THE BEATLES: Who Could Ask For More Extract Three: Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane (Part One)

THE BEATLES: Who Could Ask For More Extract Three: Strawberry 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…

A version of this text appears in WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE: RECLAIMING THE BEATLES



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