A detailed look at the locations used during the production of the 'Free As A Bird' video in October 1995.
Remarkably it’s now 25 years since the Beatles got back together for the release of their multi-media “Anthology” project which included a TV documentary, three double CD albums of unreleased recordings and, eventually, a tie-in book.
The first episode of the TV series was broadcast on 19 November 1995 with the first album, Anthology 1 released the following day. The project was trailered by the video for the ‘new’ song ‘Free As A Bird’, the three remaining Beatles’ re-working of a John Lennon demo from 1977 given to the group by Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono.
The video was directed by Joe Pytka, a 6ft 5, (then) 57 years old American filmmaker famous for directing over 80 Super Bowl commercials as well as award winning adverts for Pepsi and Nike, and some notable music videos for Michael Jackson. It was produced by Vincent Joliet.
Pytka had to send his ideas to McCartney, Harrison and Starr, as well as Ono, to make sure they all agreed before he could proceed with the filming of the video. Permission obtain, Derek Taylor (ex-Apple Records executive) sent a two-page letter to Pytka confirming that he could proceed, and personally encouraged and supported his ideas.
Pytka’s video depicts, from the perspective of a flying bird many references to Beatles songs, such as "Penny Lane", "Paperback Writer", "A Day in the Life", "Eleanor Rigby", "Helter Skelter", "Piggies", "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill", "Strawberry Fields Forever", "Doctor Robert", and "The Fool on the Hill". Between 80 and 100 allusions to the Beatles' story, music and lyrics in the video have been estimated and important Beatles’ landmarks are used as a backdrop throughout the song.
In reference to the song title, Neil Aspinall (head of Apple, the Beatles' company) explained that 'you never see the bird. The camera is the bird.' He also admitted that this was because no-one could agree on what kind of bird it should be. It seems everything to do with the Anthology project had to be agreed by committee.
A steady-cam was used to create the soaring and swooping effect of the bird in flight.
The video was filmed in as many authentic locations as possible including Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields, the Liver Buildings at the Pier Head and the Liverpool docklands around Stanley Dock.
Location work began in Liverpool on Monday 23 October and a report on the filming appeared in the Liverpool Echo two nights later:
Penny Lane Gets Back by Andrew Campbell
A crew of around 80 people and 40 extras led by top US video director Joe Pytka recreated every scene from one of the Fab Four’s most famous songs. Penny Lane was transformed into a bustling 1960s scene including the barber’s shop.
Penny Lane’s shops opposite Dovedale Road were decked out in 60’s livery with period cars parked outside.
Even a 60s fire engine and double decker bus were on hand to give the scene the vital authentic feel.
Hundreds of people watched the filming.
Film crew vehicles crammed into the car park of the newly refurbished Dovedale Towers.
A miniature remote controlled helicopter with a camera was used to create the intricate overhead shots (the ‘birds eye view’).
According to a follow up piece in the Echo (26/10/95) ‘construction crews moved in two weeks ago to recreate the Cavern Club’ (my note: the exterior only). John Lennon’s old city centre home in Gambier Terrace will also feature along with Penny Lane.
On 26 October the crew were finishing their second day in Penny Lane before moving to an ‘undisclosed city centre location’ later that afternoon.
The filming was part of a four day shoot in the city for the Beatles new single.
Paul McCartney's spokesman Geoff Baker told the Echo: It was Joe’s idea along with the remaining members of the band to film in Penny Lane. They felt it was very important to come back to where it all began.
The Beatles chose not to feature in the video and were all reportedly in America. Baker said they felt it wouldn’t be appropriate because John’s not here. This is the Beatles – not the Threetles.
If John Lennon’s 1968 composition ‘Glass Onion’ was deliberately filled with red herrings, obscure imagery and allusions to past works as an answer song to those fans who looked for hidden meanings in The Beatles’ music then the promo film for ‘Free As A Bird’ is the visual equivalent. The video was seemingly designed to entrance Beatles’ obsessives, some of whom immediately spent a great many hours looking for hidden meanings in the imagery as soon as the film was released*.
