"Penny Lane" is a song by The Beatles, written by Paul McCartney, recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions, and released in February 1967 (see 1967 in music) as one side of a double A-sided single, along with John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever". Beatles producer George Martin has stated he believes the pairing of these songs resulted in probably the greatest single ever released by the group. Both songs were later released on the US Magical Mystery Tour album in November 1967. In the UK, the pairing famously failed to reach #1 in the singles charts, stalling one place below Engelbert Humperdinck's "Please Release Me". In the US The song reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a week before being knocked off by The Turtles song "Happy Together". The song features contrasting verse-chorus form and was credited "Lennon-McCartney", although McCartney was the main contributor to the song. The song's title is derived from the name of a street in the band's hometown, Liverpool. The area that surrounds its junction with Smithdown Road is also commonly called Penny Lane. Locally the term "Penny Lane" was the name given to Allerton Road and Smithdown Road and its busy shopping area. Penny Lane is named after James Penny, an 18th century slave trader.
McCartney and Lennon grew up in the area and they would meet at Penny Lane junction to catch a bus into the centre of the city. The street is an important landmark, sought out by most Beatles fans touring Liverpool. In the past, street signs saying "Penny Lane" were constant targets of tourist theft and had to be continually replaced. Eventually, city officials gave up and simply began painting the street name on the sides of buildings. This practice has now stopped (2007) and more thief resistant "Penny Lane" street signs have been installed, however they are still stolen on a regular basis. The Abbey Road sign is also frequently stolen for the same reason; see Street sign theft for more information.
Following the success of the double A-side "Yellow Submarine"/"Eleanor Rigby", Brian Epstein inquired if they had any new material available. Both songs, though recorded during the sessions for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, were left off the album — a decision George Martin regretted , although the Beatles usually did not include songs released as singles on their British albums. This was also the first single by the Beatles to be sold with a picture sleeve in the UK, a practice rarely used there at that time. However, packaging singles in individually designed sleeves was standard in the US and various other countries (such as Japan).
In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the song at #449 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
- John Lennon: two pianos, rhythm guitar, congas and harmony vocals.
- Paul McCartney: bass, three pianos, lead and harmony vocals, recorder.
- George Harrison: lead guitar, firebell and background vocals.
- Ringo Starr: drums and percussion.
- George Martin: piano, orchestration and production.
- David Mason: piccolo trumpet solo.
- Other session musicians played wind, brass and stringed instruments.
The barber shop mentioned in the song was, according to McCartney, a shop owned by a Mr. Bioletti, who has claimed to have cut hair for Lennon, McCartney, and George Harrison when they were children. The fire engine in the song ("It's a clean machine") was probably from the fire station at the top of Rose Lane, a short walk away along Allerton Road. It was around the corner near to where Mather Avenue meets Rose Lane. The station is very close to the site of Quarry Bank School, which Lennon attended. Mather Avenue leads to Forthlin Road, home of McCartney. The line about the banker with a motor car probably refers to an employee of the Penny Lane branch of Barclays Bank, which was situated on one of the corners of the junction. However, there were also two other nearby banks. These were TSB (now Lloyd's TSB) and Martin's Bank (later to be merged into Barclays Bank).
The promotional film for the song was not in fact filmed at Penny Lane — The Beatles were reluctant to travel to Liverpool. Street scenes of the Beatles were actually filmed in and around Angel Lane in London's East End. The outdoor scenes were filmed at Knole Park in Sevenoaks on 30 January 1967, where the promotional film for "Strawberry Fields Forever" was also shot. Both videos - directed by the swede Peter Goldmann - were selected by New York's MoMA as some of the most influential music videos in the late 1960s. Film of Penny Lane was included - with some scenes of green Liverpool buses and a brief overhead view of the 'shelter in the middle of the roundabout', but none of the Beatles attended.
The 'shelter in the middle of a roundabout' refers to the old bus shelter, formerly a cafe/restaurant with a Beatles theme but now derelict and abandoned, despite its popularity as a tourist attraction. This is also Penny Lane Bus Terminus and is officially on Smithdown Place.
