Recorded: 11/24/66 to 12/21/66. Length: 4:03 Released: 2/17, 1967 Single, side B to “Penny Lane.” Also on U.S. release (11/27/67) of Magical Mystery Tour (B2), The Beatles 1967-1970 (April 1973, A1), and CD remaster of Magical Mystery Tour (9/21/1987). Headline: Art Rock: drums appear strategically. Feature 1: “The Splice” illustrates Ringo’s foundational swing groove. Feature 2: What is a “staggered” fill? Feature 3: A drum part that covers the meter changes seamlessly through the architecture of the song.
Here is a classic example of Art Rock, simply defined as Rock music created for critical listening but not necessarily for dancing. The style contains European Classical techniques such as orchestration and shifts in texture that do not always require the drum part to drive the music. Psychedelic and stream-of-consciousness lyrics add exotic characters and layers of meaning beyond simple Pop themes. The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”/ “Strawberry Fields Forever” single (2/17/1967) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (6/1/1967) established Art Rock as a profitable mid-1960s substyle and marked a clear departure from the group’s early and middle period work.
The composers’ demands on Ringo Starr have also changed. He will be called on to 1.) Tacit (not play) 2.) Enter, 3.) Stop and 4.) Re-enter on multiple occasions. He is also required to add solo fills at strategic places, typically when there are no lyrics. This allows the drums to fill an empty musical space while contributing to the storyline.
The first unique aspect of this recording we will examine is the tape splice at 0:60, the start of the second chorus. You can hear it this way using the lyrics as a guide: Let me take you down, cause I'm [splice] going to Strawberry Fields…
Example 1: “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The Splice at Chorus 2, stereo mix, left channel isolated.
I will not attempt to expand on the volumes of historical information describing this event but suggest checking out Walter Everett’s The Beatles as Musicians, Volume 2 (80). Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions (87-91) details the complex series of overdubs, altered sounds and merging of multiple versions that produced one of Rock music’s greatest songs.
There is also much discussion of the mono and stereo versions of this song. Although the mono version creates the desired atmosphere, there is value in the separation of sounds available on the stereo version. I leave the decision to the listener.
Ringo’s Foundational Swing Groove Illustrated at the Splice
The recording drummer needs to understand (as well as he or she can without predicting the future) that the drum part is the foundation for the instrumental and vocal parts that will be overdubbed later. The first observation that we can make on “Strawberry Fields Forever” is that Ringo’s groove influences the other parts, particularly because he enters and exits multiple times. This makes execution of the drum part significant because each drum entrance changes the atmosphere of the song drastically.
Dave Grohl states that Ringo influenced The Beatles on a foundational level:
His swing and backbeat carry so many of The Beatles’ songs. Back then, the recording depended on the feel of the song. There was no digital manipulation of drum tracks, so it was up to the drummer to dictate that feel. (Dave Grohl from his webpage fooarchive.com)
As you listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” keep Dave Grohl’s point in mind. Ringo has a great swing feel.
At the second chorus of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” an overdubbed drum part enters abruptly, probably to distract your attention away from “the splice.” Listening to the combination of parts, you can hear Ringo’s swing feel against the overdubbed timpani (Stannard states the part is played by Harrison) that simulates double-bass drums in a ‘straight’ feel. This is a great example of the swinging groove that Ringo contributes to The Beatles and you can project the limitations that the three composers would have faced without his style.
You can’t miss hearing the splice if you listen to the stereo version. Listening Example 1 is the left side while Listening Example 2 is the right side of the stereo mix.
Listening Example 2 is the left side while Listening Example 3 is the right side of the stereo mix.
Here is the right side of the stereo mix at the splice. Notice how a low tom and snare drum is dubbed on the backbeats.
Listening Example 3: “Strawberry Fields Forever.” right channel.
Here is the combination of the two channels. Ringo could not have known about the overdubbed cello part or the horns (added 12/15/1966) when recording the basic rhythm track (on 11/24/1966) but his foundational groove allows the parts to rhythmically merge into a cohesive whole. Notice that Starr’s bass drum provides the deep, short notes while Macca’s bass contributes longer notes. This is similar to the sound architecture of “Drive My Car” mentioned in a previous article.
Listening Example 4: “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Combined channels in stereo mix, MMT
Remember that the recording process cannot continue until The Beatles have a solid drum part. Ringo has consistently provided this “foundation” throughout his recording career and “Strawberry Fields Forever” is one of the greatest examples.
Breaks and Stop Time
Before “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the Beatles employed breaks and stop time—short empty spaces that feature one part—influenced by blues, jazz and R&B songs such as Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.”
Listening Example 5: Beatles cover of “Long Tall Sally,” from Live in Hamburg ‘62.
This style is characteristic of early Beatles’ compositions such as “All My Loving,” where Ringo has to make a clean entrance in the beginning, a clean stop at the end of verse 2:
Listening Example 6: “All My Loving”
By 1966, McCartney and George Martin had scored songs without drumset and/or percussion (“Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby”) but there are no examples of a drum part that tacits an entire verse until “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The Beatles are clearly moving in a new direction and Starr is, once again, up to the challenge.
