The Story Behind “Strawberry Fields Forever”
Season 1, Episode 1
Welcome to the Songs of Note podcast, where we talk about the songs we love, and the stories behind them. I’m your host, Ryan Gregg.
Hi there, I’m Ryan Gregg, thank you so much for checking out the Songs of Note podcast. This is a podcast that I’m starting as a music fan. I’m a guy who loves songs and who loves songwriting. I especially love the stories behind songs, and what we’re going to be focusing on in this podcast is the stories behind some songs that you know, and hopefully some songs that you don’t. Each episode will be centered around one song, and then I’ll have an interview with someone, and I’ll also give some information about the song. And so this is the first episode on the best band of all time, The Beatles. Right? Right.
Why A Music Podcast?
You may not love the Beatles and that’s alright. My hope with this podcast is to hit not just one specific type of music. I love music from The Beatles … to Nirvana to Bon Iver, Elliott Smith, and Billie Holiday. There’s a wide gamut of fantastic music that we have at our fingertips. It’s never been easier to access. And for me the thing that most excites me, the reason I put this podcast together if I had to hone in on what the thing is that I like about it? What am I hoping to communicate to you listening while you’re driving, while you’re working out, why you’re listening wherever you are? The stories behind the songs are what move me when I know what a band was going through when a song is being written or recorded, when I know what a singer was dealing with in his life. While he was singing a certain lyric, to me that opens up a room of emotional connection, and it widens the range of how I relate to and love a song. It makes me love him more deeply.
There have been some albums and songs that once I found out the story behind the story behind the song or album, made me love them even even more. And that’s my favorite thing: talking about the stories and talking about, you know, why do we like a song and what makes it unique. And so, today’s episode is on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” I could talk about this song for a long time, so I’m gonna make a brief rundown hitting the high points of what makes this song unique. Then we’re gonna head over to an interview with my friend Bill Victor who posted a Beatles question that had me in knots for a couple days. So I won’t tell you what the question was just yet, but we’ll get to that interview here in just a couple minutes. So, the song that we’re talking about today is “Strawberry Fields Forever,” one of my favorite Beatle songs, I hope you know it, but if you don’t, I’m pumped for you.
Why Have A Music Podcast?
Something that is really great about being able to utilize the platform of a podcast, if you click into the show notes of any episode that I’m putting out in the Songs of Note podcast, I’m going to include a quick clickable link to a playlist on Apple Music or on Spotify. So in these episodes, when we’re rattling off songs you may or may not know, what I thought would be cool as a music fan is if you’re listening to it and you don’t know the songs we’re talking about, well, you can just go to the show notes, click the link and I’m gonna have a playlist that you can just add to your library. And after the show is done, you can listen to those songs and you know, hopefully makes gives you a wider range of songs that maybe you didn’t know before. Or maybe you do and it reminds you about a good song? Or maybe you don’t like it, I don’t know. But that’s kind of the hope here with those and that clickable link in the show notes.
As this is episode one, the most helpful thing, if you like this podcast, there are two things you can do. Number one, subscribe, and that way, you’ll get the updates. So I’m going to do an episode every week that will give you the updates on the latest episodes. And number two is, if you could take a minute to rate this podcast or give a comment. That’s a huge help and really helps the podcast get found by other people.
The Background Behind The Song
If you had to narrow down the background of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” it is really a story about John Lennon and the loss of his mother. John’s mother was named Julia, and she was reported to social services by her sister who was Mimi. The two of them lived in town together. His Aunt Mimi didn’t think that Julia was doing a good job of being a parent to him so she actually turned her in. John’s mother, Julia, was known to be a loud personality, lots of fun. She taught John to play banjo and the ukulele.
She gave over custody of John to Mimi. And so the person that watched him was Mimi, but the person who he would see in town all the time with his mom, Julia, which was very weird for him. On July 15, 1958, Julia was actually hit by an off duty police officer and killed. John was only 14 years old. John talks about her her death throughout his life. Yoko Ono would talk about how late in the 1970s he would be in bed, about to go to sleep, and he’s still talking about his mom. So she had this huge impact on him and this lasting impact. He never got over it.
Strawberry Field was, according to John, the name of an old Victorian house converted for the Salvation Army. It was near Lennon’s childhood home outside of Liverpool. John used to go there with his buddies and they played in the garden, the wooden garden behind his home. There was a garden party that was held each summer there and the Salvation Army would play and a quote from Aunt Mimi was there. She said, “there was always something about the place that fascinated John. He could see it from his window and he loved going to the garden party they had each year he used to hear the Salvation Army Band, and he would pull me along saying, ‘Hurry up, Mimi, we’re going to be late.’” So that’s young John Lennon. In his aunt Mimi reminiscing on you know, this place called strawberry field.
Fast forward to 1966. The Beatles had become the biggest band ever. They’ve conquered every market. Beatlemania had swept the nation. No one’s ever seen anything like it. At this point when they when they play shows, the band can’t even hear the notes they’re playing because of the screams of the group. In the audience because they, they just were obsessed with the Beatles and they were amazing. I would have been screaming like that to the Beatles man. Oh my gosh, I can’t imagine going to a Beatles concert. The band said it got to the point where it just felt like a farce. It felt like they were walking out on stage and people are just screaming, and they felt like they weren’t getting any better as musicians, you can’t actually hear what we’re playing because the crowds were screaming so loud. And so they got tired of touring, they were done with it. And so by 1963, the Kennedy assassination happened as well, which is right around when The Beatles got huge in the US specifically.