Lyrics and music
"Penny Lane" is a prime example of McCartney's ability to match tonal movement with lyrical movement.
- The Verse and Chorus are in the different keys of I, B Major, and VIIb, A Major, respectively. The lyrics reflect the different tonal contexts in how McCartney's relationship with Penny Lane changes from being in the 3rd person in the Verse ("In Penny Lane there is...") to the 1st person in the Chorus ("Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes"); in a sense, the metaphorical 'Penny Lane' is represented by the new key of A Major.
- An example of McCartney's gift for mirroring the mood of the words in the music is evident in the lyrics "Very strange", which is sung at the end of a short modulatory phrase designed to take us to the new key of VIIb. At the end of the Verse the music lands on B Minor, the parallel minor that will act as the ii of the new key of A Major. His choice of key is also related to the lyric; the chorus begins in the new key of the flattened subtonic, chosen for that feeling of relief from humidity that follows a rainstorm. When we consider that other popular songwriters of the 20th Century, for example Bruce Springsteen, rarely stray outside the domain of safe, diatonic harmony, this must certainly have been a strange sound for the listener.
- "Penny Lane"'s instrumental track shows the influence of The Beach Boys' song "God Only Knows", released as a single the previous summer. McCartney has repeatedly listed "God Only Knows" as one of his favourite songs of all time. The links between the two songs are especially noticeable in the four-in-the-bar block chords on piano and the loping rhythm of the bass guitar — both of which were played by McCartney. The piano part was multi-tracked by McCartney, Lennon and George Martin.
- An innovative and highly effective feature of the song was the piccolo trumpet solo played by David Mason. This is thought to be the first use of this instrument (a distinctive, speciality instrument, in this case pitched exactly an octave higher than the standard B-flat trumpet) in pop music, where it is now (in certain genres) almost commonplace. McCartney was dissatisfied with the initial attempts at the song's instrumental fill (one of which, featuring English horns, was released on Anthology 2), and was inspired to use the instrument after hearing Mason's performance in a BBC radio broadcast of the second Brandenburg Concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach.
- During the recording process, McCartney helped incorporate several incidental sound effects in keeping with the ongoing lyric, which can be heard on the final mix. These include a clanging bell marking the introduction of the fireman, a wispy flute depicting the children laughing, a splashy cymbal illustrating the rain, and a deep-seated bass string as the banker sits down in a chair.
- Lyrically there are several ambiguous and surreal images, which Ian MacDonald has interpreted as evidence of the song's hallucenogenic nature derived from McCartney's LSD intake. Besides its multi-coloured artifice, the song is narrated at the height of summer sun, despite the fact that it is simultaneously raining, and the clear blue skies appear in November (Poppies would be associated with remembrance day). MacDonald also notes LSD-induced perception in the fact that the nurse feels she is in a play - and is, anyway. Conflicting with MacDonald's interpretation, McCartney has repeatedly stated that he took LSD for the first time in March 1967, several months after the song was recorded.
Penny Lane today
Prior to securing international fame, Penny Lane's chief renown was as the terminus for several bus routes from the city centre and as the site, in the middle of the roundabout, of a handily located public convenience. The area remained largely unremarkable for the remainder of the 1960s and the 1970s; its most distinguishing feature was, perhaps, the regular arrival of tour buses from which tourists would alight, take a photograph or two, and then get back on the bus.
Towards the end of the 1970s, businesses there included Penny Lane Records, Sven Books (Liverpool's first high-street sex shop), and a wine bar known in the early years as Harper's Bizarre, now called Penny Lane Wine Bar. In the mid-1980s, the bus shelter and public convenience were converted into a café that marketed itself as Sgt. Pepper's. Following privatisation, the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive bus depot, slightly up the hill past Bioletti's, was demolished and replaced with a shopping precinct complete with a supermarket and a public house.
