While the other Beatles continued to enjoy their holiday — dining perhaps on toad in the hole, spotted dick, and bubble and squeak — the industrious Paul McCartney today began work on his answer to “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Paul had been talking about writing a song called “Penny Lane” for at least a year, but it seems like it took the competitive spur of John’s nostalgic number about an old Liverpool landmark to get him to actually do it. In today’s session Paul — working, apparently, alone in the studio — spent quite a bit of time fiddling around with the main keyboard part, recording six takes before he was satisfied. Then he began to add overdubs. Says Mark Lewisohn:

Onto track two of the tape went another piano, played this time through a Vox guitar amplifier with added reverberation to give an entirely different sound. Onto track three went yet another piano, played at half-speed and then speeded up on replay to give another different effect. A tambourine was also shaken for this overdub. Superimposed onto track four were two-tone high-pitch whistles from a harmonium, again fed through a Vox guitar amplifier, various strange percussion effects, one of them sounding at times like a machine gun, and extremely fast and sometimes drawn-out cymbal notes.

Like “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane” would follow an, em, long and winding road before arriving at the final version heard by the listening public. In the weeks to come many more parts would be overdubbed, including vocals, guitars, bass, more piano, congas, flutes, trumpets, piccolos, flugelhorn, English horn, handbell, and a piccolo trumpet, whatever that is.

It’s unclear to me how much, if any, of Paul’s work on this first day survived into the finished track. In the end, though, despite being similarly complicated “Penny Lane” ended up being a very different beast than “Strawberry Fields.” Whereas the latter has a certain futuristic feel that belies its nostalgic subject matter, “Penny Lane” — like the other Paul song being recorded around this time, “When I’m Sixty-Four” — has an old-fashioned, music-hall quality.

I don’t necessarily mean it as a slam on Paul to say that he was turning toward the past while John moved into the future. But then again, it’s hard to spin it any other way. Despite his great love of marijuana, I don’t think Paul was ever entirely comfortable with the whole hippie drug scene and the way it was upending traditional values. He wanted to be an innovator while still working within the established framework, not a revolutionary overthrowing the system.

And he may have been right. 50 years later, he is still going strong as we approach the end of a year that claimed an inordinate number of musical legends. Long may he reign.

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