Written primarily by Paul McCartney, "Penny Lane" was released in February 1967 as one side of a double A-sided single with John’s "Strawberry Fields Forever".
The song was recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions which lasted nearly six months (November 1966 – April 1967), an extraordinary amount of time to make an album in the 1960s. There had been no new Beatles’ record since the “Yellow Submarine”/ “Eleanor Rigby” single in August 1966 and fearing that the group’s popularity would diminish while they were locked away in the studio their record company demanded a single to keep them in the public eye.
Over the years The Beatles’ producer George Martin has often remarked that the pairing of "Penny Lane" with "Strawberry Fields Forever" was probably the greatest single ever released by the band. He was probably correct but despite this the coupling famously failed to reach No. 1 in the singles charts, stalling one place below Engelbert Humperdinck's MOR ballad "Release Me".
Since the Beatles usually did not include songs released as singles on their British albums, both songs were left off the “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, a decision Martin later regretted. Both songs were later included on the US “Magical Mystery Tour” album in November 1967.
Penny Lane is not only a street but it's a district... a suburban district where, until age four, I lived with my mother and father. So I was the only Beatle that lived in Penny Lane.
John Lennon (1980)
The district surrounding Smithdown Place which includes Newcastle Road (Lennon's childhood home for his first 5 years), Church Road (where John’s father Alfred attended the Blue Coat School), Allerton Road (the main shopping area) and Smithdown Road (where Holyoake Hall, an early Beatles venue, and The Old Dutch Café a late night Beatles hang out are situated).
Behind the shops further up Church Road was the entrance to the tram sheds on Prince Alfred Road which John would write about in his early draft of “In My Life”, seen on the bottom left of the aerial view above.
A trip on one of the city’s remaining trams would bring John and his mates into Penny Lane from Menlove Avenue and their homes in Woolton, or Paul and his family from Mather Avenue in neighbouring Allerton. Either route would have to negotiate the heavy ring road traffic on Queens Drive and then, having travelled a short distance along Allerton Road, Penny Lane would be upon them with its Woolworths, where John’s first wife Cynthia would work for a time, Bioletti’s barbers shop, a corner bank (or two) and the tower of St Barnabas overshadowing the tram terminus.
The Barber shop is no longer Bioletti's and John Hanson no longer has the newsagents next door but but both shops still serve their original purpose. The former Cousin's Confectioners has had several changes of name and is presently the tapas bar Neon Jamon. The bank building on the corner is now a doctor's surgery.
The song put the street on the map and unwittingly created a problem for Liverpool officials.
Since 1967 the street has been sought out by many Beatles fans some of whom have decided to take home more than a photograph. Road signs saying "Penny Lane" were constant targets of tourist theft and had to be continually replaced to the point that the council gave up and simply began painting the name of the street upon the sides of buildings.
This practice was stopped in 2007 and more theft-resistant "Penny Lane" street signs have since been installed. Some fans simply see this as more of a challenge rather than an absolute deterrent.
The five pictures (left) show the development of the Penny Lane road signs between 1967 and today. The top photograph shows a reproduction of the original metal street sign of the type affixed to buildings.
The second photograph is a still from the "Penny Lane" promotional film and was taken (I think) where the Penny Lane Wine Bar is today - a modern version now stands in the same place.
The third photo shows the drastic steps taken by the council to prevent theft of the signs, literally painting the road name onto the wall here at the Greenbank end of Penny Lane. The scrawl from fans is clearly evident on this example.
Greenbank is also where the fourth picture was taken showing the most current version of the sign as detailed in the image below.
In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he's had the pleasure to know
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello
Bioletti's Barber Shop and every head he's had the pleasure to know.
There was a barber shop called Bioletti, and he did have - like all barber shops - head shots of the haircuts you can have in the window, so I likened that to a photo gallery,and I just took it all and arted it up a little bit to make it sound like he was having a picture exhibition in his window. And there was a bank nearby, so we kind of brought them all together - the fire station was a little bit down the road actually - but they were all our memories - my memories I suppose, basically - of that area. Then I think, I can’t remember, but I’m sure John and I just got together and we finished it up together.
