Strawberry Fields Forever: Putting Together the Pieces

Copyright by Joseph Brennan 1992,1993,1994,1996.

Update. I wrote this back in 1992, and revised a few bits in 1993 and 1994. Some of my speculation on the tape tracks is now proven wrong. Firstly, in the booklet to Anthology 2, Mark Lewisohn implies that the percussion from takes 15 and 24 was dubbed onto 25, rather what is noted in his "Recording Sessions" book, that 25 began with a track mixed down from an edit of 15 and 24. This calls for a rethink of what's on 25. Secondly, George Martin has played a few short excerpts of tape tracks on a television special also showing differences from the track by track I worked out here.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" (SFF) is one of the most complex recordings the Beatles ever did. The extensive overdubbing and editing was not done to make a weak song listenable, but quite the contrary, it was done to create just the right setting for a very good song. While a great deal of pleasure can be had by just listening to it, and not just once but many times over, some of us are perhaps interested in just how it was put together. To me, this takes away none of the magic, but rather, realizing the constraints under which the recording was made intensifies my appreciation of what the Beatles and George Martin accomplished.

I will refer many times here to "Lewisohn", by which I mean the indispensible book "The Beatles' Recording Sessions" by Mark Lewisohn, published in 1988 and still in print. This is by far the best and most reliable source for details about the Beatles recordings.

Let's recall at the beginning that the tape machines they had available for recording had 4 tracks and not the 48 or more that are in common use today in recording studios. The 4 tracks could be recorded on separately, at different times, but once the 4 tracks were filled, the only way to record more was to copy the sound to another tape reel, running it through a mixing machine so that the 4 tracks could be combined into fewer tracks on the new tape. Each mixdown adds a generation of tape hiss-- the copied material has the hiss of the original tape plus the hiss of the new tape-- so generally the fewer mixdowns the better. One way to reduce the number of tracks, and therefore the number of generations, is to do some sound-on-sound recording: during the mixdown, new live sound can be combined with the sound being copied to the new tape. Sound-on-sound has the great disadvantage that the new sound does not exist anywhere by itself, so it cannot be wiped out, although of course a new mixdown from the old tape could always be done.

A helpful feature of SFF, for our purposes, is that it was mixed into a 3-point image, like most 4-track recordings. Sound appears to come from left only, dead center, or right only. The center sound is of course an illusion created by mixing identical material to both the left and right tracks; stereo is a 2-track system. It's not really necessary to mix this way even from 4 tracks; for example the sound could be made to come from up to 4 points in between left and right. I think George Martin's misgivings about his old mixes are partly about the discrete 3-point imaging that he and almost everyone used then. At any rate, we can figure that the LEFT, CENTER and RIGHT points in the stereo recording must represent separate tracks on the master, and the only thing you need to do is figure out where the fourth track went.

The released versions of SFF are edits of three sections taken from two different takes. 0:00 to 0:55 is take 7, 0:55 to 1:00 is another section of take 7, and 1:00 to end is take 26. It is fairly well known that take 26 was really faster and in a higher key, and that slowing it down to match the tempo also brought into the same key. The idea of the edit is credited to the songwriter, John Lennon, while its execution, involving the manipulation of tape speed and the use of the 5-second bridge segment, is credited to the producer, George Martin.

Take 7

Take 7 is a mixdown from take 6. Take 6 was recorded Nov 29 1966. Lewisohn says they started with a rhythm track, i.e. instruments with no vocals. To this they added unspecified instrumental overdubs and a vocal track. Take 6 appears on a bootleg CD, "Unsurpassed Masters" (UM) volume 3, in which we hear a mix as follows: LEFT, mellotron (Paul), drums (Ringo), occasional guitar (John?), bass (Paul); CENTER, vocal (John); RIGHT, lead guitar (George).

Take 5, a breakdown, also appears on UM, and is valuable because we know they didn't overdub anything to it; since it has the mellotron and drums together LEFT and lead guitar RIGHT, we may conclude that at least those three instruments were recorded at one time onto at least two tracks.

