The Beatles – 1967

The track of the day is the very unknown single “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” from a cult band called the Beatles. Joking aside, what pray tell makes this track so important in the grand scheme of English neo-folk music I’m trying to delineate? Well, if you remember the groundbreaking folk rock transformations going on in the US, you’re bound to remember the stasis English folk music ran itself into. Even the Beatles as brilliant as they were, were looking more at the States than at their own mainland for inspiration.

Songs like “She Said” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” which were inspired by the Byrds, “Here, There, And Everywhere” with its Beach Boys influence, and even earlier cuts like “Nowhere Man” that were shaped by Dylan’s music…although showing a band that could thoroughly encapsulate what made those other bands so great and do better versions of those influences…also showed a band that was in a way suppressing a certain Englishness to them. It was during the Revolver sessions that they started to take the first steps towards showing a thoroughly progressive, and most importantly progressing, neo-folk English sound.

Eleanor Rigby“, released on Revolver, was the first attempt in making music that was distinctly “English” in sound, if not entirely in lyrics and spirit. This song struck audiences by fusing English chorale and Victorian instrumentation with the modern pop song. This decidedly darker song that didn’t rely on rock instruments entirely, presented for the Beatles a new set of sounds no American band could touch. It’s this touch they sublimely refined for perhaps the greatest single ever released. It’s a sound that other future English bands like Gryphon or Amazing Blondel would harken to, for example, as one small drop in its influential bucket.

Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane Single.

Before recording the psychedelic-pop masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Club’s Heart Band, John and Paul were reflecting on their own English lives, and the thoroughly British childhood places and experiences they were missing out as they rocketed to stardom, and with this change all the pitfalls they had entailed. John’s creation “Strawberry Fields Forever” relates in fantastical, surreal, and mysterious ways a place he remembered playing in as a child. A place that he felt further distance from as he was growing into his fame away from it. It’s a dreamy song on purpose. It’s John’s dreamlike music and lyricism trying to conjure up some kind of imagined England he kept becoming further removed from.

It’s no wonder that the song starts by him intoning “Let me take you down”, for American and world audiences used to a certain kind of English music this new kind was thoroughly alien to them. It’s this otherworldliness that other groups would run with.

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Paul’s creation “Penny Lane” is a jaw-dropping piece of music itself. The lyrics relate to a decidedly English road where John and Paul would get picked up by bus to go to school. This simple recollection of a place from a more innocent time, in a different, imagined way is as influential and groundbreaking as anything they had ever released by then. Using English dancehall instrumentation and courtyard music Paul joins them with his peerless pop smarts to create a cipher for another facet of English music. Twee, toon town folk, bubblegum psych there’s a lot you could call this sound, it’s a sound so wonderfully innocent and pastoral because of what Paul doesn’t describe. He’s not relating to you a story of an imaginary England countryside, or some other village green, but of the inner mysteries supposedly staid English quotidian life can hold.

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It’s this sound as well that would inform other English folk-rockers and neo-folk artists. It’s no wonder that after this year English groups started to light up and reimagine what being an English folk artist could be. More of that tomorrow…