Penny Lane - The Beatles

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"Penny Lane" - The Beatles (1968)

"Penny Lane" is a reference to the Penny Lane Bus Station next to “the shelter in the middle of the roundabout” in Liverpool were the young Beatles used to meet as teenagers.

In classic Beatles fashion, Lennon and McCartney couldn’t resist undercutting their principal thematics, counterpoising the song’s seemingly innocent bliss with the tawdry comedy of human experience.

He commented: 

“We put in a joke or two: ‘Four of fish and finger pie.’ The women would never dare say that, except to themselves. Most people wouldn’t hear it, but ‘finger pie’ is just a nice little joke for the Liverpool lads who like a bit of smut.”

The brightness of the melody is echoed by the treble timbres- upper woodwinds, piccolo trumphets, high bass guitar, and treble-dominant voice.

It was George Martin’s idea on Penny Lane to feature a piccolo trumpet solo. McCartney hummed the melody he wanted, and Martin wrote it down in music notation for David Mason, the classically trained trumpete who played it.

McCartney was imitating Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto which he had heard Mason play it on TV. Martin would later remark:

“It is true that I arranged it, but…if I had been left to myself, I honestly do not think I would have written such good notes as Paul did.”

Another aspect of the recording is the tell-tale signs of having been recorded with the tape running slow, in order to sound faster (as well as “higher”) on playback; the most noticeable being the unnaturally fast vibrato in Paul’s voice.

"Penny Lane" is seemingly naturalistic yet the lyric scene is actually kaleidoscopic. As well as raining and shining at the same time, it is simultaneously summer and winter.

In both a musical and a verbal way, the track comes out as childishly merry yet dreamily wild at the same time. It asks what, among our childhood memories, is reality and what is illusion.  In fact, this this question personifies the latter years of the Beatles’ own musical journey.

Says musicologist Tim Riley:

“In the crystallized setting of Penny Lane, everything is idyllic and precious. From the initial bass flutter to the distant flutes, everything in the song coalesces into a hazy tingle that speaks to the innocent in everybody- it’s as perfect as pop gets. The Victorian dance hall overtones make it categorically British, combining an old-world flavour with the modernity of Ringo’s cushioned backbeat.”

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