This idea [was to] load lots of clues here and there, 'cause we used to do that in all the old records. it became a bit of a game in the old Beatles days to stick little clues in and he's used them in the video, so it's very clever. You've got a pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray and Maxwell's Silver Hammer shop. I think it's a nice background. It'll mean that people can watch it a few times and, you know, get into it. (Paul McCartney)
So, as we’re quite possibly ‘Beatles’ obsessives’ ourselves let’s have a look at what’s supposedly referenced in the video. I’ve compiled this from various sources on-line and omitted those I don’t agree with, and added my own observations. There are quite possibly many more - Apple have admitted that there are more than 80 in total. Times in brackets indicate position in the video:
(0:00) The sound of a bird's wings flapping on this video are similar to the “World Wildlife Fund’ version of "Across the Universe."
(0:04) As well as ‘Free As A Bird’ the opening flight effects could represent "Flying," "And Your Bird Can Sing," "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," "Blue Jay Way," and "Blackbird" – in other words any Beatles’ song that mentions a bird.
(0:06) There’s a kite (“Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!”) against the shelving unit in the corner of the room (behind the lamp stand).
(0:21:08) On the armchair is a sleeping cat. "I'm Only Sleeping"
.... and an overhead shot of the Pier Head (Royal Liver Buildings) and River Mersey. 'There are places I'll remember' ("In My Life"). It's probably intended as a nod to Liverpool the city (as the birthplace of the Beatles, and also the river as all four had family connections to the River / Sea in some way). Over on the Birkenhead side of the river there are boats visible symbolising the line 'Picture yourself in a boat on a river' from 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.' (0:28:12)
Bizarrely there’s no Yellow Submarine in the river. Too obvious perhaps?
Next we see a scene showing Liverpool dockers leaving work (“A Hard Day’s Night”?) in the “Rain”. How about ‘standing in the dock’ from “The Ballad of John & Yoko”? Too much?
The Beatles (from the Penny Lane video) have been inserted into the crowd. This was filmed at the gates to what was then (in 1995) the Heritage Market in Stanley Dock (see above). It’s highly unlikely that Pytka knew that John Lennon’s Irish ancestors settled in Liverpool on this very spot in the 1840s.
Incidentally as we shall see, this same group of ‘Penny Lane’-era Beatles appear at various points in the video. Visually they’re “Here There And Everywhere”.
(0:48:13) Perhaps someone’s in the queue ‘for your sweet top lip’ (“Old Brown Shoe”). There’s a girl in the queue dressed in red (“Yes It Is”). Hanging suspended over the entrance is what looks like a lamp or Christmas bauble. A “Glass Onion” perhaps? Note also the girls carrying what look like oversized tickets (to Ride?).
(0:50:25) As the bird enters the Cavern there’s a woman in the entrance wearing a long light coloured skirt. However its very hard to see her top half and the bird seemingly passes through her “I'm Looking Through You" as it enters the club. 'You Won't See Me' perhaps.
The original Cavern Club no longer exists and the current club was passed over as a filming location in favour of the recreation in 'The Beatles Story' museum (Albert Dock) with the outside scenes being filmed in the fairly narrow (and quiet) Henry Street which still has plenty of old warehouses.
We then head south out of the city centre and arrive at "Strawberry Fields Forever" where the bird (camera) pans from the top to the bottom of a tree – “it must be high or low” (1:08:10). There’s a male figure with a stick walking towards the gate. I can’t figure out who it is or what it’s supposed to represent (perhaps "Mother Nature's Son" or “Child of Nature”?)
From Strawberry Fields we quickly move to Penny Lane and the parade of shops opposite Dovedale Road.
This part of the video is packed with references and clues.