This means we may imagine the tracks for take 6 to be the following: track 1, mellotron, drums, guitar; track 2, lead guitar; track 3, vocal; track 4, bass. We know the vocal is an overdub because Lewisohn says so, and the bass must be an overdub since Lewisohn says Paul played the mellotron. That guitar I place on track 1 could really be on either track 1 or 4, and if the latter it might even be a second guitar by George rather than John.

Take 7, if it is a normal mixdown, mixes take 6 into two tracks. We don't have hard evidence for that. The complete take 7 on UM is mixed the same way as the released version: LEFT, mellotron, drums, bass, guitar; CENTER, vocal, lead guitar; RIGHT, bass. The RIGHT bass track is new to take 7. During the mixdown, the take 6 vocal track was treated with ADT (automatic double-tracking). As far as I can hear, the new bass and the ADT is all that was added to take 7, and possibly it used only 3 tracks, leaving room for possible further overdubs.

All work on take 6 and 7 was completed by the end of the session on Nov 29 1966. Nothing else was done until Dec 8.

Take 26

Take 26 is a mixdown from take 25. Take 25 is a mixdown from an edit of takes 15 and 24, both recorded Dec 8 1966.

According to the tape box label, reproduced in Lewisohn, both 15 and 24 were incomplete takes and the material used was take 15, called "3/4 of section" and take 24, the last take of the day, called "last 1/4 of section". From this, take 24 appears to be an edit piece, a deliberate recording of a segment of a song to be used for editing, since it is incomplete and yet contains the end of the song. The fact it was the last take that day also suggests they had listened to what they had and decided to create an edit piece.

We do not have takes 15 or 24 available, nor the edit of them that was made the next day, so we can only speculate what was on them. The one thing we happen to know about is that drum and percussion sound recorded Dec 8 survived to the final recording: that comes from the account of Dave Harries, the technical engineer on the Dec 8 session, who actually produced the earlier part of the session himself, because George Martin was late. Harries' story, as quoted in Lewisohn, is that the drums and backwards cymbals he recorded made it to the record. Take 15 must have the percussion referred to, since GM was there at the end when take 24 was recorded. Harries also says he recorded guitars, and Lewisohn says there were no vocals at all for this session.

Take 25 was created on Dec 9. Lewisohn specifically states that the edit of takes 15 and 24 was mixed down to only track 1 on take 25, leaving 3 tracks open. This is useful to know. Lewisohn also states that track 2 contains a heavy drumbeat by Ringo and a harplike instrument called a swordmandel (I have seen other spellings) played by George, recorded Dec 9. We then come to a problem in Lewisohn's account: he adds that more backwards cymbals were added to track 3. If so, they must have been wiped out at the next session, because he says tracks 3 and 4 were both used then.

Work on SFF was then held off for 6 days. On Dec 15, trumpets and cellos, and then vocals, were added. During the 6 days, George Martin prepared the arrangement and hired musicians. Also during this time, the idea of the Big Edit was decided on.

I realize that the canonical story, even in Lewisohn, is that John heard the completed versions of take 7 and take 26 (the final form of take 25), and then told GM that he wanted the beginning of one and the end of the other. This cannot be true, from the evidence on the tape of take 26, which we can hear on Unsurpassed Masters. Both the trumpet-and-cello and vocal tracks recorded on Dec 15 start at the SECOND refrain, not the beginning of the song. The opening refrain and first verse are missing. On the UM take 26, we can hear a countdown, and John warming up vocally during the instrumental intro, and then the music begins. Unless the person who made the mix is engaging in remarkably perverse editing, this is proof that the Big Edit was planned before Dec 15.

(In fact, I am beginning to wonder what is meant by the tape box notations from Dec 8-- "3/4 of section, last 1/4 of section"-- what does "section" mean? Was the remake only a section of the song to begin with? It is easier for me to believe that George Martin just misremembered WHEN John heard the remake and asked for the Big Edit, so I have doubts about section meaning section of song. But I don't know what else it does mean. Just a thort.)

