In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he's had the pleasure to have know.
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello.
On the corner is a banker with a motorcar.
The little children laugh at him behind his back.
And the banker never wears a Mack
In the pouring rain. Very strange.
Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes.
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back...
In Penny Lane there is a fireman with an hourglass
And in his pocket is a portrait of the Queen.
He likes to keep his fire engine clean.
It's a clean machine.
Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes.
Four of fish and finger pies
In summer; meanwhile back...
Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And tho' she feels as if she's in a play
She is anyway.
In Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer.
We see the banker sitting waiting for a trim.
And then the fireman rushes in
From the pouring rain. Very strange.
[First Chorus 2x.in the last instance substituting Penny Lane for the last line]
I remember the release of Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever as the most exciting new song release in my life. This may be accounted for by the fact that it had been a long while, by standards of the time, since the Beatles had released a record, which was back in August 1966. But also a Beatles record was eagerly anticipated after the release of the psychedelic cuts on the Revolver album --and the double sided single of Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever exceeded expectations. Penny Lane was, if one doesn't count the joint venture of Yellow Submarine, the first psychedelic record by Paul McCartney. As it is more tuneful, and easy to relate to in sound with the "baroque rock" of the Beach Boys or the Left Banke, Penny Lane was more popular at the time than the flip side, briefly, for one week reaching Number One on the U.S. pop chart. Strawberry Fields, which was a great deal weirder, only made it so far as number eight in the U.S. But both songs shared a mutual project, relating the LSD experience to the innocence of childhood memory, and both were uniquely an expression of that experience, and thus confusing, at least lyrically, to a public that wasn't yet "tuned in". I remember, as a kid, for instance, being upset with Tho she feels as if she's in a play / She is anyway, considering it nonsense at the time. I now understand what McCartney may have been getting at. Whether or not you comprehend the unreality of reality (which LSD allowed one to perceive, as if LSD "reality" were somehow a higher spiritual plane), you still have to live most of your life in the ordinary. Nick Bromell wrote in his Tomorrow Never Knows of Penny Lane: “Thinking that we are in a play, like knowing that we are only dreaming, is usually a reliable indicator that in fact we are not in a play or a dream…But the Beatles suggest that even though we feel safeguarded…by a distinction between the reality in which our real self dwells and the play in which we temporarily perform, there is in fact no distinction. We are in a play anyway.” (p. 112)
Paul McCartney at the time was of the romantic school of thought, once popularized by William Wordsworth, that true imagination finds wonder in the ordinary, like a child experiences when he or she encounters something for the first time. LSD also was capable of stimulating that wonder, that ability to see the most common of things freshly. So McCartney set about recalling scenes of wonder from his youth, sensual impressions from the neighborhood he grew up in. The song is full of local idioms: the Mack is a Mackintosh rain coat; four of fish refers to a fourpenny portion of fish & chips, while finger pies is an adolescent reference to boys fingering pussy. (It's odd that this little bit of local slang replaces the chorus’ repeated reference to being under blue suburban skies at only one point of the song, as if allowing the listener to glimpse the underbelly of a respectable scene.) Another difficulty for the casual listener is that the weather and seasons are scrambled, as the song doesn't tell a story in chronological order but rather produces a collection of snapshots from memory, like the barber sharing photographs that opens the song. The barber, the banker, the fireman and the nurse all appear, sometimes more than once, in the song without really interrelating except as casually known characters in the Penny Lane landscape. McCartney seems to have picked up a few lyrical tricks from Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row, but without the “desolation”.
As with Yellow Submarine, the Beatles chose to add sound effects to the song, though they are used as mere accents this time around, not tools to advance a narrative. The "woo-woo" of the break seems to refer to the siren on the fire truck, but it is bereft of urgency, ringing through the years with pure nostalgia. (This is not Dylan’s ambulance.) Most people who reference this song note that the piccolo trumpet was first used in a pop song with Penny Lane; it is a uniquely baroque sounding instrument, and its most commonly recognizable implementation previously had been in Johann Bach's 2nd Brandenburg Concerto. There seemed to be a fashion developing for a while of diving directly into the lyrics of a song: Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones' Ruby Tuesday had started abruptly like Penny Lane. The song had a traditional baroque ending in the original recording, with the piccolo trumpet rounding out a phrase to its finality, but the Beatles soon replaced this with the sound of high feedback and ringing cymbals as if penetrated by a sudden blinding ray of light, a more satisfactory conclusion to an LSD experience.