The shops were dressed as follows (real purpose/ 60's guise) Left to right as you look at them from Dovedale Road:
1. Private flat / "Maxwell’s Hardware Store"
2. IT repairs / "Dylan’s"
3. Londis / "Biolettis barber shop"
4. Londis / "Had To Laugh" (Joke and Toy shop)
5. Penny Lane Cakes / "Penny Lane Cakes"
6. Glam hairdressers / "Rigby & Evans"
7. Penny Lane Fish & Chips / same or cafe?
The art department added a canopy to the cake shop (not seen in the finished video). The sign above it reads "Groceries, Cooked Meats, Dairy products, Chandelry & Chemist". The sign on the shop window says Penny Lane Cakes, just as it does in real life.
Paul McCartney claimed that the name 'Eleanor Rigby' was made up. He took the first name from Eleanor Bron, the actress who had starred alongside the Beatles in the film Help! and the surname from a shop - Rigby & Evans Wine and Spirit shippers - which he saw when he was visiting Jane Asher in Bristol. The present day beauticians was redressed for the video in acknowledgement.
(1:15:29) We see a man from the Liverpool Egg Co delivering eggs (the ‘Eggman’ from ‘I Am The Walrus’). His van is parked in front of Maxwell’s Hardware, presumably where one can buy “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Above the Eggman's truck is a sign that looks to say 'Ringo'.
Next door is a shop called Dylan’s (‘Yer Blues’).
(1:20:14) A group of young children run across the road. See how they run, "Lady Madonna" and ‘I Am The Walrus’ (1:20:14)
In the foreground two of the children hold hands symbolic perhaps of not only 'I Want To Hold Your Hand', but also the 'couple of kids running in the yard of Desmond and Molly Jones' from 'Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.' Undoubtedly one of these is a 'Little Child'.
(1:36:10) A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray, "Penny Lane". This may also reference Paul McCartney's mother Mary who was a nurse.
I really like the fact that the nurse is the ONLY person in the entire video that looks directly at the camera, thus breaking the fourth wall. She’s acknowledging she’s in a play (1:39:21)
To the right of the barbers there’s a cigarette machine ‘I'll have another cigarette’ from "I'm So Tired" (1:44:04)
A man wearing a hat holds a bent-backed tulip (‘Glass Onion’). The barber says goodbye to a man with a briefcase. Another man tips his hat in greeting (‘Hello, Goodbye’).
Near his shop on the wall someone has written the word 'Help!' (and there’s a drawing of John from the front cover of that album)(top left on the above still)
Two attractive sixties-styled young ladies come into view. Many sites suggest they’re representations of Mandy Rice-Davies & Christine Keeler, the two girls involved in the 1963 Profumo scandal (the kind of girls who'd make the 'News Of The World'). Others suggest that the blonde ‘Rice-Davies’ in her shiny black coat may be "Polythene Pam" and her companion ‘Sexy Sadie’, or simply, they’re just a ‘Girl’ and ‘Another Girl’. (1:48:16)
The brunette playing ‘Christine’ always catches my eye. Why do I recognise her? Was she a local girl working as an extra in the video? Did I go to school with her?
No! During the research for this blog I discovered that the girl is Kate Ford who 25 years on from 'Free As A Bird' regularly appears in the Granada TV soap ‘Coronation Street’ as Tracey Barlow. The Beatles' video was her first role! (1:48:16)
A boy holds up his hand to whispers into the ear of a girl (‘Do You Want To Know A Secret’) and 'All I gotta do is whisper in your ear' from 'All I've Gotta Do'.
(1:52:15) Ringo stands in the door of the "Penny Lane" bakery This may just be co-incidence or symbolise Ringo’s father, Richard, who made cakes (he also met Ringo’s mum Elsie in the bakery).
As somebody else put it - John & Yoko answer the eternal question, "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?" – by embracing in the parked car (taken from the film 'Let It Be') (1:54:04)
They’re watched in amusement by John, Paul, Ringo & George (from the Penny Lane video where they all meet up at the start). (1:56:01)
Well, it means it’s number 51 Penny Lane! It’s just the number on the modern day door left in shot (1:59:05).
