Greatest Songs, #449: “Penny Lane” by The Beatles

Year: 1967
Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney
Billboard Hot 100: #1

 From Rolling Stone:

After Lennon composed his surreal “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a song about his Liverpool childhood, McCartney wrote his own, snappy memoir. (Both songs were pulled from Sgt. Pepper and released as a single, with no indication as to which was supposed to be the A side; “Penny Lane” appeared later that year on the soundtrack album to Magical Mystery Tour.) The places named in the lyrics are all real: Penny Lane was a Liverpool bus stop where Lennon and McCartney would often meet. “John came over and helped me with the third verse, as was often the case,” McCartney said. “We were writing childhood memories: recently faded memories from eight or ten years before.”

From Kevin Lauderdale:

By the second time we had run all the way through it, I was mesmerized. Today I know that it was the chord changes and the melody. Back then, it was an unnameable recognition tinged with sadness. It’s an upbeat tune, but in the lyrics it’s raining a lot and people seem disconnected from reality. I liked the song. I liked it a lot.

It’s not just that this was my first favorite song. It’s that it was my first truly sonic experience: a capsule of all that was possible musically. It was more than a captivating combination of words and music. There were triumphant horn sections; the fire bell; the breathless, airy flutes; the reverberation of the piano (to be carried to its logical conclusion at the end of “A Day in the Life“); and the force behind each syllable of “meanwhile back.”

From allmusic:

Where Lennon had used Strawberry Field as a springboard into a sleepy dream-state, however, McCartney described “Penny Lane” with bright, acute detail, from the shelter in the roundabout and the nurse to the barber, the fireman, and the banker without a raincoat (termed a “mac” in the song, in accordance with the British term for raincoat). In this respect, “Penny Lane” set the pace for a distinctively British brand of psychedelia that would use children’s storybook-like imagery as an evocation of a happier, purer state of mind, whether found in Syd Barrett‘s early songs for Pink Floyd or in obscure cult bands such as Tomorrow. “Penny Lane” was not just a sharply sketched, nostalgic slice of British life, however. The soaring bridge, in which Penny Lane becomes part of the narrator’s very ears and eyes, intimates that Penny Lane, like Strawberry Fields, is as much a state of mind as an actual place. The reference to “fish and finger pie” is Liverpool slang for a sexual treat that might have gotten the song banned from the airwaves if the reference had been spelled out. There’s also the way the bridge seems to be drifting off into a dream with the words “in summer” before it’s suddenly brought back to earth by the lines “meanwhile back,” like a narrator suddenly shifting the scene back to the character-dominated verse where it belongs. It’s as if the verses are reality and the bridges a journey into a different, perhaps hallucinogenic, world. Musically, “Penny Lane” is sheer delight, with one of McCartney’s bounciest, catchiest melodies, an effective blend of piano and orchestration (particularly in the high-pitched trumpet solo on the instrumental break), and exhilarating harmonies on the bridge. One more indication that the world of “Penny Lane” might have more disturbing, complex undertones than are evident on the surface arrives at the very end, when the song ends on a pleasing piano chord, which briefly sustains before an unexpected swell of distorted-sounding cymbals. It’s a marvelously spooky (and surprisingly little commented-upon) touch that, like the brief bit of dissonant instrumental madness after “Strawberry Fields Forever”‘s false ending, adds a sinister edge to an apparently lighthearted nostalgic reflection on a time and place that maybe never was as magnificent as they were thought to be in the mind’s eye.