And so within that little period there they went from doing very straight ahead rock and roll. Move to 1966 and they have done the album, “Revolver,” which was a groundbreaking album. So many cool songs on there. So many amazing recording techniques. They brought in so many new recording techniques, I could go into that, but I’m gonna keep going. And they just pushed the genre of rock and roll forward tremendously with one album.
Revolver came out on August 5, 1966. I used to be in a band, and we would travel and that’s what I did for 10 years. And anytime that we had a new song, a new album, that was the thing, I couldn’t wait to play a new song because it was the thing that we were most excited about. And so when you look at The Beatles, they’ve played together hundreds and hundreds of shows maybe thousands at this point. It’s 1966.
Their Final Concert
They go to play their final concert on August 29, 1966, and they don’t play a single song from the album that they released three weeks before. What that tells me is the band’s recording life and their concert life are two separate entities. They go on stage, and they’re playing songs that they played years back when they would travel and play in small places. So some of the songs they played that night were songs like, “Rock and Roll Music,” “She’s A Woman,” “If I Needed Someone,” “Day Tripper,” “Baby’s in Black,” and these are great. These are great Beatle songs, but these are songs written by a different band than the band that just recorded Revolver. Their final concert was one of the shortest that they ever did, and the setlist included no songs from Revolver which is astounding to me when you think of the weight of the amount of beautiful songs on Revolver.
As far as the story about how John Lennon really wrote the song, the band, you know, had been touring like crazy. The Revolver album comes out, they have their final concert at the end of August 1967, and the band is ready for a break. So everybody finally gets some time apart. John Lennon gets offered part in a movie called How I Won the War, which was Richard Lester’s anti-war comedy. He goes off to Spain to do the movie. Everybody in the band kind of goes their own ways.
Writing The Song
And so while he’s there in Spain, imagine John Lennon goes from being one of the most famous people in the world. He can’t go anywhere without people mobbing him, screaming for him. He now is on a movie set where he’s really secluded. There’s all this time between takes. He has a lot of down time, a lot of quiet time. So he ends up on a beach. And there are some quotes from his co-star whose name was Michael Crawford. And it talks about he talks about Lennon just working on this song. You can imagine John Lennon sitting on a beach in Spain, one of the biggest celebrities and musicians in the world, and he finally has quiet. And what does he do, what time does he return to? He’s anonymous. People don’t know him. He returns to his childhood and he sings about strawberry field, a place that he knew as a kid. As a child that had tremendous weight to him.
His co-star, Michael Crawford had a quote, and so picture this—this is a guy, the only guy who happens to have a front row seat to John Lennon writing one of the most famous songs ever. So here’s this quote, he says they shared like a bungalow during the recording. So just it’s just two guys, you know, sharing a common living space because they’re working on this project together. It just happens to be John Lennon working on one of the most famous songs. Crawford says he used to sit cross-legged on the beach or on the bed working on a melody. “I heard him playing the same bar over and over again until he got the right sequence,” and he told John, “Really, it’s good, I wouldn’t mess with it.” It’s so funny to imagine this guy hearing this beautiful song coming up from John Lennon and John’s messing with it are tweaking it and the guy is like, “This is good, just, you know, don’t mess with it too much, I promise it sounds great.”
John later said that the song helped him wrestle with complex emotions in a confessional and abstract way. And he said it was psychoanalysis set to music. Now Paul McCartney and John Lennon grew up together and they’re in their teens and even George Harrison, the three of them, you can see photos of them. They are young guys, and they were already playing music together. And so Paul knew strawberry field, the place that John was talking about. And so here’s a quote from Paul, he said, “I’ve seen strawberry field described as a grimy place next door to him that John imagined to be a beautiful place, but in the summer wasn’t dull and grimy at all. It was a secret garden. John’s memory of it wasn’t to do with the fact that it was the Salvation Army home that was up at the house. There was a wall you could bunk over and it was a rather wild garden. It wasn’t manicured at all. So it was easy to hide in.”
I love that line, “it was easy to hide in,” because you can imagine a young John Lennon letting his imagination run. There’s the line where he’s saying, “Nothing to get hung about, Strawberry Fields Forever.” I always thought that meant like, “nothing to be worried about,” or “nothing to be bothered about.” What the line actually is about is his Aunt Mimi and her instruction was not to play in the grounds of strawberry field. She didn’t want them to get in trouble, so what John would say back to her was, “They can’t hang you for it.” So anytime he’s singing, “nothing to get hung about, Strawberry Fields Forever,” he’s directly referencing the woman who raised him as a child. I think that’s such an interesting turn on the lyric that I would have not known had I not researched it.
When the band got back together, they are seeing music and career and fame and in a very different way. They’re over it. They’re over the noise of the celebrity and a hit record. At this point, they want to make music that moves them. So, in the 60’s, if a band was going to record a song, the song would be limited to. “Okay, well, let’s come up with the song. Two, how are we going to execute this live?” You’d think to add a guitar part, a bass part, a drum part. You wouldn’t necessarily think oh, let’s put in a cello or let’s put in a Mellotron or let’s put in these random instruments that even if they sound great, you’re not going to be able to make it you’re not gonna be able to execute it live. That was a real barrier for artists at this time.