The bird/camera pans along a billboard poster showing the completed artwork for the Anthology project, split into three for the album covers – from the right, Anthology 3, Anthology 2 (neither of which would been seen for several months at the time the video was premiered) and finally the cover for Anthology 1.
There was mild controversy when Anthology 1 was released because at the centre of the artwork is a well known photo of the leather- era Beatles as featured on the vinyl record “The Savage Young Beatles”. Sadly the head of drummer Pete Best was ripped away revealing an image of Ringo Starr. I suppose you could be charitable and say that what was perceived as a slight was actually intended to acknowledge that such was Pete’s popularity a fan had ripped his image from the poster as a souvenir.
I can’t help thinking that it would it have been nice gesture to include just one clear image of him in the video, just to show some appreciation for his two years in the group.
actual photo on left). (2:01:17)
While Pytka’s art department did a fine job transforming Penny Lane into a bustling 1960s scene it should be noted that the shops and characters mentioned in the song are located around the shelter in the middle of the roundabout on Smithdown Place found at the opposite (and much busier) end of Penny Lane to the row of shops used for the 1995 filming. It would have been impractical and too expensive to use the real shops.
(2:10:17). This merges expertly into the Georgian buildings on the tree-lined Sandon Street in Liverpool 8.
Several people run frantically down Sandon Street (“Run For Your Life”) including Ringo, who has his camera ready. The video pans left to the junction with Huskisson Street*** and we can see there’s been a road traffic accident. (2:20:02)
Joliet: We shot the location scenes knowing that something was going to be added later. We had to find the right footage. With the accident scene for example, we selected the best take and then looked at all the old footage for the shots of John’s head and body movements that would fit best.”
(2:24:02) We see a crowd of people including John who ‘stood and stared’ at the car crash, as in “A Day In The Life”. It looks like Mandy and Christine are here too but here the latter is now wearing the polythene coat.
The accident primarily represents ‘he blew his mind out in a car’ from "A Day In the Life" but there’s also ‘you were in a car crash’ from Ringo's "Don't Pass Me By".
The inclusion of the registration number 847 BHN on a police van in the Day in the Life crash sequence alludes to John and Yoko's commitment to the case of James Hanratty, hanged in 1962 for the A6 murder (in 1995 still a contentious case, but proven guilty by DNA evidence in 2002). This was the registration of the Morris Minor the victims had been using at the time they were attacked.
In the finished video you don't get a clear view of the license plate on the crashed sports car - it looks to be either YEE 7 of YFE 7. I can’t think of a connection (one on line source says that it means "Wifey 7," - the seven Beatle wives – but that seems too far-fetched to me, especially as this still from the "making of" video confirms its YEE) (2:27:15).
Flying up and away from the accident we pass a "Helter Skelter" and a flying “Mr. Kite” (2:39:02) before we get a birds-eye view of a “jigger” (back alleyway) in the Penny Lane area.
In the back yard are some Sun (King) flowers ‘that grow so incredibly high’ "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" (2:48:13)
Coming towards us down the alley are some little "Piggies". ‘See how they run like pigs from a gun’ ("I Am the Walrus") (2:55:01)
In the background the four Beatles from the Penny Lane promo cross the alley from right before walking through a wall on the left side, so perhaps it was only a 'Wall of Illusion' from 'Within You, Without You'. Or maybe they just ducked back in the alley like “Long Tall Sally”
The bird flies through another open window, where on the pane above (blink and you’ll miss it) sits a lizard (‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’) (2:58:18)
A man types at a desk (‘Paperback Writer’) although it is possible that he is Father McKenzie 'writing the words to a sermon that no-one will hear'. It is even possible that he is writing a letter, from 'PS I Love You', or 'while I'm away I'll write home everyday' from 'All My Loving'.
