When "Strawberry Fields Forever" was completed in December 1966, it was intended to be released on the band's next album, eventually titled Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. However the band hadn't released any new material since Revolver in August 1966 - a span that would ultimately stretch into 6 months, the longest such drought of the Beatles' entire career. Thus, critics began to postulate that perhaps the Beatles were through, maybe the bubble had finally burst. In an effort to prove them strikingly wrong, the Beatles released the double-A-side single "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane".
Despite the name, singles actually feature two songs. This is, of course, because a vinyl pressing has two sides - to release a vinyl single would necessarily mean releasing one of those two sides blank - so it makes sense to include two songs on a single. With those two songs, singles tend to work best when there is a clear hierarchy - where one song is clearly superior to the other - and this notion is easily reinforced by the two sides of the vinyl disc: one side is the "A side", featuring the superior song, while the other is the "B side", featuring a weaker song.
But the Beatles instead opted for a single in which the two sides were equal, thus the release of the "double-A-side single". Martin always regretted the decision of a double-A-side single. "It was the biggest mistake of my professional life. ... If I had stopped to think for more than about a second, I would have realized that one great title would fight another; and this is exactly what happened. The reports came in, and they showed that our double-A-side was selling extremely well. There was only one problem. The weekly sales figures showed that two singles, 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Penny Lane', were selling well. They were being counted separately! As far as the charts were concerned, one side was effectively canceling out the success of the other. I firmly believe that if the total sales of those two sides had been added together we would have squashed the opposition flat" (Martin, page 26). Instead, it broke the Beatles' string of 12 consecutive number one hits, beaten out by Englebert Humperdinck's "Release Me".
"We had agreed that if a song had been released as a hit single, we should try not to use it as a cynical sales-getter on a subsequent album. To our way of thinking, this was asking people to pay twice for the same material. I know it seems ludicrous these days: now a hit single is frequently used to sell a whole album; but we thought differently then. This was why 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Penny Lane' did not make it on to Sgt. Pepper as originally intended" (Martin, page 26). In America, however, where record companies had no such moral qualms, both tunes surfaced both as a single and on the Magical Mystery Tour album.
Martin, George with William Pearson. With a Little Help from My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper. Little Brown and Company, Boston, MA, 1994.
This blog is a workshop for developing my analyses of The Beatles' music.