What is a “Staggered Fill”?
You have heard the term endlessly but what is it? Essentially, it is the difference between playing every note and leaving some notes out. The result is a cluster of notes with space between. This can occur for effect or, in Ringo’s case, for survival. As a left-handed drummer playing on a right-handed kit, Ringo was forced to make some technical changes in order to preserve his smooth groove. For a great explanation of this, I suggest that you search for the Dave Stewart interview in which Ringo explains the reasons that he developed his unique style.
There are many examples of staggered versus steady-note fills available but for our purposes we can draw a comparison using Pete Best’s fills on “Cry for a Shadow.”
Listening Example 7: “Cry for a Shadow”
Notice the steady flow of notes on the drums. Now imagine leaving some of those notes out and you have a “staggered” sound. The opening fill of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a classic example of Ringo’s staggered fill:
Listening Example 8: Opening fill of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Here is the same fill slowed down by 15%:
Listening Example 9: Opening fill of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” 15% slower:
Staggered fills appear throughout “Strawberry Fields” and provide a unique contribution to the entire Sgt. Pepper album, particularly on “A Day in the Life”:
Listening Example 10: “A Day in the Life” right channel, verse 2 fill.
Let’s get the big picture: when to play and when to tacit (lay out).
Here is the drumming form of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Chorus: “Let me take you”
Verse 1: (“Living…”):
play; tempo up; dub drums
Verse 2: (No one…):
Verse 3: (“Always…):
Coda and fade out/in:
In the Chorus sections of “Strawberry Fields,” the Beatles and George Martin require four beats of silence, followed by a four-beat drum fill that leads into the drum pattern. The fill creates a sense of anticipation and an interesting rhythmic counterpoint to Lennon's melody. This arrangement also emphasizes the song title, which appears with the drum pattern. Musically, this point is also where Harrison adds a slide guitar texture that leads to a chord change. The effect resembles a musical sliding board.
This drumming approach also occurs on Verse 1, the only verse that Starr plays. Here are all the fills up to Chorus 4, which I will refer to separately.
Listening Example 11: Fill comparisons for “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Chorus 1, Verse 1, Chorus 2 (splice,) Chorus 3. Left channel isolated.
Do the fills seem to pull your attention away from the lyric or compliment it? Here we have another unsung attribute of Ringo’s drumming skills: even when soloing (a fill is actually a small solo,) his drum parts complement the song. Tim Riley interprets this in artistic terms: “Even where Ringo links up empty spaces with wide-open fills, the beat seems to melt.” (Tell Me Why, page 211.)
Perhaps the most quoted of these fills occurs leading into Chorus 3 and 4, which uses tight groups of 4 notes around open space. Here is the fill into Chorus 4 slowed 15%. Notice that Ringo hits snare, tom, snare, snare in each four-note sequence, probably starting with his dominant left hand:
Check out the opening drum fill of the theme song for the Richard Buskin and Robert Rodriguez podcast Something About the Beatles for a contemporary reference.
Focus on The Chorus
As we examine the drum parts, let’s appreciate Lennon's lyrical craftsmanship. As mentioned in my article on “All You Need is Love,” John has freed himself from the metric predictability of pop lyrics. He has now moved towards declamation-- the accurate portrayal of words in natural speech. He adds or subtracts beats accordingly. Here is the metric analysis of the beats in the Chorus section:
Listening Example 13: “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Metric talkover 1.
 Let me take you down, cause I'm going to
 Strawberry Fields,
 Nothing is real
 And nothing to get hung about
 Strawberry Fields forever.
There are large amounts of space as if John constructed room to take deep breaths. You could also insert an echo at the end of each line when singing the lyric in a mountainous valley. Wait a minute—Walter Everett (in his The Beatles as Musicians Volume 2) refers to the atmosphere of this recording as “tramontane,” which Dictionary.com defines as a sound “coming from the other side of the mountains.”
Now let’s break down the Chorus in smaller groupings, specifically groups of two, three and four. The first three lines are symmetrical but the metric patterns change in lines 4 and 5:
 Let me take you down /  cause I’m going to
 Strawberry Fields / 
 Nothing is /  real, and
 Nothing to get /  hung about
 Strawberry Fields For- /  ever
Listening Example 14: Chorus of “Strawberry Fields Forever” with metric talkover 2.
If you listen carefully, you will notice that the metric changes in lines 4 and 5 follow the shifting harmony. This is Lennon’s craft: creating a melody that is not constricted by standard Pop symmetry but instead dictates the rhythm, as the lyric requires. A drum part that does not support these subtle shifts in time would ruin the affect. John, perhaps through his drug experimentation and poetic background, is blazing his own musical path. Yoko looms in the future.
Ringo’s Drumming Approach to the Choruses
Notice that the tempo of Chorus 2 races with a sudden leap of about 8-10 points! This is hard to do when you are thinking “laid back” Ringo but just remember it is a splice, not a live adjustment. The band never performed this song live so contemporary treatments are forced to accelerate at this section. Perhaps the tempo should remain the same but an irate fan will probably assail you sometime afterwards.
We have spent considerable time appreciating the legendary staggered entrances Ringo plays. But when does he enter?
