What does “a four of fish and finger pies” mean in The Beatles song ‘Penny Lane’?

In the last months of 1966, The Beatles were in the midst of writing and recording songs for their next LP, which was evolving into a concept album about the fictional Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first song they began recording was John Lennon’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.

The composition is a nostalgia trip (in more ways than one) back to Lennon’s childhood hangout, the garden of a Salvation Army children’s home in Liverpool. Inspired by this escapist reverie, Paul McCartney decided to write his own lyrical recollection of a teenage Liverpool haunt.

He also took inspiration from the Rubber Soul track ‘In My Life’, Lennon’s first attempt at recalling the Liverpool of his youth in a song. The original draft lyrics of ‘In My Life’, now on display in the British Library, contain the line “Penny Lane is one I’m missing”.

The line stuck with McCartney, and he decided to build an entire song around the characters and landmarks of this suburban thoroughfare. The result was a stunningly vivid snapshot of life in post-war Britain. As the songwriter would later confirm, everything described in the lyrics of ‘Penny Lane’ is “all true, basically”.

What about the fish finger pies?

As well as the people and places he remembered, he threw in a line about two of the young Beatles’ favourite pastimes. The adolescent Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison would loiter at the roundabout mentioned in the song, while they waited for their respective buses home.

If they were hungry they might grab a helping of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper from a nearby stand. A portion would have cost four pennies at the time, according to the old British currency system. Hence the “four of fish” mentioned in the song.

However, the mention of fish takes on a different meaning when joined with the expression “finger pies”. It becomes a rather unfortunate double entendre pertaining to a female body part.

McCartney might have started writing the line thinking of fish and chips, but then he needed a rhyme for the line-ending “eyes” in the chorus of ‘Penny Lane’.

Through word association, he linked fish fingers, a classic British fast food, with “finger pies” to achieve the rhyme he was looking for. The latter expression is a euphemistic slang term for something he, Lennon and Harrison might have given girls their age while hanging around the Penny Lane roundabout.

“Finger pies” refer to the manual sex act of fingering. In Sam Taylor-Johnson’s 2009 film Nowhere Boy, there is a scene in which the young Lennon carries out precisely this act on a girl who has taken an interest in him.

It’s a tribute to McCartney’s adept lyricism that he manages to make the tasteless vernacular of hormonally charged teenage boys sound like an endearing childhood memory. Perhaps now you know the vulgar truth behind this lyric, listening to ‘Penny Lane’ will never quite be the same again.

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