"Strawberry Fields Forever" begins with a verse-bridge structure with Lennon's vocals and accompaniment by the rest of the group; midway through the song, Lennon is accompanied by an orchestral score. After the fourth verse, the song fades out and fades in again to dissonant melodies with Lennon saying, "cranberry sauce" (although this was misheard by many Paul is dead theorists as Lennon saying, "I buried Paul").
While "Strawberry Fields Forever" was originally recorded for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), it was instead released on 13 February 1967 in the UK, and 17 February 1967 in the United States as a double A-side single, backed with Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane". "Strawberry Fields Forever" reached number eight in the US, with numerous critics describing it as one of the group's best recordings. It is one of the defining works of the psychedelic rock genre and has been covered by many other artists. The song was later included on the Magical Mystery Tour LP (1967). The Strawberry Fields memorial in New York City's Central Park (near the site of Lennon's murder at The Dakota apartment building) was named after the song.
Strawberry Field was the name of a Salvation Army Children's Home just around the corner from Lennon's childhood home in Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool. Lennon and his childhood friends Pete Shotton, Nigel Whalley, and Ivan Vaughan used to play in the wooded garden behind the home. One of Lennon's childhood treats was the garden party held each summer in Calderstones Park (located next to the Salvation Army Home) every year, where a Salvation Army band played. Lennon's aunt Mimi Smith recalled: "As soon as we could hear the Salvation Army band starting, John would jump up and down shouting, 'Mimi, come on. We're going to be late.'"
Lennon began writing the song in late 1966, in Almería, Spain, during the filming of Richard Lester's How I Won the War. Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" and McCartney's "Penny Lane" both shared the theme of nostalgia for their early years in Liverpool. Although both referred to actual locations, the two songs also had strong surrealistic and psychedelic overtones. Producer George Martin said that when he first heard "Strawberry Fields Forever" he thought it conjured up a "hazy, impressionistic dreamworld".
The period of its composition was one of change and dislocation for Lennon: The Beatles had just retired from touring after one of the most difficult periods of their career, including the infamous "more popular than Jesus" controversy, and unintentionally snubbing Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines. Lennon's marriage was failing, and he was using increasing quantities of drugs, especially the powerful hallucinogen LSD, as well as Cannabis, which he had smoked during his time in Spain. Lennon talked about the song in 1980: "I was different all my life. The second verse goes, 'No one I think is in my tree.' Well, I was too shy and self-doubting. Nobody seems to be as hip as me is what I was saying. Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius—'I mean it must be high or low'", and explaining that the song was "psycho-analysis set to music".
Lennon recorded a demo version of the song at his home; Kenwood, but had no refrain, and only one verse: "No one is on my wavelength / I mean, it's either too high or too low / That is you can't you know tune in but it's all right / I mean it's not too bad". He revised the verse to make it more obscure, added another verse, and then wrote the refrain (which then functioned as a bridge). The first verse on the released version was actually written last, close to the time of the song's recording. For this verse, Lennon was again inspired by his childhood memories: the words "nothing to get hung about" were inspired by Aunt Mimi's strict order not to play in the grounds of Strawberry Field, to which the young Lennon once replied, "They can't hang you for it." The first verse Lennon wrote became the second in the released version, and the second verse Lennon wrote became the last in the release. The song was complete.
After recording the song, Lennon wanted to do something different with it, as Martin remembered: "He'd wanted it as a gentle dreaming song, but he said it had come out too raucous. He said could I write him a new line-up with the strings. So I wrote a new score [with four trumpets and three cellos] and we recorded that, but he didn't like it". Meanwhile, on 8 and 9 December, another basic track was recorded, using a mellotron, slide guitar, piano, backwards-recorded cymbals, and the swarmandal; an Indian version of the zither. After reviewing the tapes of Martin's version and the original, Lennon told Martin that he liked both versions, although Martin had to tell Lennon that the orchestral score was at a higher tempo and in a different key (C major) than the first version (A major). Lennon said, "You can fix it, George", giving Martin and Emerick the difficult task of joining the two takes together. With only a pair of editing scissors, two tape machines, and a vari-speed control, Martin compensated for the differences in key and speed by increasing the speed of the first version, and decreasing the speed of the second. He then spliced the two together, starting the orchestral score in the middle of the second chorus. The pitch-shifting in joining the versions gave Lennon's lead vocal a slightly other-worldly "swimming" quality.