Paul McCartney interviewed by Simon Harper for clashmusic.com (09.09.09). Additional comments from Many Years From Now (Barry Miles)
In April 1924 when Alfred Lennon was aged 11, and his sister Edith nine, their widowed mother could no longer afford to look after them and they were taken on as boarders at the Liverpool Blue Coat School, just up the hill from Smithdown Place. As well as receiving a superb education that would otherwise have been unavailable to them, they were properly fed and benefited from free medical attention. Perhaps somewhat less welcome was when Alf, along with every other Blue Coat Boy was marched down Church Road to Bioletti’s for a regulation (i.e. severe) haircut.
It amazes me that 31 years later when there must have been numerous barbers working in south Liverpool, Alf's son John would have his first baby curls cut here at the age of five (with his Aunt Mimi standing over the barber to prevent him from cutting his hair too short) and, from April 1956, Jim McCartney would bring his sons Paul and Michael to have their hair cut (Jim no doubt standing over the barber to make sure that it was).
By the mid-fifties Bioletti had taken on Andre, a young Greek barber, to whom hundreds of local teenagers flocked, asking the exotically titled “stylist” for a crew cut or a “Tony Curtis” (a style made even more popular by Elvis). Not that everyone got Andre. Losers in the Saturday morning lottery might find themselves in the hands of Mr Bioletti himself, or worse, at the mercy of his 80 year old father, described as an octogenarian Edward Scissorhands with the shakes. Bioletti himself was a fine barber but every teenager wanted Andre. You sat waiting in line and crossed your fingers…
No doubt Paul was one of those teenagers. While Jim was paying there would be no such fancy requests, a hair cut meant “a short back and sides”, with a side parting, and later, when Paul was too old for Jim to take him in person he was still under strict instructions from his Dad as to when to take himself there. Begrudgingly Paul went, but Jim would later recall him returning home from such visits with what looked to be the merest of trims…. or perhaps no trim at all.
On the corner is a banker with a motor car
The little children laugh at him behind his back
And the banker never wears a mac
In the pouring rain, very strange
Bioletti's 1967. Spot the little children lying in wait for the unsuspecting banker
It was all based on real things; there was a bank on the corner so I imagined the banker, it was not a real person, and his slightly dubious habits and the little children laughing at him, and the pouring rain.
Paul McCartney in Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
The bank was there, and that was where the tram sheds were and people waiting and the inspector stood there, the fire engines were down there. It was just reliving childhood.
John Lennon, 1968, Rolling Stone magazine
But which bank?
At the time of writing there are two bank buildings in the direct vicinity of the Smithdown Place roundabout but one is no longer used for this purpose. I have heard that there used to be three banks to choose from.
The first contender is a former branch of Barclays which is situated on the same block as the barber. It is now used as the Penny Lane Surgery.
On the corner of Allerton Road / Church Road is another bank, currently used by Lloyds TSB. The building to the left of the bank, presently occupied by Bernardo's was formerly Albert Marrion's photography studio. Paul McCartney has talked about the times he used to stand in front of this shop looking at the photos on display.
Marrion would one day become the first photographer to take formal photographs of the Beatles in 1962. I have yet to find a photo of the building when Marrion's was operating there but the picture above from the mid-sixties suggests that when he vacated the premises another photographer took over.
In Penny Lane there is a fireman with an hourglass
And in his pocket is a portrait of the queen
He likes to keep his fire engine clean
It's a clean machine
The fire station was a bit of poetic licence; there's a fire station about half a mile down the road, not actually in Penny Lane, but we needed a third verse so we took that and I was very pleased with the line 'It's a clean machine'. I still like that phrase, you occasionally hit a lucky little phrase and it becomes more than a phrase.
(Paul McCartney in Many Years From Now, Barry Miles)
The fireman and fire engine reference the fire station at Mather Avenue, which is "about half a mile down the road" from Penny Lane.
Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
A four of fish and finger pies
In summer, meanwhile back.
Paul McCartney admitted: We put in a joke or two: 'Four of fish and finger pie.' The women would never dare say that, except to themselves. Most people wouldn't hear it, but 'finger pie' is just a nice little joke for the Liverpool lads who like a bit of smut.
“Four of fish and finger pies” is old Liverpool slang. "A four of fish" refers to fourpennyworth of fish and chips, while "finger pie" is sexual slang of the time, suggestive of some intimate fondlings between teenagers in the shelter, which was a familiar meeting place. Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. The combination of "fish and finger" is also a pun on fish fingers.
