Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney
Released: February 17, 1967
Appears on: Magical Mystery Tour
Lead vocal: Paul
It had been two months since a new Beatles release and six months since the last 100% new album. Then, out of the blue, not only did a new, double A-Sided single appear on store shelves, but a new single in a full-color sleeve.
That single was easily their greatest and probably the greatest ever released by any group.
"Penny Lane" b/w "Strawberry Fields Forever" (or is it "Strawberry Fields Forever" b/w "Penny Lane"?) blew the top of the lid to the other side of the solar system. Paul's "Penny Lane", an ode to the days of old in Liverpool, is, admittedly, more commercial than John's, so it appeared as the A-Side in Billboard. It hit #1 in the US for just a week before The Turtles' "Happy Together" hit the scene. In the UK, remarkably, did not hit #1 and was stuck at #2 thanks to Engelburt Humperdink!
The song itself is unbelievable. It kicks off without an intro...In Penny Lane, there is a barber sharing photographs...and goes on to describe real places along Penny Lane. You feel as if you could step into this romanticized world thanks to Paul's intensely detailed lyrics.
Instrumentation features John on piano and congas, Paul on piano and bass, George on just handclaps and handbells and Ringo on drums and tambourine. There is no guitar part, yet it is one of the Beatles' most heavily orchestrated songs, including piccolos, flutes, flugelhorns, oboes, cor anglais and double-bass.
This is just a preview of Paul's pop music that would appear on Sgt. Pepper's and considering that the song was once imagined to be on that album, it makes sense. George Martin gave EMI these two songs because they were the closest to being finished and then dropped them from the LP line-up. Thus, the song's first LP appearance was as the third track on the Capitol-manufactured side two of Magical Mystery Tour in November 1967. (This is a topic we'll get to much later when I get to the original songs on that LP.)
It did not make an LP appearance in the UK until 1973's 1967-1970. It has also appeared on the US 20 Greatest Hits and 1. You can view the wonderful promo film here.
While "Penny Lane" is a brilliant song, I think I would keep it just outside of my top-10 Beatles tracks. It is such a poppy pop song that includes no great George Harrison guitar solo and a rather basic drum pattern from Ringo. Again, I believe the Beatles were at their absolute best when they worked as a full unit, with all four making significant contribution to the song's sound. "Penny Lane" has Paul's name all over it, making it as much a Paul McCartney song as a Beatles song.