main theme, but now the music is being ‘played’ backwards. This coda suggests that the dream John evokes has not gone away, that it will repeat itself in a form which will keep recurring, or which will manifest itself in ‘inverted’ ways. Despite John’s offhanded and increasingly ambiguous reaction to the vision he is sharing with us, we are left with a feeling of distinct unease, an impression that ‘Strawberry Fields’ could easily be the location of a nightmare, a place of terror where we might drown in a maelstrom of our own conflicting thoughts. By inviting us into his dream John locates a ‘Strawberry Fields’ –  a place of spiritual isolation – inside the listener. But rather than ‘playing the guru’, inviting us for a smooth ride as he had done in Tomorrow Never Knows, John here admits to being confused and adrift. Yet the feeling he conveys throughout the song is primarily one of equivocation. Thus the song is ultimately highly ambiguous. It gives us a glimpse of a dark, shimmering and possibly dangerous world. But how we view that world is up to us.

Ultimately Strawberry Fields Forever makes little specific reference to the Liverpool of John’s childhood. It is almost entirely philosophical song, yet one without certainties. It is a kind of journey without an end in sight. It is tempting; indeed very tempting; to fill in the ‘gaps’ in the song with the wealth of detail we know about John’s childhood. We know he was abandoned, in different ways, by both of his parents and that the Strawberry Field was a local Salvation Army hostel that the young John used to visit and play in the grounds of. To him, it may very well have been a magical place, but there is little suggestion here that the child – if it is a child – in the tree, is particularly happy or full of wonderment. Yet although overall the tone of the music suggests sadness, Strawberry Fields is not really a sad song either. The figure in the tree may well be an isolated and confused little boy, unable to express his deep trauma and personal confusion. But the present day narrator is questioning whether he himself is still that person. The courage and imagination he shows in this song, confronting his fears yet so lightly dismissing them, shows that he is trying to rise above these childhood traumas to remake himself. ‘Strawberry Fields’ is, like Dylan’s Desolation Row, a place beyond normal consciousness where ‘nothing is real’. But John lacks Dylan’s assured intellectual detachment and his grasp of imagery. In this song John invites us on a journey with him, asks us to feel his inner pain, then brushes it away. …I think…he yawns …it’s not too bad… If the song has an ultimate ‘message’ it is that although we may need to confront our ‘inner child’, he or she does not have to imprison us. In the end, Strawberry Fields Forever’s swirling musical textures and lyrical conundrums celebrate spiritual and creative freedom by shrugging off the past and locating the artist, or the individual, in an eternal present. It tells us that, whatever has happened to us in our childhoods, no matter how traumatic, we all have the power to remake ourselves.


Penny Lane is, at least on the surface, a very different kind of creation. Whereas John’s song is abstract and internalised, Paul creates a world of concrete, visible images and rather loveable, eccentric characters. As with Eleanor Rigby or For No One, the images in the song are precise, clearly defined. And while Strawberry Fields consists of a muddy, sometimes confused, wash of sound, Penny Lane is at least as as bright and cheerful-sounding as Good Day Sunshine or All My Loving. Although it is another multi-layered musical construction, using many different instruments, its sound is very ‘clean’, with each instrument clearly delineated. The two songs have often being taken as models of the different musical approaches and viewpoints on life of John and Paul. It’s hard to imagine that this is really the same ‘band’ playing both numbers. Yet both songs come from a similar intent and though one appears clearly to be ‘Paul’s’ and the other to be ‘John’s’ it’s hard to know exactly how much each contributed to the other’s work. And Penny Lane, for all its whimsical cheerfulness, is in many ways as much an ‘inner journey’ as Strawberry Fields. Though it names actual existing features of a real district in Liverpool – there really was a ..shelter in the middle of a roundabout… and a barber’s shop in Penny Lane – Paul uses these elements for a similar exploration of memory. The group of characters he creates, and their setting, are like a brightly coloured cartoon. It is as if we are seeing Paul’s imagined world in garish Technicolor. He remembers his childhood with apparent fondness, but though it may appear to present a rather cosily nostalgic vision, Penny Lane is still a a mental construction in the mind of the narrator, a means of transcending the past and ‘being here now’. In Strawberry Fields ‘nothing is real’ whereas in Penny Lane everything is real. Perhaps a a little ‘too real’.. Ultimately the world he creates is just as much a fantasy as John’s darker vision.

