Why ‘Penny Lane’ Took Paul McCartney and The Beatles So Long to Record

While there are more brilliant Paul McCartney tracks than you can count, a few songs stand out a half-century after he recorded them with The Beatles. At or near the top of the list is “Hey Jude,” the 1968 smash that continues to inspire singalongs wherever it plays.

That track, which Paul wrote for John Lennon’s son Julian, became the first release on the band’s Apple record label. But by then, Paul had already penned a number of eternal classics. The list includes “Yesterday,” which became one of the most-played songs in radio history.

Then there is “Penny Lane,” a song which couldn’t have come from any other band or been written by anyone other than Paul. The 1967 single, released with John’s stunning “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the B side, ranks as one of the finest recordings of the band’s career.

As you might expect, that level of perfection did not come easy. From the moment Paul introduced the song in the studio, engineers knew it would take a good chunk of time. It ended up taking an eternity.

Paul wanted a ‘really clean American sound’ for his new song.

Paul McCartney from The Beatles poses in a London street circa 1966. | Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns

When The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds in 1966, one of the record’s biggest fans was Paul McCartney. So when producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick heard Paul say he wanted “a really clean American sound” for his new track, they weren’t surprised.

Emerick, who told the story in the fascinating Here, There and Everywhere, knew how to get Paul that sound. The thing was, he also knew it would take a long time to get it. “I was convinced that the best way to give Paul what he wanted was to record each instrument totally on its own,” Emerick recalled.

Normally, the band would lay down a rhythm track with the backing instruments (guitar or piano, bass, and drums) then overdub vocals, solos, and other embellishments. But in this case, each part of the rhythm section would get its own session. And it started out as slowly as could be.

“For days, the the others sat at the back of the studio watching Paul layer keyboard after keyboard, working completely on his own,” Emerick wrote. Only earlier that year, Emerick and the other Beatles’ heads nearly exploded when they spent three entire days recording Paul’s “Here, There and Everywhere.”

Now Paul was spending that much time recording a single instrumental track. And the sessions were just beginning.

Sound effects, an orchestra, and a special horn solo kept it going for 3 weeks.

The Beatles hold a press conference in the Washington Senators locker room in August 1966. | Bettman

Before the band dove into “Penny Lane,” the studio heads were growing anxious that they’d only finished two songs in the first three weeks of the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions. But Paul’s new piece would make that pace seem fast.

In the coming weeks, after getting the rhythm instruments out of the way, the Beatles would spend a night on sound effects (including the fireman’s bell); Martin would spend several days writing and arranging for an orchestra; and backing vocals (plus Paul’s lead) would go on tape.

But that wasn’t enough. Just when everyone thought they had a finished song on their hands, Paul decided he had to have the principal trumpeter from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra drop a piccolo trumpet solo onto the record.

(As he had with a French horn player during the Revolver sessions, Paul got on the virtuoso’s nerves by asking for a better solo.)

Most would agree the three weeks were well-spent by The Beatles. But there was no question the band had changed. Recently back from India, George Harrison didn’t adapt well at first. Bored with all the sitting around, he only contributed one track to the sessions that eventually produced Sgt. Pepper’s.

Also see: Why John Lennon Didn’t Play on So Many of George Harrison’s Beatles Songs