In the age of iTunes there is nothing like the “45". Yes artists still release “singles". individual songs to promote their newest album, but that isn't the same thing. While the current music business has been so transformed by technology, in some ways it looks oddly like it did in the 1950's. Artists are discovered on "talent" shows like "American Idol" or "The Voice", a song becomes a hit because of it's novelty, say "Gangnam Style" everybody. A song might become a hit if it is played during a TV show or during the final credits of a popular film, even a commercial. The era of the concept album, of which "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was the first is over. You can now pick the single cuts you like and leave the rest. That is not to say that their aren't great albums (a.k.a. LP's or Long Players), even concept albums being made, only that the means of distribution has changed, not to mention the attention span of the audience. But the 45 was different. In the case of the Beatles it became a clue to what was next.
Up until the Beatles, the 45 consisted of an A and B side, that is a hit and some other song on the flip side. Now, I’m not saying there weren’t great B sides before the Beatles, but that the A&R (Artist and Repertoire) men (and they were most likely all men) weren't going to put anything out as a B side that they thought might be a potential hit. Perhaps it was their own love of B sides, that made the Beatles' choice of songs appear to take on greater significance with each new release. Of course part of the Beatles double A side phenomenon was a result of the sheer volume of their output. The initial flood of Beatle singles after the Ed Sullivan appearance led to a week or two in which they had 5 out of the top 10 positions on the charts. And to this day, the Beatles remain the only act to with three singles in the top ten at the same time. From Feb through the end of April 1964 the band held at the top two positions and sometimes up to four.
There were many great Beatles singles, but I think the greatest of all, the most surprising had to be the release in 1967 of “Strawberry Fields Forever b/w Penny Lane. The Beatles had stopped performing live in 1966. Not only could no one hear them over the screaming, but the subtlety and complexity of their arrangements could not be reproduced on stage. For the first time since the Ed Sullivan appearance, the Beatles were out of the limelight. Their retreat to Abby Road fueled all kinds of rumors about what they might be working on, but the release of this single in February of 1967 was the first real hint of the musical direction the Beatles were taking.
It is hard for me to describe the experience of hearing these two song that we now take for granted. At 10, nearly 11, I think my initial preference was for Penny Lane, with it’s bright melody, soaring piccolo trumpet and very “English” lyrics. This was Paul, extroverted and observant, a detailed day in the life of the neighborhood where he’d grown up. "Penny Lane was in his ears and in his eyes" and now it was in mine. Strawberry Fields, named for a Salvation Army Children’s Hospital, near John’s childhood home, was introverted and contemplative, with an arrangement as dark as Penny Lane was bright - cellos, heavy drumming from Ringo, horns backing John as he insisted on taking us down. The song fades out and then comes roaring back. The lyrics were cryptic, suggestive, and though to my young mind initially nonsensical, their questioning quality resonated, it made you think. The cover of the single showed four Beatles no longer dressed alike. Three of them had mustaches, George a beard. John was wearing glasses. I wore glasses! I felt like the Beatles were growing up with me, but I guess I was just growing up with them.