1966 was a tumultuous year for the Beatles. They had endured the kicks and punches of angry mobs during their disastrous visit to the Philippines and the outcry over John’s offhanded “more popular than Jesus” remark. It was the year the group renounced performing live after more than four years of relentless touring around the world. George made his first trip to India, Paul bought a manor house and traveled to East Africa, and John decided to have a try at acting.
Lennon had been given the role of Private Gripweed in Richard Lester’s black comedy How I Won the War, which spent three months filming in the desert of Almeria, on the southern coast of Spain. In the mid-1960s, Almeria was still living in the nineteenth century. Women went out covered head to toe in black, endlessly in mourning for a brother, a father, or a husband. The city had sided against Franco in Spain’s civil war and was now being punished by neglect, ignored by efforts to develop the southern coast for tourism. It was arguably the poorest and least accessible region in Spain at the time, at best a 14-hour drive from Madrid on poor roads.
For a pop star accustomed to the explosion of hippie culture in London, Almeria was a drag. Lennon’s co-star Michael Crawford recalled that they passed the evenings playing Monopoly and Risk. “Almeria was a dreadful place,” Crawford commented, “John and I had a running joke about who would be the first to catch the night train to Madrid.”
John and his then-wife Cynthia rented a villa, known as Santa Isabel, from a wealthy local family. It was here that Lennon began writing the verses to Strawberry Fields Forever around the phrase “it’s not too bad.” His tentative efforts were immortalized on a low-fi series of demo recordings, known to fans as the Santa Isabel demos. The familiar chorus shows up in later takes. As Lennon’s voice and acoustic guitar reverberate through the villa’s grand rooms the song begins to sound more like the later studio recording.
Strawberry Fields refers to the Salvation Army orphanage in Wolton where John played near his childhood home. So why was he reminded of Liverpool here? Adolfo Iglesias, a local Beatles fan and reporter for the Voz de Almeria has zealously pursued the story. Iglesias points out that the original wrought iron gates of Santa Isabel bear a striking resemblance to the gates of the orphanage of Strawberry Field. More likely, however, is that a combination of boredom, homesickness, and uncertainty about the future likely provided favorable conditions for recalling childhood memories. John’s marriage to Cynthia was failing, he had discovered LSD, and he had begun to think about the possibility of life outside the Beatles. “In two days I shall be 26,” he commented to a reporter for the New Music Express who visited Almeria. “For the last six years I have been a Beatle. It’s been a jolly good life and we’ve had many good laughs, but it can’t go on forever.”
The grand house has since fallen into disrepair. The city of Almeria has talked about turning it into a museum, but so far its been just talk. I spent two afternoons there taking photographs of the interiors.