The fish and chip shop on Penny Lane (above), which featured in the "Free As A Bird" video, and the "Shelter in the middle of the roundabout" (below)
Penny Lane’ was kind of nostalgic, but it was really a place that John and I knew; it was actually a bus terminus. I’d get a bus to his house and I’d have to change at Penny Lane, or the same with him to me, so we often hung out at that terminus, like a roundabout. It was a place that we both knew, and so we both knew the things that turned up in the story.
Paul McCartney interviewed by Simon Harper for clashmusic.com (09.09.09)
Prior to securing international fame, Penny Lane’s chief renown was as the terminus for the No. 46 and No. 99 bus routes to Walton, Old Swan and the City Centre and so buses with "Penny Lane" displayed were common throughout Liverpool. Situated on its own roundabout the terminus included a purpose built bus shelter which had a waiting room and toilets for passengers.
During the 1980’s the shelter was bought privately and converted into the Sgt. Pepper’s Bistro. This has since closed and the shelter now stands in a very sorry state.
At the time of my 2013 visit workmen had began building a new structure on top of the shelter, presumably with the intention of creating a second floor but these plans appear to have ground to a halt and frankly it now looks worse than it did before. For anybody coming to the city and embarking on one of the regular Magical Mystery Coach tours I imagine the shelter in the middle of a roundabout would be an anticipated highlight of the trip.
For those tourists the reality must be quite a disappointment in comparison to the romantic imagery of the song.
Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she's in a play
She is anyway
A still from the 1995 "Free As A Bird" video, partially filmed in Penny Lane.
John and I would always meet at Penny Lane. That was where someone would stand and sell you poppies each year on British Legion poppy day... When I came to write it, John came over and helped me with the third verse, as often was the case. We were writing childhood memories — recently faded memories from eight or ten years before, so it was recent nostalgia, pleasant memories for both of us. All the places were still there, and because we remembered it so clearly we could have gone on.
Paul McCartney (Anthology,1994)
Beth Davidson (left) was apparently the nurse referred to in the lyrics of The Beatles' song Penny Lane
Since the song was released in 1967 the identity of the "pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray" has remained a mystery.
In his childhood memoir Penny Lane Is In My Ears and In My Eyes, author Stan Williams claims the lyric was likely to have been inspired by Beth Davidson, a girl who grew up with Williams around the Greenbank area of Smithdown Road and later married Pete Shotton, John Lennon's boyhood friend and fellow member of the Quarry Men.
According to Stan the inspirational moment came when Miss Davidson was selling poppies on Penny Lane, dressed in a cadet nurse's uniform. Stan, intending to visit Bioletti's vividly recalls being drawn across the busy street to find out what Beth was up to and some boys, including John Lennon and Pete Shotton joining them. At the age of thirteen Beth was part of the Woolton boy's social circle through her blossoming romance with Pete.
It is recognised that Paul McCartney wrote most of the Penny Lane lyrics, but Mr Williams is convinced that Lennon contributed the nurse reference. As Paul freely admits, John helped him with the "third" verse. The song says: "Behind the shelter in the middle of the roundabout, the pretty nurse is selling poppies from the tray, and though she feels she's in a play, she is anyway." Mr Williams says: "In my mind's eye, I still like to visit that special October day in 1954 when Beth had her image trapped within the lens of Lennon's creative imagination."
Through her marriage with Pete, Beth became part of the Beatles' social circle, mixing with their wives and girlfriends at parties such as the one pictured above taken at Lionel Bart's house in 1965. From left: Patti Boyd, Beth Shotton and Cynthia Lennon.
Until writing this I've always assumed that the song's lyrics were describing events occurring around Penny Lane during the course of one imaginary day but reading them again, maybe not.
"Beneath the blue suburban skies" suggests the summertime, but when the fireman rushes in to the barber shop it is to escape the pouring rain and the nurse selling poppies would surely be doing so in the run up to Remembrance Day (November 11th) which would be the winter.
