Although Penny Lane is a Liverpool street it's also the name given to the area that surrounds its junction with Smithdown road. None of the places mentioned in 'Penny Lane' exists in the lane itself. Indeed to anyone not raised in this area of Liverpool it is, as musician and art critic George Melly once put it, a "dull suburban shopping centre". But to Paul and John, who had spent their early years in the neighborhood, it was a symbol of glorious innocence when everyone seemed friendly and the sun shone for ever in a clear blue sky.
John had been the first to refer to Penny Lane in song, having tried to incorporate it into 'In My Life', but it was Paul who eventually picked it up and made it work. He created a Liverpool street scene that could have been taken from a children's picture book with a pretty nurse, a jolly barber, an eccentric banker, a patriotic fireman and some friendly passers by. "It's part fact," he admitted. "It's part nostalgia."
There was a barber's shop in Penny Lane, run by a Mr. Bioletti who claimed to have cut hair for John, Paul and George as children; there were two banks, a fire station in Allerton Road and, in the middle of the roundabout, a shelter. The banker without a mac and fireman with a portrait of the Queen in his pocket never really existed. They were Paul's embellishments. "I wrote that the barber had photographs of every head he'd had the pleasure of knowing," said Paul. "Actually he just had photos of different hair styles. But all the people who come and go do stop and say hello."
Finger pie was a Liverpudlian sexual reference included in the song to amuse the locals. "It was just a nice little joke for the Liverpool lads who like a bit of smut," said Paul. "For months afterwards, girls serving in local chip shops had to put up with the requests for 'fish and finger pie'."
Liverpool poet Roger McGough, who was in the Sixties group Scafoold with Paul's brother Mike, believes the 'Penny Lane' and 'Strawberry Fields' were significant because it was the first time that places other than Memphis, and roads other than Route 66 or Highway 61, had been celebrated in rock. "The Beatles were starting to write songs about home," McGugh says. "They began to draw on things like rhymes we used to sing in the streets and old songs our parents remembered from the days of the music halls. Liverpool didn't have a mythology until they created one."
Today, Penny Lane has become an important landmark on any Beatles' tour of Liverpool and yet the success of the song has meant that many of its features have changed. All the original street signs were stolen and so those that remain are screwed down tightly and very high up. The barber's shop has become a unisex salon with a picture of the Beatles displayed in the window. The shelter on the roundabout has been renovated and re-opened as Sgt. Pepper's Bistro. The Penny Lane Wine Bar has the song's lyrics painted above its windows.
Both 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Penny Lane' were intended for the new album, but Capitol Records in America were pushing for a single, and it was released as a double A side. In America it took the top spot but in Britain it was kept at Number 2 by Engelbert Humperdinck's hit, 'Please Release Me'.