The Beatles’ final American tour in the summer of 1966 was a harrowing experience, to say the least. Having begun under the cloud of John Lennon’s widely-criticized remark about the band’s popularity relative to Jesus Christ, things had gone from bad to worse, culminating in a spate of staged Beatles record burnings and, later, their arrival at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis to the stomach-churning sight of a clutch of hooded Klansmen parading outside to greet them.
If there were a respite for the Fab Four that summer, it occurred on Sunday, August 28, 1966, when Paul McCartney and George Harrison met the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson for the very first time. With the release of Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys had enjoyed remarkable critical success, the likes of which they hadn’t previously experienced with their earlier, less-sophisticated efforts. At a party at publicist Derek Taylor’s house, it was Paul who spoke up first, saying, “Well, you’re Brian Wilson and I’m Paul McCartney, so let’s get that out of the way and have a good time.” Over the next several hours, the men listened to music and shared stories together. And eventually, Brian Wilson, unable to contain himself any longer, played a new Beach Boys recording for Paul and George.
With his new track “Good Vibrations,” Brian confessed that he’d been working almost nonstop on developing the composition over the past eight months. A complex amalgam of musical layers and vivid Technicolor, “Good Vibrations” had required some 90 hours to record, with Wilson even working in four different studios to bring the track home. Amazingly, “Good Vibrations” had already racked up more expenses than the entire Pet Sounds album, and it wouldn’t even be released until October. With a final cost estimated to be somewhere in the vicinity of $50,000, the song’s Electro-Theremin segment alone had clocked in at $15,000.
For McCartney in particular, “Good Vibrations” had arrived like a warning beacon. To his mind, the song’s greatness was indisputable, although it lacked the emotional depth of Pet Sounds. “I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried,” he later admitted. “It’s that kind of album for me.” Months later, when Beatles producer George Martin heard the recording, heknew that in Brian Wilson the Beatles had met their match, and for the moment—as “Good Vibrations” ruled over the airwaves—they may have even been bested by the Californian. After all, Wilson was accomplishing exactly what Martin and the Beatles aspired to do in the studio.
For McCartney, the gauntlet had been thrown. But it would be John Lennon who would answer the challenge. In mid-September 1966, he traveled to Spain to begin principal photography for Richard Lester’s How I Won the War. In Almería, he began composing a dreamlike tune that would go by the title of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” By November, when the Beatles rejoined Martin at EMI Studios, it would be the first song under consideration for their new, as of yet untitled long-player.
As Martin assumed his customary perch on a tall stool, Lennon began singing “Strawberry Fields Forever” for the very first time at Abbey Road. “John was standing in front of me, his acoustic guitar at the ready,” Martin later recalled. “‘It goes something like this, George,’ he said, with a nonchalance that concealed his ingrained diffidence about his voice. Then he began strumming gently. That wonderfully distinctive voice had a slight tremor, a unique nasal quality that gave his song poignancy, almost a feeling of luminescence.”
Martin was thunderstruck. With “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Lennon and his bandmates were clearly up for the challenge inherent in “Good Vibrations” and then some. “It was a very gentle song when I first heard it,” Martin later wrote about “Strawberry Fields Forever.” “It was spellbinding. His lyrics painted a hazy, impressionistic world. I was in love with what I heard. All I had to do was record it.”