Like Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane is a kind of ‘mini-symphony’, using many varied musical elements. Paul’s bass is highly prominent while Paul, John and George Martin all feature on keyboards. There are snatches of harmonium, tambourine, bells and a range of percussive devices, all overdubbed by various Beatles to add a series of sound effects to support the song’s narrative. John and George’s backing vocals are used as textural elements in a similar way to Brian Wilson’s treatment of The Beach Boys’ voices on the monumental Pet Sounds (1966), an album which had greatly influenced Paul. A whole group of classical session players feature on flutes, piccolos and oboes. Perhaps the most prominent sound is a jaunty trumpet solo in the middle of the track played by session musician David Mason. All the musical effects are again subject to manipulation, with voices being double-tracked and various musical elements being slowed down or speeded up. Paul’s bright, insistent melody is instantly memorable and despite its rich musical ornamentation Penny Lane remains a song which could be performed in a simpler way and whose appeal is decidely cross-generational.

The song begins by taking us into a specific location – the barber’s shop – where we focus on a series of ‘haircut’ photos, the phrase …of every head he’s had the pleasure to know…suggesting that the barber knows his customers personally. It seems that the shop is a kind of social centre. Immediately the song generates a nostalgic sense of community which is reinforced by the cheery lines: …and all the people that come and go/stop and say ‘Hello’… The cheerfully plodding bass line, snatches of piano and a little trumpet flourish all support the atmosphere of mild nostalgia. Next we meet the banker who …never wears a mac/in the pouring rain… a snapshot of the stiff-upper lip, repressed middle class professional whom the ‘little children’ laugh at behind his back. We can imagine Paul himself and his mates on the street, taking the mickey out of such a character. …Very strange!…Paul declares, before engaging in a seamless transition into the chorus, telling us that …Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes… The snatches of trumpets used here suggest a brass band, adding to the sepia  ‘Northern-ness’ of the feeling being generated. The image of the …blue suburban skies…underneath which the narrator, revisiting his childhood haunts, sits, further adds to the bright ‘sunniness’ of the scenes.

The sudden transition from chorus to verse, as Paul sings …meanwhile back/in Penny Lane… is like a cinematic ‘jump cut’, suggesting the narrator’s mind being suddenly jolted out of his moment of reverie. The next character we meet is another loveable eccentric, the fireman who keeps a portrait of the Queen in his pocket and appears to spoend his day polishing his ‘machine’ to make it as shiny as possible. We are told he has an ‘hourglass’, a rather bizarre touch giving an image of someone who is proud of being always on time as well as ‘spick and span’. Again the nostalgic, cartoonish world of Paul’s dreamscape is being gently mocked. …It’s a clean machine!…he cries, as a ‘fireman’s bell’ rings, followed by the trumpet solo and washes of harmony vocals. The next chorus provides a variation on the others, taking us from the world of childhood to that of adolescence. …A four of fish and finger pies/in summer…cleverly conflates a ‘fish and chip order’ with a (rather cheeky) suggestion of teenage sexual fumbling. Here is Paul again, as a teenager, down the alley by the chip shop, trying to make out, copping a feel if he is lucky. And if he is really lucky, maybe even a little bit of ‘finger pie’.

The last verse shows us a ‘pretty nurse’ selling ‘poppies from a tray’, another nostalgic image, though this is rather undermined by the lines …though she feels as if she’s in a play/she is anyway… Revisiting his childhood haunts, Paul now experiences his memories through a kind of hallucinatory screen. The characters in his dream are becoming self aware. Finally we are returned to the barber’s shop, where we again see the banker, who is sitting waiting for a haircut, and the fireman, who …rushes in from the pouring rain… The final repeated chorus features a triumphant trumpet flourish before Paul repeats …Penny Lane!… and the track ends with a fadeout of understated feedback. Again we are returned to the present day.

Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever make manifest the light/dark contrast which had been explored throughout Revolver. They also clearly demonstrate, perhaps more than any other two songs, the difference in approach and personality between John and Paul. Yet these songs are clearly companion pieces, deliberately made to complement each other. Written at a historical moment when immediacy was valued above all else, they both filter childhood memories through  an acid-influenced perspective, placing memory in a kind of eternal present. Both songs have a definite feeling of detachment from their subject matter. Both are ‘dreams’ in which present reality and memory mingle almost seamlessly. Behind their extremely different and highly elaborate sonic structures they both articulate the key insight that LSD had given them (and, of course, many others): that childhood wonder is not something that need be surrendered with the coming of adulthood. To those who are ‘turned on’, innocent delight is a feeling that can be perpetually rekindled. The inference is that as we ‘grow up’ we need not lose that magical spark we are all born with, despite whatever pressures the ‘straight world’ places on us. This deeply spiritual insight – making the generation of childlike delight a kind of ‘sacrament’ – will form the basis for the Beatles’ next major work, Sgt. Pepper. And it is at the very heart of the cultural and spiritual ‘revolution’ which defines the era that The Beatles bestrode.


I’d be grateful for any comments at chris@chrisgregory.org



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WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE Extract Three: Strawbery Fields Forever and Penny Lane (Part One)



If only Mummy and Daddy would stop SHOUTING…  John stifles the tears that are beginning to well up and counts how many sweeties he has left in his trouser pocket. One humbug, two sherbet lemons, the last bit of rock daddy had bought him yesterday. Everything had been so nice till mummy got here a little while ago and as soon as she got here she’d started SHOUTING… Daddy had taken him up to the top of the Tower in that big  lift and they’d been on the North Pier one day and the South Pier the next and they’d ridden on the trams and made sandcastles and looked at that funny lady with the beard on the Golden Mile and Daddy had taken him to the Pleasure Beach and they’d been on that BIG roundabout and it whirled around and around till John was very nearly sick. Blackpool is lovely but sometimes John still wishes he was at home at Auntie Mimi and Uncle George’s house by the big open fire. Mimi lets him throw sticks in now that he’s a big boy and very careful not to get burned. And Uncle George takes him for walks down by the dairy farm with Snuffles the dog who is a good dog except he sometimes wees on the furniture and Uncle George gets cross with him then but Snuffles will jump up and look sorry till Mimi comes and chases him out of the house and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Fridays Mummy comes round and sometimes she brings some sausages which she says she gets on special rations now that the war is all over and that nasty Mister Hitler got what was coming to him.  

            Daddy’s flat in Blackpool is quite small but if he stands on a chair John can see out of the window from his room and watch the waves coming in by the North Pier. They’d been going to play on the beach today but it had started raining so Daddy had said they had to stay in but later Daddy is going to take him out and buy him some fish and chips and then they’re going to play on the fruit machines. John loves fish and chips but he doesn’t get them very often at Mimi’s house but Daddy says the fish taste better at Blackpool because they catch them in the sea not far from here. John hasn’t seen Daddy in a long time because Daddy always has to go off to sea in one of those big boats like the ones you see down at the Albert Docks. Daddy wasn’t fighting in the war because he had a bad leg so he was in something called the Merchant Navy which was a bit like the real Navy but you didn’t have guns but he told John that one night his ship got bombed by a German aeroplane and they all had to jump out into little dinghies and row ashore. Daddy said it was a bit scary. But Daddy is very brave.  John wishes Daddy and Mummy would stop shouting at each other because he wants to go the pier. There’s this big machine where you roll ha’pennies down into this tray and sometimes if you’re really lucky one of the ha’pennies knocks the others down an you get lots and lots of money, sometimes as much as two shillings and sixpence but he’s almost starting to cry now because if Daddy and Mummy don’t stop shouting then it might be tea time already and too late to go out and have fun and it’s not fair… John doesn’t like it… why can’t they just  STOP IT?

            Even though they’re in the back room, John can hear everything that they’re saying. Of course he doesn’t understand it all but when  they keep raising their voices it makes him shiver gall over and sometimes he thinks he’s going to wee himself. But he doesn’t because he’s brave like Daddy.