If we think of this poetic line as eight beats in length (See Listening Example 13) the fill starts just after the word “down” and lasts four beats. Ringo finishes the fill with a strong Memphis Soul pattern that is similar to many of the middle-period Beatles’ recordings (“Drive My Car” on Rubber Soul and “Paperback Writer” as two examples.)
Notice also that Ringo injects fills when there is no lyric or at the entrance or end of a poetic line. This is akin to avoiding too many conversations at one time but in this case, there is no competition for the solo space. The staggered fills are interesting but still supportive and the sound of the drums is rich and full of dynamic variety. Notice that there is no fill at “nothing to get hung about” in each appearance of the chorus except for the Tag section (see below). Otherwise, the fills occur in predictable places.
The beauty of the drumming in “Strawberry Fields Forever” is the manner in which Ringo creates a drum pattern over metric time changes. You don’t notice the time changes because the drum pattern absorbs them—the signature of a drummer who serves the song.
The repeat of “Strawberry Fields Forever” at the end of Chorus 4 contains fills on timpani that take up different amounts of time. The first staggered fill is four beats long while the second is three beats. The third contains no fill and begins the long coda section. Here are the first two fills:
Listening Example 15: Tag section of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Notice that there is a one-beat space in the first fill while the second leaves out the space. This could suggest that there was an edit but the effect is to rush the song to the avant-garde codas. The final tag has no fill but is followed instead by a metronomic pulse that leads into the Codas (translated from Italian this term means “tail”.)
As we fade in and out of the codas, there is a difference in the drumming. The first coda resembles “Rain” in the staggered fills; the second coda resembles a march. Between the two codas is piano and snare drum playing the pulse. The sections are in 4/4 time so there is not a “free” feel but the chaotic texture is derived from the pallet of unexpected sounds that appear and blend into each other like a passing parade. Here are the left and right channels isolated for each coda. The left channel contains the drumming:
Listening Example 16: Coda 1, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” left channel slowed 15%.
The right side is primarily the orchestral instruments:
Listening Example 17: Coda 1, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” right channel normal speed.
The left side of Coda 2 again highlights the drumming although the tempo moves as if there are edits taking place.
Listening Example 18: Coda 2 of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” speed reduced by 15%.
The right side is the mellotron flutes and other textures with a snare drum overdub:
Listening Example 19: Coda 2 of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” normal speed.
The Drumming Architecture of “Strawberry Fields Forever”
Let me take you down [Fill] cause I'm going to [pattern]
Strawberry Fields [Fill]
[Pattern] Nothing is real [no fill] and nothing to get hung about [pattern continues for two beats]
[bass drum] Strawberry Fields Forever. [Tacit] Verse: [tacit] living is easy with eyes closed [Fill]
[Pattern] Misunderstanding all you see [Fill]
[Pattern] It’s getting hard to be someone
But it all works out
It doesn’t matter much to me. [tacit] Chorus 2:
Let me take you down [Fill] cause I'm going to…[pattern]
Strawberry Fields [Fill] [pattern]
Nothing is real [Fill], [pattern] and nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields Forever. Verse 2: [Tacit] no one, I think is in my tree… Chorus 3:
Let me take you down [Fill] cause I'm going to…[pattern]
Strawberry Fields [Fill]
[Pattern] Nothing is real [Fill], and nothing to get hung about
[Bass drum] Strawberry Fields Forever. [Tacit] Verse 3: Always know sometimes I think it’s me… Chorus 4:
Let me take you down [Fill] cause I'm going to… [Pattern]
Strawberry Fields [Fill] [Pattern]
Nothing is real [Fill], [Pattern] and nothing to get hung about [fill]
[Bass drum] Strawberry Fields Forever. [Fill for 4 beats] Tag:
Strawberry Fields Forever. [Fill for 3 beats]
Strawberry Fields forever [4 beats rest then fill 2 beats]
[4/4] Coda 1 [fills throughout]
Fade out and back in with Coda 2.
This song is so revolutionary that historical accounts cannot accurately describe its impact. Beatles fans would exclaim: “You had to be there.” If you were there, you will recall that “Strawberry Fields Forever” was a singular event in early 1967. The use of the mellotron, the splicing of two completely different versions, the psychedelic lyrics and the tape speed variations created a studio-centric performance that opened up new avenues of exploration in the Rock ‘n’ Roll world. Ringo Starr’s drumming, always serving the song, is the foundation of the composition and anchors the process required to record and produce such an experiment in sound.
Finally, I must mention that nothing described above could have occurred without Lennon’s brilliant composition and George Martin’s orchestral and engineering skills. Lennon’s demo of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is gentle and strummed on acoustic guitar. If The Beatles had stopped at the first recorded attempt, which Martin says morphed into “heavy rock” in his book All You Need is Ears, we would still appreciate the effort. If the second orchestrated attempt had prevailed, we would appreciate it in the spirit of McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby.” But the combination of the two versions, coupled with the avant-garde Coda and the musical contributions of each member of the group, transformed the musical landscape of the 1960s. Psychedelic is now profitable and Rock has arrived.