Since then, the general Penny Lane area has acquired a distinct trendiness and desirability. The "alternative" businesses (wholefood outlets, charity shops), the now expanded array of cafés, bars, bistros, and takeaway food emporiums, as well as handily located traditional businesses (Woolworths, WHSmiths and Clarke's cake shop) make the neighbourhood the most sought-after among Liverpool's large student population. Though the song refers to the "Penny Lane junction" on Smithdown Road, the street itself also leads down at the other end to the University of Liverpool's student halls of residence, near Sefton Park.
In July 2006, a Liverpool Councillor proposed renaming certain street names because they were linked to the slave trade. It was soon discovered that Penny Lane, named after James Penny, a wealthy 18th-century slave ship owner and strong opponent of abolitionism, was one of these streets. Ultimately, city officials decided to forego the name change and re-evaluate the entire renaming process.
On July 10, 2006, it was revealed that Liverpool officials said they would modify the proposal to exclude Penny Lane.
From Journal of Mundane Behavior
, February 2001
- But back to The Beatles: consider if you will, McCartney's "Penny Lane", a portrait of a village virtually teeming with Nowhere Men. Penny Lane is a study in mundanity, the simple sights and sounds of a suburban British neighbourhood; it's also one of the most stunningly gorgeous songs in the world. The descriptions of completely generalized, almost homogenous people and practices off set with small details and punctuated by a central contradiction (example: "And the banker never wears a Mac in the pouring rain; very strange"), the revolving chorus ("And mean while back in Penny Lane is in my ears..."), all set to that rich melody, with the horns, the flute, augh! Splendid! Additionally, it contains the lines that probably most influenced my own artistic point of view: "Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes/There beneath the blue suburban skies..." The persistence of memory, the importance of experience, the way the smallest visual and aural details build up to form and inform this amazing thing we call A Life, all summed up in these simplest of lines. Or perhaps I'm imagining things. It's been known to happen.
Facts and figures
- The original US single mix of "Penny Lane" had an additional flourish of piccolo trumpet notes at the end of the song. This mix was quickly superseded by one without the last trumpet passage, but not before a handful of promotional copies had been pressed and sent to radio stations. These recordings were among the rarest and most valuable Beatles collectibles. A stereo mix of the song with the additional trumpet added back in was included on the US Rarities compilation in 1980.
- The mysterious lyrics "Four of fish and finger pies" are British slang. "A four of fish" refers to fourpennyworth of fish and chips, while "finger pie" is sexual slang of the time, apparently referring to intimate fondlings between teenagers in the shelter, which was a familiar meeting place. The combination of "fish and finger" also puns on fish fingers. The lyrics as printed on the Blue (1967-1970) Album, however, are "Full of fish and finger pies" which are incorrect.
- The song conflates different temporal moments. The sky is referred to as blue, and yet it is raining. Events are apparently occurring in November, since the "pretty nurse" is selling poppies for Remembrance Day (11 November), yet the "four of fish and finger pies" are "in summer".
- In August 1987, the piccolo trumpet played by David Mason on "Penny Lane" and two other Beatles tracks ("All You Need Is Love" and "Magical Mystery Tour") was sold in an auction at Sotheby's for $10,846.
- Upon the release of the "Penny Lane" single, Douglas Adams claimed to have beaten up a child who'd heard the song on the radio, reportedly just to get him to hum the tune.
- In the 1968 film Wonderwall, Jane Birkin's character, a suicidal model, is named Penny Lane. Also, in the 2000 film Almost Famous, Kate Hudson's character, the famous "Band Aid" who travels with the band is named Penny Lane. Hudson's character also attempts suicide. Another fictional Penny Lane is a minor character on the animated show Daria.
- The Neil Innes-penned song "Doubleback Alley" closely mimics "Penny Lane" (down to its almost identical horn charts) in The Rutles' 1978 film and album parody of The Beatles. Regarding that work, if one looks closely at the mock-up cover for The Rutles' "Tragical History Tour" which accompanied their fictional history, he will see that there is a song title "Denny Laine--the pun being on the actual name of McCartney's co-founder of the musical group Wings.