Behind him on the book case we see a clock. It’s now 10:10 (“One After 909”) (3:02:29)
The writer is a ‘choking smoker’ given the number of cigarette butts in an ashtray, with one cigarette burning (‘I’m So Tired’, ‘I Am The Walrus’).
On a nearby table is a book by Edgar Alan Poe (‘I Am The Walrus’), a copy of the Daily Mail (also ‘Paperback Writer’), we see John sitting in the corner, a bowl of shiny green Granny Smith apples (including one cut in half (the b-side of their record label), and the Beatles performing on Ed Sullivan on the TV.
A box of ‘Savoy Truffle’ chocolates is also on the table.
The Daily Mail carries a headline about 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire (‘A Day In The Life’).
On the floor to the right is a portrait of the Queen (‘Penny Lane’, ‘Her Majesty’)(3:09:08)
In the window is a picture of a soldier either in reference to John Lennon's involvement in the 1967 film How I Won The War, or the line in “A Day In The Life” which states 'I saw a film today, oh boy. The English army had just won the war’. (3:12:04)
Now we’re back outside (filming location: St Bride Street)
Looking into the background we see people carrying a picture of Chairman Mao "Revolution", and it looks heavy “Carry That Weight”(?).
Max, the Blue Meanie, does an encore popping his head out of the hole in the road. Perhaps he sleeps there, like "Mean Mr. Mustard" (3:24:20)
The Ballad of John & Yoko waltz, from the "I Me Mine" segment of ‘Let It Be’. It could be “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You” or maybe they’re doing it in the road, again.
Note the “Magical Mystery Tour” bus passing at the top end of the street (3:26:13). A second reference for this could be Harold 'Harry' Harrison, George Harrison's father, who worked as a bus driver after leaving the Merchant Navy.
We now cut to the Adelphi Hotel in Ranelagh Place (venue for the annual Liverpool Beatles Convention). Note the columns, pillars and floor pattern in the next few stills.
We glimpse Napoleon, presumably to remind us that 'All You Need Is Love' begins with the Marseillaise, the French National Anthem. A procession is taking place, including a hunter and his mother, representing ‘The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill’. The elephant in the room was reportedly put in at the request of Ringo Starr’s idea; the Indian swami playing the sitar was requested by Harrison. Ringo is visible sitting on the right. (3:35:14).
Perhaps because we’ve just seen Ringo we don’t see him mingling with the guests who are all reportedly based on characters from the cover of 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'.
To reinforce this, we see Paul wearing his blue Pepper costume as the camera pans in (3:44:00). He's facing camera, talking to the man in the dark suit to the left of the column on the right. Is that Mae West or the Vargos Girl in the white dress?
Sunlight streams through the glass dome in the roof (‘Here Comes The Sun’, ‘The Inner Light’ ‘Sun King’) and we’re outside, in a graveyard where we see a moving statue of Mother Mary from "Let It Be" or "Lady Madonna" (3:59:02)
The location of the graveyard used is unknown (if indeed a graveyard was used). It wasn’t filmed in St. Peter’s Church, Woolton despite the familiar headstone we see next, bearing the name “Eleanor Rigby”. This was a prop which now resides in the Beatles Story museum. The Beatles donated it to the museum, perhaps in gratitude for allowing them to use their replica Cavern room in the video. Apparently the headstone weighs a 50 stone and is made of solid granite.
We see a priest (Father Mackenzie) as he walks from the grave. A sheepdog (‘Martha My Dear’) runs past. (4:02:26)
Paul as "The Fool on the Hill" dances while below him we see a woman carrying a suitcase (another reference to ‘She’s Leaving Home’?). Behind them is “The Long and Winding Road" (4:08:25)
At the end of this scene the camera pans left and there’s a black bird taking flight in a tree. Reportedly if you look closely the bird's right wing flies off! "Take these broken wings and learn to fly". I’ve tried moving the video very slowly. There’s definitely something going on there. (4:12).