Lennon says "cranberry sauce" in a very low voice at the end of the song, even though believers of the "Paul is dead" theory think Lennon actually said "I buried Paul". In 1974, McCartney said, "That wasn't 'I buried Paul' at all—that was John saying 'cranberry sauce'. It was the end of Strawberry Fields. That's John's humour. John would say something totally out of sync, like cranberry sauce. If you don't realize that John's apt to say cranberry sauce when he feels like it, then you start to hear a funny little word there, and you think, 'Aha!'". On the sessions released in The Beatles Anthology, the words "cranberry sauce" are more clearly heard, especially during the edit piece which was added to the end of take seven.
For the first time since "Love Me Do" in 1962, a single by The Beatles failed to reach number one in the UK charts. It was held at number two by Engelbert Humperdinck's "Release Me", because the BBC counted the two songs as two individual singles; discounting the fact that The Beatles’ single outsold Humperdinck's by almost two to one. In a radio interview at the time, McCartney said he was not upset because Humperdinck's song was a "completely different type of thing". Starr said later that it was "a relief" because "it took the pressure off". "Penny Lane" reached number one in the US, while "Strawberry Fields Forever" peaked at number eight. In the US, both songs were included on the Magical Mystery Tour LP, which was released as a six-track double-EP in the UK. When Magical Mystery Tour was re-released on CD, Parlophone chose the US LP track listing rather than the UK double-EP.
The song was the opening track of the compilation album 1967–1970, released in 1973, and also appears on the Imagine soundtrack issued in 1988. In 1996, three previously unreleased versions of the song were included on the Anthology 2 album: Lennon's original home demo, the first studio take, and the complete take seven, of which only the first minute was heard in the master version. In 2006, a newly mixed version of the song was included on the album Love. This version builds from an acoustic demo and incorporates elements of "Hello, Goodbye", "Baby You're a Rich Man", "In My Life", "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", "Penny Lane", and "Piggies".
The promotional film for "Strawberry Fields Forever" was filmed on 30 and 31 January 1967, in Knole Park in Sevenoaks. It was directed by Peter Goldman—a friend of Klaus Voormann, who had recommended the Swedish television director to the group. The film featured reverse film effects, stop motion animation, jump-cuts from daytime to night-time, and The Beatles playing and later pouring paint over an upright piano. The video for "Strawberry Fields Forever", along with that of "Penny Lane", was selected by New York's MoMA as two of the most influential music videos in the late 1960s. Both were originally broadcast in the US on 25 February 1967, on the variety show The Hollywood Palace, with actor Van Johnson as host. A cartoon based on the song was the final episode produced for The Beatles animated television series.
"Strawberry Fields Forever" was well-received by critics, and is still considered a classic today. Three weeks after its release, Time magazine hailed that the song as "the latest sample of The Beatles' astonishing inventiveness". Richie Unterberger of Allmusic hailed the song as "one of The Beatles' peak achievements and one of the finest Lennon-McCartney songs". Ian MacDonald wrote in the acclaimed Revolution In The Head that it "shows expression of a high order... few if any (contemporary composers) are capable of displaying feeling and fantasy so direct, spontaneous, and original. The song was ranked as the second-best Beatles’ song by Mojo, after "A Day in the Life".
Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys said that "Strawberry Fields Forever" was partially responsible for the shelving of his group's legendary unfinished album, SMiLE. Wilson first heard the song on his car radio whilst driving, and was so affected that he had to stop and listen to it all the way through. He then remarked to his passenger that The Beatles had already reached the sound The Beach Boys had wanted to achieve. Paul Revere & The Raiders were among the most successful US groups during 1966 and 1967, having their own Dick Clark-produced television show, Where the Action Is. Mark Lindsay (singer/saxophonist) heard the song on the radio, bought it, and then listened to it at home with his producer at the time, Terry Melcher. When the song ended Lindsay said, "Now what the fuck are we gonna do?" later saying, "With that single, The Beatles raised the ante as to what a pop record should be".