Engelbert Humperdinck – named after the famous classical composer, Engelbert Humperdinck – has never not been a bit of a musical punchline. I mean, there’s that unwieldy name – effective in its uniqueness but scarcely something that begs to be taken seriously. He’s a man who found a furrow and just kept on ploughing, turning out ballad after ballad of mostly fairly bland but competent songs that would nicely fit the average 1960’s dinner party and wouldn’t ruffle any feathers. Limited success and a stalling career in the early 60’s hadn’t really led anywhere, and a change of name from the original could-be-anyone Gerry Dorsey to the strikingly unforgettable Engelbert Humperdinck was a move to try and catch some attention for a singer badly in need of a hit record.
It all came together for the former Mr Dorsey, now Mr Humperdinck, in 1967 he recorded the single “Release Me”. He wasn’t the first to record it but he was the one to nail it. The song was a staggeringly huge hit for him, getting into the Billboard top ten in the U.S., and occupying the number one slot in the UK for six full weeks. It became Humperdinck’s defining song, and though he’d go on to have another number one hit and considerable chart success nothing would quite be the phenomenon “Release Me” was. In one song Humperdinck found the success he had been looking for, and while the soaring melodramatic vocals and somewhat-cheesy production may sound rather quaint now the success of the song is undeniable. It was a genuine, bona fide, powerhouse hit.
It is also the song that stopped “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” from reaching the number one spot.
This is seen as something of an injustice. In terms of artistic value, it’s pretty tough to argue that “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” – the finest single of the 1960’s without exception – doesn’t deserve more recognition than a corny old ballad belted out by someone with a distinctive but silly name. But this gets at a fundamental truth of the charts. Nobody “deserves” anything. The Beatles – arguably the most influential and important band of all time – don’t deserve to top the charts any more than Humperdinck deserves to be knocked off the number one spot simply because the Beatles single is obviously a superior record. The singles charts are a measure of one thing, and one thing only. Popularity. Nothing else matters because the only thing the singles charts represent is how many units of a particular song are shifted in a particular week.
The numbers can be vast – “Release Me” was selling 85,000 copies a day at its peak – but that’s all they are. Numbers. They are a popularity contest pure and simple, and for the six weeks that “Release Me” was top of the charts Humperdinck can claim that at one point he was more popular than The Beatles. Because he was. No quality is conferred by that success, nor indeed does that success say anything about the material at all, good or bad. Some amazing songs have reached number one. Some terrible songs have. But they all have one thing in common – that’s what was popular so that’s what won. The Beatles don’t “deserve” to be number one with “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” because they didn’t release the most popular song. Humperdinck did. It’s not an injustice, it’s just reality.
Still, it’s hard not to feel at least a little twinge of regret that the psychedelic masterpiece of “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” never made it to the top. You don’t have to be a diehard Beatles fan to understand that. Famously kept off Sgt Pepper because of the belief the Beatles needed something in the charts, the single is – even given Pepper itself – the purest example of a particular strand of Beatles music, the embrace of the psychedelic and the surreal, which would largely pass at the end of the year with Magical Mystery Tour. The Beatles had done surrealism before (“She Said She Said”). They had done psychedelia before (“Tomorrow Never Knows”). But never had the two strands come together quite as effectively as they do on this single.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” is, for once, a genuine slice of surrealism not “surrealism” as a short-hand for “wooo-this-is-a-bit-weird-isn’t-it”. It’s a dreamlike, unfocussed flit through John Lennon’s subconscious, starting with a relative degree of coherence and gradually drifting into disjointed, fragmented sentence structures which suggest meaning but stubbornly refuse to resolve into intelligibility (except through random connections made in the listener’s mind). And, significantly, every member of the band contributes something meaningful to the final product. The child-like yet entrancing opening mellotron chords written by but not played by Lennon on the final version. The swarmandal strum before the verses that seem so short yet add so much texture from Harrison as it slides across the stereo picture. Starr’s almost never been better with some of the most perfectly-placed fills of his career. McCartney unusually underplays the bassline, perfectly supporting the structure of the song and he also contributes just enough piano to fill out the texture of the piece. And of course George Martin, expertly and adroitly interpreting exactly what instrumentation was required to finish the song, with a lone deep cello or stabbing trumpets inserted precisely where they are required. Even the final coda as the song fades back in is, in its tape-looped insanity, a perfect fit as the meandering dream-state of the main song becomes sharper, scarier. Then finally it fades away on a few piano notes and Lennon’s drawled, almost inaudible “Cran. Berry. Sauce”. Silly, but not undercutting.
Assembled, as is well-known, from two separate takes that were just the right number of tones apart to synch up and work together (more brilliance from George Martin, naturally), even coincidence and blind luck play a part in the final song. Today, the universe smiles on them. Against all that “Penny Lane” is often seen as the subordinate of the two songs, something simpler and more straightforward, but it’s not at all. “Strawberry Fields Forever” wears its surrealism and psychedelia brashly, “Penny Lane” is subversively sly about it.
