So who was Polythene Pam and what made Sadie sexy?
Strawberry Field, the Liverpool orphanage, may have closed this week, but it will live on in the lyrics of Lennon and McCartney. Jonathan Brown looks at some of the other stories behind Beatle hits.
14 January 2005
Their lyrics have been pored over by successive generations, prompting innumerable dinner party debates and generating a whole industry of Beatle trivia based on fact, speculation and, in some cases, wild rumour.
The Beatles' songs, written predominantly by John Lennon and Paul McCartney with an occasional intervention from George Harrison and Ringo Starr, often returned to the same themes and the closure of Strawberry Field children's home in Woolton, Liverpool, which inspired one of the band's most memorable hits, has rekindled interest in the source of their lyrical imagery.
Women, love and relationships dominated the early work. But when the band discovered drugs, first cannabis under the tutelage of master lyricist Bob Dylan, and then LSD, there was a new edge. By the release of Revolver in 1966, Lennon was heavily influenced by hallucinogenic drugs, which led him to cast a fresh - and psychedelic - eye over his roots in working-class post-war Liverpool. "Strawberry Fields" and Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane" are the two most notable examples.
As the music became more experimental, so did the lyrics, exploring themes such as eastern philosophy and the pressures of stardom. Lennon, influenced by the work of the nonsense poet, Edward Lear, produced some startling lyrical performances, most notably on "I Am The Walrus".
Meanwhile, the relationship between Lennon and McCartney began to falter. They began increasingly to work alone, although Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 was regarded by many as their artistic peak - Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys thought it took popular music to unreachable heights. Later albums were more patchy, characterised by episodic brilliance amid swaths of (for the Beatles) mediocrity. Many of the songs were by now virtually solo efforts (although McCartney wrote and recorded "Yesterday" alone in 1965 - despite the joint writing credit which has always angered him).
Lennon was by now heavily influenced by his relationship with his wife, Yoko Ono, while McCartney was, according to his critics, heading towards the mainstream.
The relationship was irrevocably fractured by the time the last albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be, were released. After the band finally split up, Lennon used his 1971 album Imagine to launch a withering attack on his former co-writer.
Strawberry Fields Forever
Liverpool roots inspired anthems to post-war working-class life
The Beatles may have moved to London as soon as they could but Liverpool remained a key source of inspiration, especially during the band's most creative period in 1967.
Intended for the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club album, "Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane" was instead released as a double A-side single - highly unusual for the time. It was also unusual for having a picture sleeve and was accompanied by a ground-breaking "promotional film" - the forerunner of the modern pop video. On "Penny Lane", Paul McCartney evokes perfectly the atmosphere of post-war working-class life in a humdrum provincial suburb.
But alongside the images of blue suburban skies are some risqué references. "Finger pie" and even the fireman who "keeps his fire engine clean" have since been outed as sexual slang. The song turned Penny Lane into an international tourist destination.
Eleanor Rigby, another McCartney composition, was inspired by a name on a grave in St Peter's Churchyard in Woolton, close to the Strawberry Field children's home which was itself just around the corner from John Lennon's Aunt Mimi's home in Menlove Avenue, now owned by the National Trust.
Of the millions of Beatles fans, some were more adoring than others...
Many of the Beatles' early songs were conventional stories of young love and attraction. As the band matured, the stories grew darker and more true to life.
"Norwegian Wood", from the 1965 album Rubber Soul, described an affair Lennon was conducting with an unnamed girl during his first marriage to Cynthia.
"She Came in Through The Bathroom Window", on Abbey Road, describes how fan Diane Ashley broke into Paul McCartney's house using a ladder which she put up against the window of the smallest room.
The song was recorded as part of a medley of song fragments on the album, made in 1969, along with "Polythene Pam" - another reference to a fan. This was Pat Hodgetts, who used to watch the band during their early days at the Cavern in Liverpool and was nicknamed Polythene Pat because she always ate from a plastic bag.
Other songs, such as "Michelle", were not about specific girls. In the case of "Michelle", the song dates back to the time in the band's early history when John Lennon used to pretend to be French at parties. None of the band had learned the language (as can be seen from Paul McCartney's accent on "Ou est le soleil" from his 1989 Flowers in the Dirt album).
