Paul McCartney thinks The Beatles' "Penny Lane" is "best viewed as a docudrama." By the mid-1960s, the Fab Four were already some of the best songwriters. Their music told complex stories that were sometimes based on real people, events, or places. However, in the case of "Penny Lane," Paul went in a more autobiographical direction. He wanted to bring fans down a very special and very real road, but like with many Beatles songs, Paul blurred the line between fact and fiction.
Paul McCartney said The Beatles' 'Penny Lane' is like a docudrama
In his book The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, Paul wrote that there's a "documentary aspect" to The Beatles' "Penny Lane." On second thought, though, he thinks it's "best viewed as a docudrama." The actual Penny Lane was an important road in Liverpool, where The Beatles grew up.
Paul often traveled to John Lennon's house for their songwriting sessions when they still lived there. On route, he'd change buses at the Penny Lane roundabout, where Church Road meets Smithdown Road. Penny Lane was a bus stop and a place that "featured very much" in Paul and John's life. They often met there and walked down the street past all the shops. It was also close to St. Barnabas Church, where Paul sang as a choirboy.
The road was essentially a meeting point for the songwriting partners. Later, Penny Lane became a character of sorts in its own way in The Beatles' long history.
Paul likes the lyrics about the barber
The opening lyrics of "Penny Lane" are, "Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs." It still amuses Paul because it's liked the barbershop is a gallery with paintings. The barber is like a museum curator showing audiences his works of art. In a way, that's what a barber does.
Paul explained that every barber has "an exhibition" in their window, showing passersby what he can do for customers. So, he thought "showing photographs" was a "good choice of words." It was a way of saying that the barbershop and barber had photos of haircuts in their window in a more interesting way.
The actual barbershop on Penny Lane was owned by a man named Harry Bioletti. It was a typical Italian barbershop with its striped pole. All of The Beatles had their hair cut there at some point.
Paul also enjoys his lyric, "Of every head he's had the pleasure to know." He explained that it's a line that uses "a device" his English teacher, Alan Durband, referred to as "free indirect speech." Barbers usually say, "It's been a pleasure to know you," or something similar. Paul's lyric is a "succinct" way of conveying that. "It crams a lot in," he said.
The real Penny Lane is still in Paul's ears and eyes
Decades later, the real Penny Lane is still in Paul's ears and eyes as he sings in the song, "Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes." It "resonates" in several ways. Even the characters in The Beatles' "Penny Lane" are still very real to him.
He still drives past the now-famous road and sometimes shows other people the barbershop, the bank, the fire station, the church, and where the pretty nurse stood with her tray of poppies. He can remember her vividly. She sold Remembrance Day paper poppies, as is a custom in the U.K. Paul said the lyric, "She feels as if she's in a play/ She is anyway," is "very sixties - it's a commentary on its own method."
Besides those who frequented the real Penny Lane, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas's radio drama "Under Milk Wood" also inspired Paul on The Beatles' "Penny Lane." It's a portrait of a Welsh town through the eyes of different people.
If Paul were to write a play about his characters in "Penny Lane," he'd rather have it be like a Harold Pinter play. He wrote, "I like the idea that they're a bit wonky, all these characters. There's something a bit strange about them."
The Beatles' "Penny Lane" is one of their most popular songs. Paul showed fans that even a mundane English high street is beautiful in its own way. "Penny Lane" is Paul's ode to small places that have tremendous impact. Without the real Penny Lane, Paul and John wouldn't have had a hang out spot.
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