McCartney’s lyric sets up a very suburban environment but it’s constantly being undermined by the unreliable narrator of the lyric. This is a kaleidoscopic, MC Escher world and it, too, refuses stubbornly to come into coherence. If this is suburbia, it is an acid-drenched, oversaturated vision of it. There’s some lovely turns of phrase – the barber doesn’t merely like what he does, he shows off “… every head he’s had the pleasure to known”. Things are uncanny – it rains at the start of the song, yet when we get to the chorus we have “blue suburban skies”, the very opposite of the banker rushing in from a deluge. The lyric establishes “in summer / meanwhile back” halfway through the song but when we meet the “pretty nurse” she’s selling poppies from a tray – poppies are sold in September and early November in the UK in support of Remembrance Day, the 11th November.
The two chronologies resist cohesion, and we slip and slide through time as we slip in and out of our subverted suburban settings. The music, brightly cheerful and up-tempo, cloaks the deviousness of the lyric – this sounds like a straightforward paean to a comforting hometown yet it’s anything but and even the unexpected key-change at the end supports this, coming across as desperate and forced. The suburban smile becomes strained and stringent, the vision begins to crack, and we end on an ominous intrusion of feedback and Starr’s immaculate cymbal work (and gives us an implicit link between this song and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, with its ominous tape-loop squalls of sound at the end – neither song can ultimately resist the intrusion of The Other into their blissful psychedelic states). “Penny Lane” embraces deranged psychedelia every bit as much as “Strawberry Fields Forever” in its vivid, oversaturated vision. And together with “Strawberry Fields Forever”… Well. They’re perfect.
And these songs need to be paired together, really. Quite apart from having been conceived as the start of what would become Sgt Pepper it’s almost impossible to imagine them apart. They belong together, hence the double-A status of this single. And, to bring us round to where we began, it’s that double-A status that kept “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” being a number one. Because what I wrote earlier isn’t true. Humperdinck didn’t shift more units than The Beatles. Due to the way chart rules worked in the UK in the 60’s a double-A single’s sales figures could only count the most popular song on the single. Meaningfully that halves the sale of any double-A side which is why “Release Me” got to Number One even though in reality it actually sold fewer units than the Beatles. Such is the way of the fates. In the U.S. it went all the way to the top because… you know. It’s The Beatles. And “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”. How could it not? Humperdinck deserves his success – he still released a phenomenally popular single – but maybe… well, maybe it is an injustice that this didn’t top the charts after all. “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” is the best single ever released in the 1960’s, and quite possibly ever – really, who could possibly compete with that?
What Else Happened in in 1967?
You can’t really start anywhere other than with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band being released can you? It’s the apotheosis of psychedelia as far as public perception goes, though it’s perfect dark mirror, The Velvet Underground and Nico is released in the same year and is every bit as good. Aretha Franklin releases “Respect” which means she ceases to be an up-and-coming artist and becomes the Queen Of Soul. There’s the Monterey Pop Festival, which basically invents the idea of music festivals as we know them today, and Keith Richards and Mick Jagger are jailed for drug possession (it won’t last). Rolling Stone magazine debuts so people can get all serious about music and in that vein The Who release arguably the first concept album – unless you count all the others – with The Who Sell Out which includes the still-stunning single “I Can See For Miles”. The Doors release their first album – oh well, never mind – as do The Grateful Dead. And Pink Floyd. And The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Genesis are founded and there’s nothing we can do about it now, but so are Sly And The Family Stone so it’s not all terrible. The biggest hit of the year doesn’t belong to The Beatles! No it’s Procol Harum’s interminably awful “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” (number two is the joyful, wonderful “I’m A Believer” and number three is “All You Need Is Love”). Miles Davis releases the weird, abstract Miles Smiles and David Bowie releases his first, eponymous album. It’s not very good. Cream give us Disraeli Gears, and The Beatles round the year off with their first critical disaster, Magical Mystery Tour. Well, at least the soundtrack’s good.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Nothing. It was always going to be “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”. Sorry if you were hoping for Cat Stevens this time out… In fact this single is one of the twin pillars the series is built on – there were two singles I wanted to discuss and this is one of them. The other… well, we’ll get there. But even putting The Beatles to one side there’s surprisingly little to enflame interest. There was plenty of good music around in 1967 but precious little of it came within sniffing distance of the top spot. “Something Stupid” – a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one – hit the Number Two spot twice, appropriately enough, but there’s not a lot of meat on the bone there. “I’m A Believer” similarly, despite being such a glorious song. There’s a scattering of familiar titles – “Happy Together”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, Scott McKenzie’s excruciatingly bad and potential Hatesong recipient “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” – but the only other serious contender was “Respect” which spent a lot more time at Number two in the charts than it did at Number one.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
3. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
4. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
5. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
6. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
7. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
8. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”