Short Essays on Favorite Songs, Inspired by Nick Hornby’s Songbook
To celebrate the release of Nick Hornby’s Songbook, several authors wrote in about their favorite songs.
“Penny Lane” by the Beatles.
It’s a tricky thing, introducing the next generation to the Beatles. It almost didn’t happen to me. Considering that I was born in 1967 (Sgt. Pepper_) and was 3 when their last album came out (_Let It Be, 1970), you’d think I would have been saturated in the Fab Four. But no, my parents had only three Beatles albums: Rubber Soul and the two best-of collections (The Red Album and The Blue Album, as I think of them), which they never played. I wasn’t interested, because the covers of all of these were decidedly dull, featuring, as they did, simply the lads looking down at me (in the case of the latter two, from what looked like the open-air hallway of our apartment building).
My introduction to the Beatles had to wait until the sixth grade. At the private school I attended, we all took chorus and every year learned a few songs for the spring concert. That year, along with “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and a few tunes from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, we had “Penny Lane.” I guess the music director was trying to be hip. (Though, in 1978, that song was almost a decade old; “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO would have been a more timely, and equally inoffensive, choice.) Perhaps he was trying to appeal to our parents, who may have conceived us with Magical Mystery Tour playing in the background.
By the second time we had run all the way through it, I was mesmerized. Today I know that it was the chord changes and the melody. Back then, it was an unnameable recognition tinged with sadness. It’s an upbeat tune, but in the lyrics it’s raining a lot and people seem disconnected from reality. I liked the song. I liked it a lot.
For the first time in my life, I wanted to own a recording of a song. Even if I had known that “Penny Lane” was a Beatles song (the mimeographed lyrics—mmm, purple-mimeograph smell—just said “Penny Lane” at the top, no attribution), I’m not sure I would have made the connection that those albums with the four guys on the covers were Beatles albums. I could read quite well, but I simply never paid attention to the words on album covers, concentrating instead on the art. At the time, I was particularly interested in the art on Carly Simon albums and Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights.
We had a portable tape recorder. I took it and the lyrics sheet into the bathroom and recorded my own rendition of Lennon and McCartney’s ballad of a Liverpool suburb. My mother, of course, heard me and asked what I was doing. She immediately pointed me to The Blue Album (Beatles 1967-1970). Ecstasy followed forthwith.
There it was: my song, already recorded. And, I had to admit, a performance superior not only to my solo effort but to that of my entire class. This was back in the days when you could actually wear out a needle or a record. I proceeded to do both.
It’s not just that this was my first favorite song. It’s that it was my first truly sonic experience: a capsule of all that was possible musically. It was more than a captivating combination of words and music. There were triumphant horn sections; the fire bell; the breathless, airy flutes; the reverberation of the piano (to be carried to its logical conclusion at the end of “A Day in the Life”); and the force behind each syllable of “meanwhile back.”
It was an introduction to the world beyond songs from Sesame Street, to songs of true complexity. And, as I slowly worked my way through the Beatles catalog (borrowing from uncles, friends, and even the local library), songs of longing, songs of humor, and songs of strangeness, I slowly taught myself the Beatles.
I want to save my 4-year-old daughter all that hassle. Being 1960s people themselves, my parents never consciously introduced me to music, preferring, I suppose, to let me “do my own thing.” (My father did, however, take me to see the double bill of Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth that played every year at a local theater. So I have that to thank him for.) It’s a scary thought that I might have stumbled through life and known the Beatles only through Nike ads.
But they also didn’t know about sunblock back then. I make sure my daughter wears SPF 45. When I was giving her a bath last week, I unconsciously started to hum “Yellow Submarine.” She liked it, so I did the chorus. I think I’m going to play it safe, though, and have her listen to “Octopus’s Garden” as her first true Beatles song.
I don’t care what her first favorite song is. (She’s heard Raffi and a dozen Disney soundtracks, but she’s not there yet.) It doesn’t even have to be the Beatles. But considering how perilously close I came to not knowing them at all … Most schools don’t have mandatory chorus any more. And even if they did, you can’t rely on lightning striking twice. Sometimes you have to take the bolts into your own hands and throw them—gently.
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