Then the bird is above London, looking down on Abbey Road and the zebra crossing. Look out for “Lovely Rita", filling in a ticket in her little white book (4:15:08) as a Rolls Royce drives past (“Baby You’re A Rich Man’) (or perhaps it’s the Banker’s motor car from ‘Penny Lane’?)
We then see Paul, John and George and then Ringo from the backstage theatre scenes in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. (4:32.11 – 4:33:17). I assume the theatre was shot in London. Can anyone confirm?
Finally we have a man on stage playing a ukulele with a dog at his feet. Presumably this is a nod both to George Formby, a British Music Hall performer of the 1930s and 1940s of whom John and George in particular were big fans.
Formby was known to say "it's turned out nice again," which is the backwards message heard from John at the end of the song. (4:49:08). Apparently George Harrison, who plays the ukulele on the song asked to be appear in the video as the man on stage. Despite the fact that the man is only seen from behind (and therefore the viewer would never have known his true identity) Pytka refused Harrison’s request as he felt that he shouldn’t have one of the actual Beatles in the video without the others**.
filming in Liverpool was concluded further work was carried out in London and
Los Angeles. The final edited version of
the video was delivered to Apple in London on Saturday 18 November for Neil
Aspinall and Derek Taylor to give their approval. Once they had given their
blessing a broadcast master was immediately dispatched to America for its
premiere the following night on ABC TV.
Talk about cutting it fine. You have to wonder what would have happened if they hadn’t given their approval the day before it was scheduled to be broadcast?!
Actually, leaving things to the very last minute appears to have been an issue throughout the Anthology project. Klaus Voormann handed in his completed cover design for the Anthology 2 album on Friday 20 October. As this artwork is included in the billboard on the Penny Lane shops it would suggest the film makers only had 2 days to insert it into the video.
In the UK the original plan to unveil the video at the end of Monday evening’s Granada TV special All Together Now was ruined when clips appeared on that morning’s Big Breakfast Show (C4) as well as reports on the US premiere on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 TV news throughout the day.
Unfortunately any media excitement concerning the release of the new Beatles' album was completely overshadowed by the the Princess of Wales's headline grabbing revelations of infidelity made during her infamous interview with the BBC's Martin Bashir screened that same Monday night.
The Echo did ask a few local names for their opinion on the new Beatles' recording and received a mixed response:
Here's a link to the video. Look out for all the references I've noted and let me know if there's any I've missed!
- Images from the video are ©1995 Apple Corps Limited
- Colour stills from the making of the Free As A Bird video made from a video I found on-line.
- B&W images from the Liverpool Echo, 25 and 26 October 1995.
* The first fan may have been “nicklby” who posted his list of references on 23 November 1995 on a Beatles newsgroup: rec.music.beatles (remember newsgroups?!)
** Apparently after Harrison’s death in 2001 Pytka stated that it was "heartbreaking" that George had not played the role. Pytka had assumed that the ukulele heard at the end of ‘Free As A Bird” was a sample of an old song, not something George had actually played. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
*** Where John Lennon's Mother, his Aunt Mimi and the Beatles' first manager Allan Williams all lived at various times.
In another example of the haphazard nature of the Anthology Project although the video for ‘Free As A Bird’ was shown on the first night (19 November 1995) and the song was included as the first track on the ‘Anthology 1’ album released the following day it was not released as a stand-alone single until 4 December in the UK and 12 December 1995. Clearly someone at Apple was hoping for a Christmas No. 1 not realising that most people who wanted the song had already bought the album.
‘Obsessive’ collectors (ahem) bought the single purely for the additional b-sides that weren’t included on ‘Anthology 1’ but there weren't quite enough of them. It sold 120,000 copies which got it to number 2 that Christmas – not enough to beat Michael Jackson’s "Earth Song". I bet Paul McCartney absolutely loved that.
More info about Joe Ptyka here: Link
The ‘Free As A Bird’ video won the 1997 Grammy award for Best Short Form Music Video.