In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There are a lot of laugh-out-loud funny moments in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 movie Almost Famous. But one of its best jokes is a subtle, creeping thing. It’s that Kate Hudson’s groupie has rechristened herself Penny Lane. In her mind, that’s a name that conjures glamor and excess and rock ‘n’ roll. But the song she named herself after isn’t any of that. It’s Paul McCartney’s nostalgic, bucolic portrait of his hometown — almost an English version of a Norman Rockwell scene. There’s nothing rock ‘n’ roll about it.
By the time they recorded “Penny Lane,” the Beatles had taken themselves off of the road and committed full-time to their lives as studio artists. McCartney and John Lennon were in competition with each other, and they were also working in competition with everything else happening in pop music. With “Penny Lane,” McCartney wanted something that could compete with Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” another song that’s nostalgic in its own way. And he’d also grown obsessed with the lush layers and compositional flourishes of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. So he pushed himself.
“Penny Lane” is a weird song in a lot of ways. It switches up keys constantly. Its structure is a complicated, counter-intuitive thing. A piccolo trumpet trills all through it, and brass and woodwinds fill up the mix. There’s no guitar whatsoever. The song works, in some ways, as a pastiche of music hall and of outmoded middle-of-the-road studio pop. And in some ways, it also seems to be a satire of those same exact things — England’s music culture reflected back on itself through a funhouse mirror.
There’s a bit of a David Lynch thing going on in “Penny Lane.” It’s a traditional scene of idealized small-town life, a place where the barber and the banker and the firemen all know each other. (Penny Lane was and is a real street in Liverpool; McCartney named it after the stop where he’d switch buses when he was on his way to Lennon’s house as a teenager.) But everything is somehow off and wrong. It’s a sunny day, but the fireman rushes in from the pouring rain, and upon reflection, it’s all “very strange.” There’s innuendo about “finger pies” and the fireman who “likes to keep his engine clean.” Maybe it’s an acid reverie, a childhood memory polluted by whatever was happening in McCartney’s life when he wrote it. Maybe it’s just strange for strange’s sake.
It’s all very interesting, all this lyrical code-weaving and orchestral experimentation. But it’s also indulgent and borderline unpleasant. “Penny Lane” is a Beatles song without a beat; its clumsily clomping rhythm imitates English music hall a little too well. (Ringo Starr, one of the all-time great rock drummers, basically gets nothing to do.) The song jumps around consistently, never content to sit still. There’s no emotional punch to the song. It’s a rote exercise in studio craft. It’s a showoff move without much behind it.
The thing that really works about “Penny Lane” isn’t the lyrical surrealism or the bent pop arrangement or the dreamlike haziness. It’s the chorus. Even when he was venturing off into the unknown, McCartney couldn’t help but write a monster chorus. It’s his default setting. That’s what sells the song, what makes it something more than a curiosity. Even with everything going on, there’s something you can remember, something you can hum. I’m guessing that Almost Famous groupie didn’t name herself after “Penny Lane” because it’s some great leap forward in pop songwriting. She did it because she liked singing along with that hook.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Elvis Costello covering “Penny Lane” at the 2010 White House ceremony where Paul McCartney was awarded the Gershwin Prize:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the late-’90s WCW wrestler Lenny Lane getting beat up by Chris Jericho:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS:
Paul McCartney (1964): Ahh, I love making good normal rock music that everyone can enjoy *uses marijuana once* but what if instead we made unlistenable circus music
— pixelated (something halloween-related) (@pixelatedboat) April 20, 2018