Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to
Nothing is real
and nothing to get hung about.
Strawberry Fields forever.
Living is easy with eyes closed--
misunderstanding all you see.
It's getting hard to be someone but it all works out.
It doesn't matter much to me.
No one I think is in my tree.
I mean it must be high or low;
that is you can't, you know, tune in, but it's alright;
that is, I think it's not too bad.
Always, no sometimes, think it's me,
but you know, I know when it's a dream.
I think, I know I mean a yes, but it's all wrong;
that is, I think I disagree.
Strawberry Fields forever (3x)
John Lennon's contribution to the project of uniting the LSD experience with childhood wonder is far more internal than McCartney's Penny Lane. Lennon's version of Wordsworth's Recollections from Early Childhood pictures the singer in a secret place, up in a tree on a wooded lot run by a Salvation Army orphanage, far from the bustle of the neighborhood the McCartney describes. In combination, the single Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane contrasts an extroverted and introverted childhood. Lennon's evocation of a secret place tugged on the hearts of many a listener. I recently read in rocker Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids of her dependence on the record for a place in the mind where she felt safe and comfortable upon coming to New York City as teenager to begin her life as an artist. I myself, at age 15, had my own "Strawberry Fields", which I named after the record. Ironically, my own secret place was also found among the acreage associated with an orphanage (but in this case run by the Masons).
Though Strawberry Fields did better on the charts, reaching #8 in the U.S., than Lennon's previous experimental psychedelic B side Rain (which only got so far as #23), it was still quite a stretch for pop music radio. For the first time on the air, a mellotron was featured in the flute-like introduction to the song and the weirdness continued from there. (This was not the earliest use of mellotron in psychedelic music. Donovan's Celeste from the album Sunshine Superman gets that honor, so far as I know, but it wasn't a single for the airwaves.) George Harrison introduced another Indian instrument, the swarmandal, an Eastern version of a harp. There were backwards tapes, and a swimming disembodied voice caused by editing two different versions of the song together that were recorded in different keys and at slightly different speeds. And to top off all this, Strawberry Fields ended with the technological flourish of a "double fade" with a swirl of backwards tapes bearing the interesting effect of drumming that seemed to swoosh into impact. Even though, at the time, I hadn't experimented with hallucinogens, I was convinced this was what the experience "sounded like". At the time, only John Lennon (with the important assistance of George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick) was able to find that trippy sound. He'd used it in Rain and in Tomorrow Never Knows, but here it is at its most pristine, without religious connotation. By this time, John Lennon had shed his persona as Christ or the Dalai Lama.
In his later years, John Lennon seemed conflicted about Strawberry Fields Forever, at once considering it as his most important composition with the Beatles, and over-manipulated by George Martin. I read in one of his biographies (John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman) that ten years later he wished he would have recorded Strawberry Fields without Martin's contributions. More time was spent on the record than any other the Beatles had produced up to that point. (It was still shy of the number of hours Brian Wilson had put into the orchestration and splicing that went into Good Vibrations.) But it seems that all members of the Beatles and their staff were, at the time, enthusiastically contributing to the strangeness of the song. It was to be like nothing anyone had ever heard before.
Aside from the technological advances and introduction of new musical instruments, a significant part of the weirdness of Strawberry Fields Forever is due to Lennon's staggered, uncertain lyrics that tend to cancel themselves out, reminiscent of the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, while the singer sits in a tree like the Cheshire Cat. Strawberries are not to be found anywhere. The chorus Nothing to get hung about seems to echo the contemporary language about being "hung up", that is "stuck" or "strung out", but Lennon has said it refers to his aunt's warnings not to go to Strawberry Field, to which he'd reply as a child that one couldn't be hung for trespassing [Simon Freeman: Strawberry Fields is not Forever, Times Online 05/31/2005]. LSD references can be found in Nothing is real (a meditation on reality similar to that of Penny Lane) and in Timothy Leary's admonition to tune in from his motto Turn on, tune in and drop out. Lennon himself reflected that the song was "psychoanalysis set to music" (from Bob Spitz 2005: The Beatles: The Biography, p. 641), that at the time of the song's composition he had felt that his genius (or madness, he couldn't tell which) left him easily misunderstood by others. It was perhaps communication of this existential uncertainty of self from the perspective of a child that appealed so much to the adolescent listener in transition to adulthood.