You Never Give Me Your Money
A musical marriage disintegrates
The relationship between Lennon and McCartney was the beginning, the middle and the end of the Beatles story. When it went well, McCartney's optimism provided the perfect foil for Lennon's cynicism. But in the end their spectacular falling out became the defining feature of the band.
On the later albums, there were only oblique references to each other - mainly to confuse fans who were overanalysing their lyrical content. In "Glass Onion", Lennon says the "Walrus was Paul", possibly a reference to the dispute over the relegation of "I am The Walrus" to the B side of "Hello Goodbye" - a McCartney track.
In "You Never Give Me Your Money", the Beatles' dispute over who should manage them - McCartney's father-in-law, Lee Eastman, or the rest of the band's choice, Allen Klein - spilled over into the recording studios.
But it was not until Lennon recorded Imagine in 1971 that he really hit out. "How Do You Sleep?" was a direct attack on his former bandmate: "Those freaks was right when they said you was dead." Lines such as "Everything you done was yesterday" tried to belittle McCartney's songwriting achievements and "Since you gone you're just another day" was a swipe at his post-Beatles work.
A Day in the Life
Why the death of Guinness heir Tara Browne was immortalised in a song
The Beatles' most lavish song, performed by a 41-piece orchestra, dressed in formal wear, which wove together two distinct songs, one by each writer, linked by an ambitious orchestral crescendo scored by Sir George Martin.
Central to the song's narrative - what there is of it - is Tara Browne, the Guinness heir who died in a car crash. Browne, the son of the 4th Lord Oranmore and Browne and Oonagh Guinness, was a friend of many rock stars at the time, including the Rolling Stones, and it was suggested he died while under the influence of LSD.
Lennon read a coroner's report of the accident in the Daily Mail and was prompted to write: "He blew his mind out in a car, he didn't notice that the lights had changed."
Although the song contains many haunting and compelling images, perhaps the most enduring is that gleaned from another newspaper report, this time on the condition of highway repairs in a northern town in the Daily Mail's news in brief column. This inspired Lennon to muse on "4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire" and how many holes it would "take to fill the Albert Hall".
She Said, She Said
An off-screen role for American film star Peter Fonda
The BBC banned "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" amid concern that it promoted drug use. Not so, said Lennon, who insisted the source of the fantasy was a drawing by his son Julian of a nursery classmate, Lucy O'Donnell.
"She Said She Said", on the 1966 Revolver album, however, was the real thing. It was inspired by John Lennon's second acid trip, which he did with Peter Fonda and George Harrison. The actor reassured Harrison when he started having a bad trip, telling him: "I know what it's like to be dead" - a reference to a shooting accident when Fonda was 10.
Doctor Robert, another track from Revolver, was about drug dealer to the stars,Robert Freymann, the so-called speed doctor from New York. "Fixing a Hole", from Sgt Pepper, was also widely considered to be about drugs. But McCartney said it referred to repairs to his farm in Scotland.
Mantras, mysticism and a quarrel with the Maharishi
Written by Lennon after he had fallen out with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, many Beatles fans consider "Sexy Sadie" to mark the moment that the Fab Four began to unravel.
Shocked by the self-proclaimed holy man's predatory sexuality, and his claim to 20 per cent of the band's income, Lennon put him into a song on the White Album, but fearing legal action, he substituted Sexy Sadie for the word Maharishi. The bitter sentiment of "she made a fool of everyone" makes his feelings clear.
Lennon wrote "Tomorrow Never Knows" after listening to himself reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead while on LSD. "Across the Universe" on the 1970 album Let it Be contains the mantra jai guru deva om (I give thanks to Guru Dev). George Harrison, who enjoyed a lifelong interest in eastern religions, first explored them musically in "Within You Without You" on Sgt Pepper.
For the Benefit of Mr Kite
How John Lennon was affected by the power of advertising
"Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite", with its swirling steam organ music supplied by George Martin, was one of the most atmospheric songs on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and helped bolster the album's central "concept".
Its lyrics and feel were inspired by an 1843 poster acquired by John Lennon which detailed a forthcoming appearance by one Pablo Fanque's Circus Royal at Town Meadows in Rochdale, Lancashire.
"Happiness is a Warm Gun", from the 1968 White Album, was inspired by another advertising legend. This time spotted by Lennon in a magazine article, it was the slogan of the US National Rifle Association. Described by Lennon as "a sort of history of rock'n'roll", "Happiness" fell foul of the BBC which considered the gun imagery to be sexual.