Anyway, Lewisohn tells us on Dec 15, take 25's tracks 3 and 4 are filled with the trumpets and cellos. If track 2 is the swordmandel and heavy drumbeat, then what sounds are on track 1, the track copied over from takes 15 and 24? It must be the drumming and percussion track heard on LEFT in the finished recording. While it's all that survives from that day's work, it probably represents two or three tracks from 15 and 24. Based on Lewisohn, that track has Ringo on drums, then Paul and George on timpani and bongos, Mal Evans on tambourine, and Ringo again on backwards cymbals. The track also includes John saying "cranberry sauce" and so on, picked up on microphone during Ringo's drumming. Since the inclusion of John's remarks has been referred to as a mistake, it is quite odd to realize that since it occurs near the end, it must be from the edit piece, take 24, that they took the trouble to record at the end of the session!

Unsurpassed Masters has something called take 25, but it is a fake made from a 4-track tape of take 26, a fact I am reporting here for possibly the first time anywhere. Two of the tracks were used. The track 1 just described is placed LEFT, while track 2, swordmandel and drumbeat, is lacking except for a few stray drumbeats at CENTER near the end. The most damning evidence is that the trumpet and cello recording has been made into "fake stereo" and placed both RIGHT and LEFT, except at the end when it is totally RIGHT. Anyone with the real take 25 could have placed tracks 3 and 4 separately if desired. Worse, the trumpet and cello track is cut off sharply where the finished recording has two overdubs of mellotron (near the end), and a halfhearted effort has been made to exclude the lead guitar overdub on the track (see below). This fake does have the virtue of establishing what is on the two tracks that were used to make it, which is helpful.

On the same day, Dec 15, after the trumpets and cellos were recorded, take 25 was mixed down to take 26, the last take of the song. There are a lot of problems with take 26, or at least with Lewisohn's description of it. However, we can apply logic and see what we can establish. Take 26 should be comprised of input from take 25, new material recorded Dec 15, and something overdubbed Dec 21, based on Lewisohn's notes.

The first big problem is that Lewisohn says take 26 has two vocal tracks, and that the "cranberry sauce" line is on one of them. Lewisohn must be wrong here. The "cranberry sauce" is associated with the line "calm down Ringo" which is surely a reference to the drums on track 1, which is at LEFT in the mix just as the comments are. The take 25 fake also includes this talking, indicating it is on the same track as the drums, and not on a track with other vocals. By association this error also casts doubt on there being two vocal tracks, but let's hold off on that for a moment.

Take 26 on UM appears to be complete, and it is reproduced at the same speed as the finished recording, even though the original of take 26 is faster, from evidence of Lewisohn's description and of the tape played at the Abbey Road Studio tour in 1983. A time check from refrain 2 [the first one in take 26] to refrain 4 shows that what elapses in 1:32 in the finished recording takes only 1:27 on the Abbey Road tape. The latter is quite noticeably faster purely by ear, and the difference in key is one semitone if I understand the ratios right. On the finished recording, therefore, we hear almost all of the take as it appears on UM. The mix on the released version is:

There are also four instances of panning ("movement" in the stereo image) in the two stereo mixes that have been released: (1) trumpet and cello from LEFT to RIGHT immediately after the Big Edit; (2) and (3) swordmandel from RIGHT to LEFT at start of second and third verses; (4) trumpets from RIGHT to LEFT near the end. See below for more on the mix differences.

The panning helps establish that certain material is on distinct tracks. The most interesting may be the one at the start of verse 2, before and at the words "No one I think is in my tree". Just before the verse starts, the swordmandel pans from RIGHT to LEFT, and while it is still playing in the LEFT channel, the vocal starts in the CENTER. This proves that the vocal is not sound-on-sound to the same track as the swordmandel, even though they are mostly both heard in CENTER. The mix with this panning is on the "Magical Mystery Tour" CD.

