When the Beatles Brought Psychedelia to Prime Time

On February 25, 1967, promotional films for the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” debuted on ABC’s Hollywood Palace. Fans had never seen films like these before, and they hadn’t seen the Beatles look or sound like they did now—in full psychedelic splendor. Whether or not they liked the new look and sound, fans appreciated that the Beatles were “constantly changing,” which “kept them interesting.” A male Beatleness interviewee, born in ’53 recalled, “I was intrigued. I knew I was looking at a piece of art.”

One of the most striking things about these films was that the Beatles had grown facial hair, which many fans, especially younger ones, did not like. One female fan, age eight at the time, felt “they weren’t lovable anymore.” Another female fan, age nine at the time, recalled: “The mood was different. Who were these Beatles? What happened to my brothers? I think I went through a brief mourning.”

Several female fans, young teens at the time, described their look as “unattractive.” A female fan born in ’46, saw the band’s new look as “a statement that they were sympathetic to the movement and hippie culture.” Like the younger fans, she saw it as “a move away from their original cuteness,” but she wasn’t upset by it. To the contrary, politically involved young people now saw the Beatles as powerful, supportive allies.

It would be four months before the Beatles’ drug use was widely known, but several fans “knew those songs were druggy.” Preteens were more likely to express “disappointment” about the band’s possible drug use, feeling that it was “wrong.” Older fans were less judgmental, though many said that at the time they found drugs personally “scary.”

Young fans had strong reactions to these short films, especially “Strawberry Fields Forever.” A male fan born in ’61 remembers, “I liked both songs, but I ran out of the room terrified from ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ The whole thing was dissonant and strange and it scared me. It gave me the creeps; the loopy sound, the drums getting louder, it was cacophonous.”

Those who heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the radio, without the film’s “nothing is real” imagery, also found it disturbing: “I was scared when I heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the car radio. My mom had to explain to me why I didn’t need to be scared of it,” recalled a male fan born in ’58.

Another male fan, three years older, remembered, “I was sick for a week that February and I heard ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ a lot on the radio. I got a weird feeling when it came on.” Another male fan, age nine at the time, also remembers it vividly: “I thought ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ sounded like a funeral song, especially the opening keyboard chords. Then it just got spookier as it went along. I couldn’t listen to it and not get the creeps.”

Though the song is familiar to us now, it’s easy to imagine how “Strawberry Fields Forever” could have scared a sensitive child or baffled a preteen—Lennon’s vocal and the use of innovative production techniques create an otherworldly quality; the layered instrumentation, including a ghostly mellotron, created an intense aural landscape. It was hard to pin down what this peculiar song was about, though many sensed it was trying to tell them something important.

Like other recent Beatle offerings, “Strawberry Fields Forever” asked fans to reconsider their relationship with reality. The song expressed an odd mix of insecurity, motivation, and resignation, along with self-awareness and utter confusion. Despite a hopeful undercurrent, it seemed sad. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun. And you certainly couldn’t dance to it.

For some young fans, scarier than the song itself was the prospect of getting to know these new Beatles. Fans remember DJs commenting on the song too. A male fan, age eighteen at the time, remembers Dan Ingram at New York City’s WABC saying, “That’s not a song, that’s an experience.” Another male fan, born in ’51 recalled, “The DJ on our local Cleveland station said, ‘That’s the worst piece of garbage I ever heard.’”

Teenagers were more open to these new songs and understood that some thought and repeated listening were required. Some young fans understood that too and were ready for the challenge: “I embraced it as it came, it was surreal and ethereal. Some of my friends dropped out of the Beatle experience. They preferred the happy things like ‘She Loves You’ but I was ready to continue the journey,” said a female fan born in ’56. A male fan born in ’49 remembers finding “Strawberry Fields Forever” “complex and a little hard to get a handle on.”

Fans who missed the videos on Hollywood Palace had another opportunity a few weeks later when the videos aired on ABC’s American Bandstand in March. When host Dick Clark asked teenagers what they thought of the films, most commented on the Beatles’ facial hair, saying things like “It ruins their image” and “They look like somebody’s grandfather.”

A week after the Bandstand broadcast, “Penny Lane” was number one; “Strawberry Fields Forever” peaked at number eight in April. These two songs, each memorializing the author’s Liverpool childhood, provide one of the purest examples of John and Paul’s essential difference.

By this point, fans felt like they were indeed on a journey with the Beatles—an adventure, a trip. They wanted to “continue the journey” or “go along for the ride” because they were challenged and enriched by the new sounds, images, and ideas the band was presenting; they wanted to stay tuned. It was doing something to them, and whatever it was, they liked it.

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