Song facts: A Day in the Life

On January 19th 1967, The Beatles began recording A Day in the Life for their forthcoming Sgt Pepper album. The song was a collaborative effort by Lennon and McCartney and stands as one of their greatest musical achievements. It's one of the very few songs that Lennon looked back on with much fondness.

Origins

John and Paul were inspired to write various parts of the song from reading newspaper articles; there was one in the Daily Mail about the state of a road in Blackburn Lancashire, which reportedly had 4,000 potholes. Another article Lennon and McCartney allegedly drew inspiration from was the death of Tara Browne, heir to the Guinness fortune; although according to McCartney he wasn't thinking of Browne at the time.

"The verse about the politician blowing his mind out in a car we wrote together. It has been attributed to Tara Browne, the Guinness heir, which I don't believe is the case, certainly as we were writing it, I was not attributing it to Tara in my head. In John's head it might have been. In my head I was imagining a politician bombed out on drugs who'd stopped at some traffic lights and didn't notice that the lights had changed. The 'blew his mind' was purely a drugs reference, nothing to do with a car crash." - Paul McCartney
"A Day In The Life - that was something. I dug it. It was a good piece of work between Paul and me. I had the 'I read the news today' bit, and it turned Paul on. Now and then we really turn each other on with a bit of song, and he just said 'yeah' - bang, bang, like that. It just sort of happened beautifully." - John Lennon
 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967. 

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967. 

Orchestral buildup

After The Beatles recorded the basic tracks, they were unsure how to piece the two separate song sections together. A forty piece orchestra was hired to play the orchestral buildup at the middle and end of the song. Paul McCartney had the idea that the session musicians would play their instruments' lowest notes possible and build up slowly to their highest. George Martin was tasked with taking this concept and making it a reality.

The 40 musicians were conducted by Paul McCartney on February 10th 1967, at EMI's Studio One. Five recordings were made, making for the equivalent of 200 session musicians on the recording.

At the request of Paul McCartney the forty piece orchestra showed up in evening dress and were required to wear an assortment of funny hats and fake noses.

The Beatles were also joined by Mick Jagger, Mike Nesmith, Donovan and Keith Richards; who stopped by the studio to witness the iconic recording. 

"What I did there was to write, at the beginning of the twenty-four bars, the lowest possible note for each of the instruments in the orchestra. At the end of the twenty-four bars, I wrote the highest note each instrument could reach that was near a chord of E major. Then I put a squiggly line right through the twenty-four bars, with reference points to tell them roughly what note they should have reached during each bar. The musicians also had instructions to slide as gracefully as possible between one note and the next. In the case of the stringed instruments, that was a matter of sliding their fingers up the strings. With keyed instruments, like clarinet and oboe, they obviously had to move their fingers from key to key as they went up, but they were asked to 'lip' the changes as much as possible too.
I marked the music 'pianissimo' at the beginning and 'fortissimo' at the end. Everyone was to start as quietly as possible, almost inaudibly, and end in a (metaphorically) lung-bursting tumult. And in addition to this extraordinary of musical gymnastics, I told them that they were to disobey the most fundamental rule of the orchestra. They were not to listen to their neighbours.
A well-schooled orchestra plays, ideally, like one man, following the leader. I emphasised that this was exactly what they must not do. I told them 'I want everyone to be individual. It's every man for himself. Don't listen to the fellow next to you. If he's a third away from you, and you think he's going too fast, let him go. Just do your own slide up, your own way.' Needless to say, they were amazed. They had certainly never been told that before." - George Martin
 Paul McCartney conducting a 40-piece orchestra during the recording of A Day in the Life, February 10th 1967.

Paul McCartney conducting a 40-piece orchestra during the recording of A Day in the Life, February 10th 1967.

 Paul McCartney conducting a 40-piece orchestra during the recording of A Day in the Life, February 10th 1967.

Paul McCartney conducting a 40-piece orchestra during the recording of A Day in the Life, February 10th 1967.

Final chord

Following the orchestral buildup at the end of the song, The Beatles played one of the most famous chords in music history. Lennon, McCartney, Starr and Beatles roadie Mal Evans shared three pianos and simultaneously played an E-major chord together.  

The chord was made to ring out for forty seconds; this was achieved by increasing the recording sound level as the vibration faded out. Producer George Martin described the ending as an orgasm of sound, followed by a long climax.

This final chord was recorded on February 22nd 1967. 

 BBC disk jockey Kenny Everett.

BBC disk jockey Kenny Everett.

BBC ban

On May 20th 1967 BBC disk jockey Kenny Everett played The Beatles' forthcoming Sgt Pepper album for listeners of the BBC Light Programme. Everett was however, unable to play the album's final track A Day in the Life, as the BBC had banned it the previous day, citing the alleged promotion of drug taking. 

Personnel

  • John Lennon – lead vocal, acoustic guitar, piano (final chord)
  • Paul McCartney – lead vocal (middle-eight), piano (throughout and final chord), bass guitar
  • George Harrison – acoustic guitar, maracas
  • Ringo Starr – drums, congas, piano (final chord)

Production

  • George Martin – producer and harmonium (final chord)
  • Geoff Emerick – engineering and mixing

Arrangements

  • Orchestrated by George Martin, John Lennon and Paul McCartney
  • Conducted by George Martin, John Lennon and Paul McCartney
 Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Martin working on A Day in the Life, 1967. 

Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Martin working on A Day in the Life, 1967. 

 John Lennon during a Sgt. Pepper recording session, 1967. 

John Lennon during a Sgt. Pepper recording session, 1967. 

 Paul McCartney during a Sgt. Pepper recording session, 1967. 

Paul McCartney during a Sgt. Pepper recording session, 1967. 

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