I propose that the four tracks on take 26 are as follows:

The evident double-track vocal is a problem. We certainly have no place to put it on these 4 tracks, even though we hear it in the finished recording. The clearest double-track spot is at the start of the last refrain, "let me take you down". I must assume this is ADT, artificial double-tracking, done on the tape machines during the mixing to mono and stereo. In Lewisohn, page 102, we see instructions for ADT on a mix (of "Within you without you"), quite specific as to what phrases or sections to do, and that's just 4 months after SFF. While Lewisohn calls the double tracking on take 26 "real", not ADT, he cannot be right. Nonetheless I am puzzled that the two stereo mixes appear to be identical regarding this possible ADT, when they differ on other points.

Another problem is the overdubbing reported as done on Dec 21. What could this have been, with all tracks full? Lewisohn says vocal and piano, which describes track 4, from Dec 15. It may be a wild guess, but one thing I can think of that might have been added is the mellotron sound that occurs twice during the extended ending (one time is at the fadeup in the finished version). While the sound could have been added sound-on-sound on Dec 15, in the places it occurs we do not hear any other track 3 sound, and I suspect they might have recorded right over existing sound on track 3 at those two spots, wiping out the existing sound in the process. These drop-ins seem to me to be just the sort of thing they would do as an afterthought. The sound has been reported to be a flute sample that came with the mellotron, played backwards.

The Big Edit

What I have called the Big Edit, the cross from take 7 to take 26, occurs at 1:00 into the song. This is at the second refrain, where we hear from take 7 "Let me take take you down, 'cause I'm", and then go into take 26 for "going to, Strawberry Fields". It's a daring edit that depends in part on the way John's vocal line wanders during "going to", and in part on the instruments coming back in after a pause during "'cause I'm". Considering also that the takes are at different tempos and keys makes it all the more amazing that most of us need to be told where the edit is-- I know I did!

An early version of the story is in Hunter Davies's book "The Beatles, The Authorized Biography", 1968:

[quoting George Martin, referring to John:] "He'd wanted it as a gentle dreaming song, but he said it had come out too raucous. He said could I write him a new line-up with the strings. So I wrote a new score and we recorded that. But he didn't like it. It still wasn't right. What he would now like was the first half from the early recording plus the second half of the new recording. Would I put them together for him? I said it was impossible."

[Davies' narrative:] "George Martin. . .noticed that by speeding up the slower-tempo recording by 5 per cent it not only brought it to the same tempo as the other one, it also brought it into the same key. By chance he was able to meld both together without too much trouble."

This, told about a year after the event, is quite poorly recalled by GM. It was the fast one that was slowed down, not the other way round. I would also argue that the slower, sparely arranged earlier take is the more "dreamy" one, not the later one with heavy percussion and trumpets!

Variations of the same story have been repeated elsewhere. George Martin told it again in his book "All You Need is Ears", 1979. "Up to that time we had never remade anything", he recalls incorrectly. "We reckoned that if it didn't work out the first time, we shouldn't do it again." Regarding the two takes, here he writes, "with a bit of luck, we might get away with it, because, with the way that they keys were arranged, the slower version was a semitone flat compared with the faster one. I thought: If I can speed up the one, and slow down the other, I can get the pitches the same. And with any luck, the tempos will be sufficiently close not to be noticeable. I did just that, on a variable-control tape machine. . ." This again does not match the evidence of the tapes; take 7 appears to be at normal speed. Note that here GM indicates more concern with the key than the tempo.

No version I have seen describes the fact that there is another edit at 0:55. In take 7, the second verse follows directly after the first verse, with no refrain in between. The song structure in take 1 is the familiar one, but by take 7 John had changed it. As a result GM probably originally considered placing the Big Edit at the end of the first verse. GM gets the credit for the good judgement not to do it that way, but rather to cut the line "Let me take you down, 'cause I'm" from one of the later refrains in take 7 and insert it from 0:55 to 1:00, so that the Big Edit hits in the middle of a phrase, where it is less obvious. My ears also seem to detect a slide in the tape speed during that phrase, which probably effects a better match in key and tempo-- or is it my imagination?

