Paul McCartney has a lot to celebrate in 2017.
He turns 75 on June 18. Earlier in the month, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the greatest rock album of all-time, turns 50.
Then on July 5, Macca kicks off a string of 21 dates in the United States. The trek is part of his ongoing “One on One” world tour.
There’s another milestone involving the former Beatle that a lot of fans are overlooking. This year, one of the greatest singles of all-time, Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, turns the big five-0.
Those two amazing songs weren’t released as separate singles. They were released together, as one single!
Long before iTunes and the internet, artists released singles on small vinyl records, designed to be played on a phonograph. These small vinyl records contained one song on each side, thus the term single.
They were also called “45s,” a reference to the speed of the turntable—45 revolutions per minute—that was necessary to play them. Long play albums ran at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute.
Generally, but not always, artists put their big new song on side A and a throw away song on side B.
For example, The Rolling Stones’ single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” released more than year after “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane,” has as its B-side, “Child of the Moon.”
The novelty song, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” released more than a year before “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane,” has as its B-side “!aaaH-aH ,yawA eM ekaT oT gnimoC er’yehT.” The song is “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” played in reverse.
It was rare for an artist to put two groundbreaking songs on opposite sides of the same single. Both “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” were from the recording sessions that gave us Sgt. Peppers and made their way onto the Magical Mystery Tour album.
Both sides of this historic 45, heard John and Paul getting nostalgic. “Strawberry Fields” was John’s song while “Penny Lane” belonged to Paul.
Penny Lane does exist. It is an actual street in Liverpool, England, The Beatles hometown. Penny Lane is also the name of the area surrounding the street.
Incidentally, Elvis Costello’s mother grew up near Penny Lane. Even more incidental, Costello has written and recorded with McCartney.
Before making it big, John and Paul would meet at Penny Lane to catch the bus. Since the release of the song, the Penny Lane area has become something of a tourist destination. Road signs are bolted to walls to prevent Beatles fans from stealing them.
While much of the lyrical content of “Penny Lane” is taken from real-life, some of it is poetic license. For example, the fireman and fire engine referenced in the song are half-a-mile down the road.
Modern American listeners might find themselves scratching their heads at a few lines. In particular, “Four of fish and finger pies.” The first part of the phrase refers to fish and chips while the second part is a sexual slang.
Besides being a beautiful song with a lovely melody, “Penny Lane” also contains a motif that will become quite famous and imitated.
The Beatles started recording “Penny Lane” four days after Christmas in 1966. The sessions for the song went well, but McCartney felt the instrumental section was lacking.
Then, one night, Paul saw a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto on the BBC.
When he returned to the studio, he told Beatles producer George Martin about the performance and asked him for the name of the high-pitched trumpet he heard. Martin’s answer was a piccolo trumpet.
McCartney thought the instrument would work well in “Penny Lane.” In true Beatles fashion, they didn’t just get any piccolo trumpet player, they got the piccolo trumpet player Paul heard in the BBC performance, David Mason.
Mason recorded “Penny Lane’s” famous piccolo trumpet solo on Jan. 17, 1967. He was paid 27 pounds and 10 shillings. Converting that to U.S. currency, and adjusting for inflation, Mason payment had the purchasing power of about $550.
Mason was not done with The Beatles. He would return to play trumpet in “A Day in the Life,” “All You Need Is Love,” “It’s All Too Much,” and “Magical Mystery Tour.”
Sound engineer Geoff Emerick has two interesting tidbits about Mason’s solo. One, after he played the take you hear in the song, McCartney asked him to do another.
George Martin intervened and said the recording was over. Martin was worried about over exerting the classical trumpeter.
This is significant because The Beatles usually had the final say in the studio, not George Martin.
Emerick’s also claims that the high “E” Mason played in the solo was previously thought to be unobtainable. After “Penny Lane,” the note became standard for piccolo trumpet players.
McCartney’s ingenuity was responsible for what is probably the first use of the piccolo trumpet in a rock song. The instrument, built an octave higher than typical trumpets, produces a distinct, clean sound that can pierce through so-called walls of sounds.
Similar piccolo trumpet solos have been used by other artists. For example, there’s The Jam’s “Absolute Beginners,” Tears for Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” XTC’s “Merely A Man,” and Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator.”
In the United States, a promotional single of “Penny Lane” was sent to radio stations. This single had an additional piccolo trumpet flourish near the end of the track. Subsequent singles had a different mix without the final trumpet part.
Singles with the trumpet part are some of the rarest and most valuable Beatles collectibles. There’s a version of “Penny Lane” with the additional trumpet part on The Beatles Anthology 2.
“Penny Lane” peaked at number one in several countries including the United States. Oddly, it stalled at number two in the United Kingdom, the country home to Penny Lane.
Paul has played “Penny Lane” in concert—it’s included on his 1993 live album, Paul Is Live—but it doesn’t seem to be on his setlist for his current “One on One” tour. Very strange.