55 Years Ago: Beatles Get Trippy for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ Video
“No one, I think, is in my tree,” John Lennon sings on the Beatles' “Strawberry Fields Forever,” his voice shadowed by squashed brass and backwards percussion. For the songwriter, that lyric marked an intellectual and emotional leap forward — part of what he once called “psychoanalysis set to music.”
“What I was trying to say in that line is, ‘Nobody seems to be as hip as me, therefore I must be crazy or a genius,’” Lennon recalled in the Beatles Anthology book. “It’s the same problem as I had when I was five.”
A tree is also crucial to the “Strawberry Fields Forever” video, which is equally trippy but seemingly much more literal. A dead oak's dark branches greet the camera as director Peter Goldmann pans down from grey clouds to a green field dotted with bizarre objects — including an upright piano bathed in splotches of paint, with massive strings stretched from its keys up to the limbs in spiderweb-like chunks.
And that’s the first six seconds. The psychedelic clip — filmed Jan. 30 and 31, 1967 at Knole Park in Sevenoaks, England — grows progressively bizarre from there. The weirdest sight just might be the Fab Four themselves.
Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr all look shaggier and more colorfully clothed than they did in August 1966, the month they released Revolver, issued the “Yellow Submarine” single and played their final traditional concert (at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park).
Here, they’re decked out in fanciful threads and accessories — Harrison, with his long scarf, red jacket and black top hat, looks like an old-timey train conductor who also dabbles in LSD. And the formerly clean-shaven mop-tops were now heavy on the facial hair, with Lennon boasting a particularly bushy horseshoe mustache.
That disorienting shift in fashion sense only added to the surreal atmosphere of the video, itself an extension of Lennon’s beautifully warped single. Mirroring the tune’s reversed sounds and experimental tape editing, the clip plays time itself like an instrument: orchestrating slow-motion movements, day-to-night cuts and unconventional angles into an uncanny visual symphony.
There are too many highlights to name: the dramatic zoom-ins on each member’s face, the jarring shift to a yellow photo-negative hue, the musicians running around in goofy poses that suggest a psychedelic counterpoint to A Hard Day’s Night. But the standout moment makes good use of the tree, with McCartney “jumping” backwards into it.
Watch the Beatles's Video for 'Strawberry Fields Forever'
These experiments arose partly from practicality. Goldmann, who’d been recommended to the Beatles by mutual friend Klaus Voormann, later recalled that he was forced to work around “a ban in Britain which prevented the Beatles from miming to their record.” As a result, he “had to find settings and ideas which were sympathetic to their songs without turning them into comic actors.”
Producer Tony Bramwell credited the initial creative concept — “a strange instrument in a tree” — to Voorman, and that eventually led them to the famous setting in Knole Park. “We found a piano, ripped it up, and then spent ages going up and down the tree with miles and miles of the glittery string you use to wrap Christmas presents,” Bramwell said. “We didn’t have a storyline as such. We were just trying things out, like changing the speed of the camera, and running the film backwards.”
Due to pressure from their record label, the Beatles released “Strawberry Fields Forever” on Feb. 13, 1967, as one half of a double A-side single, along with McCartney’s more chipper “Penny Lane.” Both songs were then left off their upcoming masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — and what a mistake! It’s hard to imagine improving one of the greatest albums ever made, but they had a clear opportunity. (The video did lead to one crucial Pepper’s connection: During a break in filming, Lennon walked into a local antique shop and purchased a poster advertising an 1800s circus/variety show starring one “Mr. Kite.”)
The “Strawberry” locale worked out so well that Goldmann brought the crew back to Knole Park for segments of the “Penny Lane” promo film, including some horse-riding and the climactic tea-drinking scene at a large outdoor table. But for all its charming visual whimsy, “Penny Lane” doesn’t hold a candelabra to the tree-side mystery of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
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