Beatles: Strawberry Fields Forever

July 14, 2006

Backside of the cover of the 45 "Strawberry Fields Forever"

When “Strawberry Fields Forever” first came out, we knew things were getting serious; very serious. Their whole look was different. Even Paul had a mustache. The instrument you hear at the beginning is called a “tubon” which Paul plays. (Here is a scan from my Beatles scrapbook.)

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Everything about this song was unusual. The opening tubon solo playing music that is almost Baroque:

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Lennon’s voice is slick, almost like singing in a teacup. A guitar goes into a freefall from the tonic to a minor dominant using a slide, a sound more common to country or Hawaiian music than to rock and roll. Hovering on the minor dominant, the guitar percolates as we harmonically rove around: “nothing is real.” The phrase finally settles down into a plagal (“amen”) cadence as John pleads “strawberry fields forever.” And what does that mean? I don’t know. We didn’t know at the time. But if was very serious. Then, what we thought was an introduction comes back as a bridge; “living is easy with eyes closed” and even though a string section comes in and accompanies the close of this section, the harmonic underpinning reveals its composers to still be rock n rollers at heart: I vi IV V I (a chord progression in most 1950s songs).

I forget where this was first shown. I’m thinking it was the Smothers Brothers show. The Beatles had stopped touring and only showed up on TV on videos (pre-MTV). This video was the clip that introduced us to this song. We were mystified. What did it all mean? It was so, so, so druggy. Backwards hopping. Backwards music. Let’s look into their EYES. Wow. Very serious. And then there are moments where they all look like they are just tolerating some weird film maker.

The coda is my favorite part, both in the song and the video. Never in the history of rock has there EVER been a close like this. This was art music, or I guess, art rock. The piano-in-the-tree was lost on me and it looks as though it was lost on the Beatles as well. But it was cool. Turning the print negative was also downright psychedelic, don’t you think?

There is another aspect to this song that I was not aware of until I transcribed the chord progression. The songs slooooowwwwlly slides up a minor second from E majorish to F major. It may just be the video, but it is an interesting and subtle touch.

Postscript: Beatles lose lawsuit with Apple. Finally, THAT’s over!

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