“Strawberry Fields Forever” b/w “Penny Lane” single represented a watershed moment in the Beatles’ career. The two original Lps preceding the single had been highly successful, transitional albums; the writing deepened and became more adult, the music became sonically and melodically richer.
Bursting with creativity and hubris, the band challenged itself, no longer satisfied with the roles they’d chosen/had foisted on them. They became self-consciousness artists, stopped touring and grew mustaches. Depending on your point of view, the move was a brilliant, creative re-birth or the death-knell of something spontaneous and pure.
The first product of this calculated change was the double A-sided 7″ under consideration. (Significantly, it followed the early era-defining Collection of Beatles Oldies–one of the most edifying aspects of the Beatles story is its neatness, even the details.) Despite its unified theme, and unlike other Beatle non-Lp singles (e.g. “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, “Paperback Writer” “Hey Jude”, etc.), “SFF/PL” wasn’t conceived as a stand-along issue, but was instead shorn from its ostensible parent Lp, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, when EMI demanded a new single, the previous 45 having come six months earlier, a lifetime in the whirligig of 60s pop.
The writers had dealt with personal subject matter before (cf. “Norwegian Wood”, “She Said, She Said”, “I’m Looking Through You”), but this was different. Sensitized by experiments with marijuana and LSD, John and Paul harkened back to their childhoods in ways both predictable and wondrous. John’s view is equivocal, Paul’s sunny. And yet both express their respective equivocation and sunniness with such precocious artistry, that any accusations of calculation and self-consciousness become, to my mind, moot.
I’d been earlier unsuccessful at the Etchinghill Boot Fair (having ruefully spied the competition leaving at 8:00 with a clear plastic bag chocka with records including, on the top, A Nice Pair, and, on the bottom, Rubber Soul), so when, travelling back from the garden center around noon, I saw a hand-drawn sign directing me to the Etchinghill Village Hall to buy Beatles vinyl “starting at £1”, I made Mrs. Asbo double-back with haste in abundance so’s I could investigate.
This original single (which I don’t own–in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even heard these songs before–so it made perfect sense for me to buy it for £4), was the happy fruit of that visit. I think it’s the first UK Fabs single with a bespoke sleeve.