            “…I should never have trusted you!” Mummy is shouting. “You turn up out of the blue when I haven’t seen hide nor hair of you for nigh on two years and tell me you want to take John to Blackpool for the day. That was four days ago, and you didn’t even call. We do have a telephone, you know! Mimi was right about you. You’re nothin’ but a bad ‘un. I should never have married you. I was too young and foolish. You with all that fancy talk-”

            “The lad’s better off with me!” Daddy shouts back. “You can’t even look after him yourself. You leave it all to that sour-faced cow of a sister. You’re too busy knocking off that Twitchy-”

            “HOW DARE YOU!” Mummy shouts. “He’s twice the man that you are.”  She sounds a bit out of breath now

            “BLOODY BITCH!” Daddy shouts back. “FUCKING WHORE!” And then there is a noise like fish being chucked onto a slab. Then nothing.

            John can’t hold back any longer. Mummy must be hurt. Mummy must be hurt. He tries to open the door but they’ve locked him in. He starts to bang on the door and he’s crying and crying and crying and a little dribble of  wee is running right down his leg.

            “I didn’t mean that, Julia, love… let me help you up.” Daddy’s voice is gentler now. “You know how much I’ve always loved you.”

            Mummy is sobbing. “Fine way you’ve got of showing it. That’s you all over, ain’t it? You always lash out first and say sorry afterwards. Well, it’s too bloody late for me. We haven’t spent more than two weeks together since we were wed. Now you turn up out of the blue and you think you’ve got the right to look after John.”

            “He’s my son. And you obviously can’t cope-”

            “He’s got a good home. He gets well looked after. Mimi and George, they treat him like their own-”

            “The boy needs to be with his dad. He’s happy with me.”

            “I know you, Fred. You’ll end up treating him like you treated me. I’m taking him home right now. And I never want to see you again. Now unlock that door and let him out.”

            “Tell you what we’ll do,” Daddy’s voice is all soft now, just like it usually is. “we’ll ask him who he wants to stay with.”

            Then John hears the key turning and Daddy’s at the door. “Come on Johnny boy. Don’t cry now.  Mummy and me want to talk to you.” He drops his voice to a whisper and leans right over John. “After that we’ll go to the arcades son, just like I promised.”

            Daddy takes John by the hand and leads him into the back room. Mummy’s sat on the big sofa. She looks a bit funny. Her eyes are all red and her hair’s all over the place. John can tell she’s been crying because the white stuff on her face is all smudged.

            “Now, John,” Daddy places a big hand on John’s shoulder. We just need to ask you something. See, son, we want to know who you want to stay with.”

            John is trying to stob the sobbing coming back. He rubs his fists over his eyes but they’re all wet. He’d been having such a nice time with Daddy and now he’s cross with Mummy for spoiling it all. Mummy doesn’t look nice. She isn’t even looking at him. She’s starting to cry now and he doesn’t like Mummy crying. He waits for her to say something but she doesn’t.

            “Come on then, lad,” Daddy’s hand is warm. “Make your mind up.”

            And John looks up into Daddy’s eyes. Daddy looks so kind. And he has promised so much more fun. It’s hard for John to speak but he says “I’ll…stay with you Daddy..”

            And then Mummy gets up and she comes over and gives him the tightest hug he’s ever had in his life, like she’s going to squash him and he just can’t help it now and soon he’s soaked the whole of the front of that funny coat she’s wearing with his tears. And then she puts him down. She still doesn’t say anything. And then she opens the door, and she’s running down the steps and Daddy is leaning over and saying “Everything will be alright, son… you’ll see…” and for a bit John just stands there shaking and shaking and crying and crying.

            Then he runs. He ducks under Daddy’s arms and he runs out of the door, down the steps onto the street where all the people are and he doesn’t look back. He never never looks back. He just keeps on running and running and there are mothers with babies and old men and trams and horses and cars and people smoking and pushing and the rain is coming down on his head and soaking him but then he sees her funny coat, just ahead of him and she’s about to cross the road, waiting for the lights to change and he screams with all his might at the top of his voice “MUMMY! DON’T GO! MUMMY! DON’T GO!” And then she turns to him and holds out her arms and she holds him and hugs him and tells him she’s never never never NEVER going to let him go.



The Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane single arrived in the family home in early 1967 dressed in one of those new-fangled ‘picture sleeves’. Those pictures on the front that mum and dad shook their heads at were proof positive to them that the group were definitely ‘going a bit weird’. The four former ‘moptops’ were almost unrecognisable. In fact, they didn’t even look like a pop group any more. Pop groups were supposed to smile for their fans, flashing their immaculate teeth, so the girls would swoon and the boys would want to be as smart and attractive as them. Yet here The Beatles appear to be staring rather vacantly into space. They are dressed in an odd assortment of fancy gear. With their newly-acquired, elaborately trimmed moustaches and sideburns, they look like Edwardian gentlemen who have stumbled into the modern world half dressed, emerging through a time machine in the form of a magical wardrobe where they had randomly put on whatever items of clothing they were missing. Who would want to look like that?

The specially made promo films they had made to publicise the single – which, like We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper and Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine, they insisted was a ‘double A side’ – were equally mystifying. The Strawberry Fields promo features the group in a park in an odd assortment of multicoloured clothes (which keep changing throughout) cavorting around a bizarre-looking keyboard instrument with extended strings connected to a tree. Various close-ups of the individual members of the group, in rather brooding poses, are superimposed over shots of them tinkering with, rather than actually playing, the instrument. Day and night time shots are cut together in an apparently random way. Towards the end, as the music itself becomes more and more dominated by strange backward-sounding noises, the images onscreen keep flashing into negative. Whereas in previous promos the group had still kept up a pretence of playing their instruments and singing, here the whole thing is a rather mad, playful parody of a Beatles ‘performance’. The Penny Lane promo is a little more straightforward, with the group meeting on the street then taking to horseback in a local park. The rest of the film cuts between shots of the Penny Lane area of Liverpool itself and the group, who suddenly arrive, Alice-In-Wonderland style, at a set table with china, candelabras and champagne, in the middle of the park. Full dress flunkies arrive and present them with guitars, after which they overturn the table. It was immediately obvious that The Beatles had changed their image in a big way. Fan loyalty – and the fact that the single actually consisted of two reasonably hummable tunes – took the single (almost) to the top of the charts. It was prevented from reaching Number One by the extended success of the ludicrously named, extravagantly-sideburned crooner Engelbert Humperdinck’s glutinous ballad Release Me; the first Beatles single since Love Me Do not to ‘hit the top spot’.

The release of the single was an extraordinary piece of daring, demonstrating to the world quite unequivocally that The Beatles were no longer the cute young lads seen in the A Hard Day’s Night and Help! movies. But to much of the general public, what they were trying to project with this new record was extremely obscure, even unintelligible. Word of the ‘flower power’ explosion on the US’ West Coast had yet to hit Britain in a big way. The Beatles had yet to ‘go public’ about their drug use. To most people in Britain, ‘LSD’ was an acronym for ‘pounds, shillings and pence’. It’s hardly surprising that the ‘mums and dads’ regarded these new, hairier, scruffier, dandified Beatles as having gone just a little off their collective rockers. But even to the hippest listeners, the songs – especially Strawberry Fields – were mysterious, even impenetrable. You just had to play that record over and over again… and still you’d be hard pressed to explain what John was on about when he sang …That is you can’t you know tune in/But it’s all right… even if you could make out the exact words he was singing. But in the strange, exotic cultural climate of what was to be an extraordinary year, such wilful obscurity was very soon to be regarded by many as a positive asset.

The new single made it clear that The Beatles had reinvented themselves. Freed from the constraints of touring, they could now concentrate on creating music which used the full range of possibilities the recording studio could offer. Because they were so overwhelmingly successful, their record company EMI allowed them to have virtually unlimited use of Abbey Road Studios. Each side of the single was the result of nine full days of studio time. With producer George Martin now playing an even more crucial role, they had developed an approach to recording in which tracks were intricately ‘layered’ with different levels of overdubs and ‘peppered’ with sound effects. The sound of the instruments and the singers’ voices was frequently modified and each track turned into a kind of sound collage. The two new songs, like those that were soon to follow, do not deal with the conventional emotions found in most pop music. There is no lust, no longing, no tears… They do not even really ‘tell a story’. They deal with memory, with childhood, yet they are both couched in the present tense. They take us down to a place where past, present and future merge; an uncertain, shifting world. The songs describe particular places and events, but all the real action is inside the narrators’ heads. To listen to these songs is to inhabit them. You feel as if you’re in a play. You are, anyway…



Part Two of this extract can be found above


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