The Mixes

Mono mixes 1 to 9 were working mixes used to gauge how the recording was going. 1-3 are mixes of take 7 made on Nov 29; 4 is a mix of take 25's first two tracks made on Dec 9, and 5-9 are mixes of take 26 made Dec 15. None were ever released and some may not even exist now.

On Dec 22, George Martin and company made the final mono mix. During the mix of take 26, he added ADT to the vocal track, and the Big Edit was made to the remix tapes, not the master 4-track tape.

On Dec 29, he made two stereo mixes intended to match what was done during the mono mixes.

The first release of SFF was Mono remix 12, used for the single "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" worldwide in February 1967. The song was not included on the next album (Sgt Pepper) and the stereo mix was not used for any English LP while the Beatles existed.

Capitol Records was sent a copy of Stereo remix 3 (not 5), according to Lewisohn. I don't see how a copy of 3 was made after 5 was created, since I believe that by "edit" he means a physical cut-and-paste of real tapes, not a tape copy operation.

The first stereo release of SFF was by Capitol in December 1967, on the "Magical Mystery Tour" LP, which was copied in numerous other countries but not the UK, where MMT was issued as a 2-EP set. When the UK finally issued an LP in 1976, they used the Capitol masters with two songs in fake stereo and this mix of SFF. This mix was also used on the 2-LP set "The Beatles 1967-1970", known as the Blue Album.

German Apple issued a "Magical Mystery Tour" LP in December 1971 or early 1972, using a different stereo mix of SFF. This mix, made October 26, 1971, also appears on the CD now available worldwide. Two other songs on MMT were also mixed for stereo for the first time on Sep-Oct 1971.

The most obvious difference in the "German mix" is that it is much clearer, with a better percussion sound, and more stereo separation. Despite the improved reproduction, some nice touches of the earlier mix are lacking. If there is any doubt it is a different mix and not just a cleaner version of the same mix, listen for the first three instances of panning I listed above. On Stereo remix 3, when we first hear take 26, the cello and trumpet sound pans quickly from left to right, a little sleight-of-hand to distract the listener from the edit itself to the introduction of the new instruments to the song, while in the "German mix" the cello and trumpet track is on the right to start with. On the other hand, the "German mix" has the swordmandel track panning twice, at the start of verses 2 and 3, while Stereo remix 3 does not. The vocal track (take 26 track 4) was supposed to be silenced during the countdowns before the second and third verse, or masked by the swordmandel, but in the "German mix" neither was done and we hear the countdown (softly). A small bonus on the "German mix" is a slightly longer fade, so that at the extreme end we hear the second "cranberry sauce", which is not audible in the earlier mix.

Tapes of takes 1 to 7 started to hit the bootleg market in the early 1980's, but high-quality stereo mixes first became available only on Ultra Rare Trax (2 LPs or 2 CDs) in 1988 or 1989. These also appear on Unsurpassed Masters volume 3 (CD, Swinging Pig, 1989), which is more easily available. The source evidently has 4-track tapes, and the takes are mixed in a consistent way that facilitates comparison. None of these mixes are original.

The fake take 25 and slowed-down take 26 first appeared on a bootleg LP called "Nothing is Real" dated 1985. The same items appear in the same form on URT and UM. I doubt they are from the same source as takes 1-7. In the URT series, the slowed-down 26 appeared twice, with surface noise on volume 2 and more cleanly, with the fake 25, in a later volume. UM copied only the cleaner version.

A correct-speed take 26 (i.e. sounding very fast) was played at the Abbey Road studio tour in 1983 and has appeared on a few bootleg LPs and CDs. The beginning is faded in under narration but it is fairly complete.

I have been told that the soundtrack to the film "Imagine" contains a new digital stereo remix of SFF with a slightly different edit. I regret that I have not heard this one.

Joe Brennan             Columbia University in the City of New York    ("affiliation shown for identification only")