The remarkably unremarkable story behind one of the most remarkable flourishes in pop music history…
…in which music professor David Mason plays a solo so perfect that even his peers didn’t believe he actually did it.
The Beatles were magpies, always looking for sounds they haven’t heard on pop records before, never moreso than in 1966 and 1967. Paul heard the solo played by baroque trumpet (an octave higher than typical ones) in Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto on television one evening, and asked George Martin to track the fellow down and get him to the studio as soon as possible.
David Mason was his name, and he arrived at Abbey Road on the evening of January 17, 1967. As the band walked into the session, David asked, “So, just come from a film set, have you?”, to which John replied, “No, we dress like this all the time.”
(David later playfully crossed John again when he expressed dismay that “Penny Lane” was being relegated to a b-side. “I think it’s better than ‘Strawberry Fields’, said David, standing next to John at the time. “Thanks, mate. *I* wrote that one!” As it turned out, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” were in fact released as a double-A side single, peaking at #2 on the UK’s official charts, although Melody Maker had it at #1 for 3 weeks, and listed “Penny Lane” rather than “Strawberry Fields Forever” as the band’s 13th #1. The same was true in the US, and indeed, it was only “Penny Lane” that was included on The Beatles’ 2000 anthology 1.)
I’ll let you hear the rest of the story from David himself, noting his reply to the interviewer’s question, “How does it feel when you hear that solo today?” David answers, “Not to be immodest, but some people tell me it makes the song – and I think it does!” No immodesty there, Professor Mason. It does.
Along the way, David hit a high “E” note that had previously been thought impossible – hence his musicologist expert friends’ mistaken certainty that David had played a standard trumpet, with the tape sped up on playback to raise its pitch (a trick actually employed by George Martin for his own piano solo on “In My Life”, making it sound more like a harpsichord). Needless to say, that high “E” has since become expected from every piccolo trumpet player to this very day.
David recorded twice more with The Beatles, on “All You Need Is Love” and “Magical Mystery Tour.”
And a quick note about the promo video for the song, directed by Peter Goldman. For all that it’s quite simple visually – the lads walking through the East End and Chelsea, with a sequence shot in a park in Sevenoaks, roughly 20 miles southeast of London – it was a significant departure from anything that had come before. No real narrative, no shots of them playing, only a montage of images that are barely related on any rational level, but creating an impressionistic unity that underscores the song’s emotional context.
This is of course what music videos became more as the rule rather than the exception going forward, leading this clip (and the related clip for “Strawberry Fields”, also directed by Goldman) to be identified by the Smithsonian Institution as among the most important of the era.