Commenting upon this in his excellent book “Revolution In The Head” the late Ian MacDonald wrote "Seemingly naturalistic, the lyric scene is actually kaleidoscopic. As well as raining and shining at the same time, it is simultaneously summer and winter…. Despite its seeming innocence, there are few more LSD-redolent phrases in the Beatles' output than the line ... in which the Nurse 'feels as if she's in a play' ... and 'is anyway'."
"Very strange" indeed...
Some of the photographs included here are stills I have made from the promotional film for "Penny Lane" which was, together with the accompanying film for Strawberry Fields Forever, one of the first examples of what later became known as a music video.
The parts of the video featuring the Beatles were not actually filmed at Penny Lane, as the Beatles were reluctant to travel to Liverpool whilst in the middle of recording "Sgt. Pepper". Street scenes were filmed in and around Angel Lane, Stratford, East London (above).
John’s solo scenes were filmed as he walked along the King's Road (at Markham Square) in Chelsea. This was his first public outing with a moustache and what would become his trademark granny glasses, and watching the film today it's clear a lot of the people he passes are caught wondering “Is it really him?”
Considering the song's main composer and vocalist is Paul, I wonder why the solo scenes feature John? Ironically, Paul has more individual scenes in the film for John's "Strawberry Fields Forever". Did the Director mix his vocalists up or did John and Paul make a conscious decision to switch 'starring' roles?
The country scenes in the promo film where the Beatles are viewed riding horses, three greyish-white ones plus a dark horse for George, were filmed at Knole Park in Sevenoaks, Kent and not as some Liverpool tour guides have sadly claimed, in Sefton Park (or Calderstones Park for that matter). And not Knolle Park in Woolton, Liverpool either which, co-incidentally, is just a little further up Beaconsfield Road from Strawberry Field.
The Director Peter Goldmann did includes some scenes of the actual Penny Lane - green Liverpool buses, a brief overhead view of the 'shelter in the middle of the roundabout' filmed from St. Barnabus’ church tower, and curiously what I assume is a mounted Policeman despite none being mentioned in the song. Perhaps he was intended to represent the fireman?
In July 2006, a Liverpool Councillor proposed renaming certain streets because their names were linked to the shameful slave trade. It has been suggested that Penny Lane was named after James Penney, a wealthy slave ship owner who was based in Liverpool and known as an outspoken anti-abolitionist. In the second half of the 18th century, when Liverpool was a port of call for slave ships travelling from Africa to the Americas, the city's economy was heavily reliant on the slave trade, Penny was one of seven powerful slave traders who had streets in the city named after them.
Liverpool City Council considered a proposal under which streets named after slave traders would be renamed after figures such as British abolitionists William Roscoe and William Wilberforce.
However, when the council realized that Penny Lane was among the streets that would have to be renamed, it hesitated and said it would re-evaluate the entire renaming process. Penny Lane is one of the most significant tourist sites in Liverpool; thousands of people come each year to visit the street made famous in the 1967 Beatles song. Tellingly, the council ultimately decided to leave the name unchanged.
That said, independent research carried out by the Penny Lane Development Trust with the help of a local historian found records dating back to the 1700s and no connection could be made with James Penney. It it now believed the lane fell between two city boundaries and the name may be connected to that.
Prominent in the above photograph is the Welsh Presbyterian Bethel Chapel which was built between 1924 and 1927 and became as much a part of the Smithdown Place area as the shelter in the middle of the roundabout, the barber's shop and the bank. It was designed to hold a congregation of 750 and intended to replace an older building in Webster Road, Wavertree which would later become the Cameo Cinema.
Unfortunately by the 1990s the congregations dwindled to under 100 regulars and the church had repair bills totalling over £60,000.00 as the building started to crumble. The chapel moved out and the decision was taken to close the building. Despite sterling work by conservationists trying to get the chapel designated as a Listed Building English Heritage described it as “competent...and well-executed, but not special”. An attempt to get the building listed on a purely historic grounds also failed, English Heritage deciding that there were better memorials to Welsh non-conformism in Liverpool – and the Penny Lane link was just not strong enough.
Sadly demolition of this landmark took place in July 2011 and the site has since been landscaped. Luckily I was able to take a couple of shots on 28 December 2009.
Some views of Penny Lane over the years:
Book: Penny Lane Is In My Ears and In My Eyes (Stan Williams)
Photographs of the demolition of the Welsh Chapel: http://blog.formidablephotography.com/facelift/