A Day in the Life

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"A Day in the Life"
Song by The Beatles from the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Released 1 June 1967
Recorded 19 and 20 January and
3 and 10 February 1967,
EMI Studios, London
Genre Art rock,[1] psychedelic rock,[2] progressive rock,[3] baroque pop[4]
Length 5:35
Label Parlophone, Capitol
Writer Lennon–McCartney
Producer George Martin
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band track listing
"A Day in the Life"
Single by The Beatles
A-side "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band/With a Little Help from My Friends"
Released 30 September 1978
Format 7"
Label Parlophone (R6022)
The Beatles singles chronology
"Back in the U.S.S.R."
(UK-1976)

"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"
(US-1976)
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band/With a Little Help from My Friends" / "A Day in the Life"
(1978)
"Beatles Movie Medley"
(1982)

"A Day in the Life" is the final song on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Credited to Lennon–McCartney, the song comprises distinct sections written independently by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with orchestral additions. While Lennon's lyrics were inspired by contemporary newspaper articles, McCartney's were reminiscent of his youth. The decisions to link sections of the song with orchestral glissandos and to end the song with a sustained piano chord were made only after the rest of the song had been recorded.

The supposed drug reference in the line "I'd love to turn you on" resulted in the song initially being banned from broadcast by the BBC. Since its original album release, "A Day in the Life" has been released as a B-side, and also on various compilation albums. It has been covered by other artists including Sting, Bobby Darin, Jose Feliciano, Wes Montgomery, the Fall, Neil Young, Tori Amos, Jeff Beck, the Bee Gees, Robyn Hitchcock, Chris Cornell, Phish and since 2008, by McCartney in his live performances. It was ranked the 28th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.[5] The magazine also ranked it as the greatest Beatles song.[6]

Composition[edit]

According to Lennon, the inspiration for the first two verses was the death of Tara Browne, the 21-year-old heir to the Guinness fortune who had crashed his Lotus Elan on 18 December 1966 in Redcliffe Gardens, Earls Court. Browne had been a friend of Lennon and McCartney,[7] and had, earlier in 1966, instigated McCartney's first experience with LSD.[8] Lennon's verses were adapted from a story in the 17 January 1967 edition of the Daily Mail, which reported the ruling on a custody action over Browne's two young children:

Guinness heir Tara Browne's two children will be brought up by their 56-year-old grandmother, the High Court ruled yesterday. It turned down a plea by their mother, Mrs. Nicky Browne, 24, that she should have them ...This, she said, happened after Mr. Browne, 21, from whom she was estranged, had taken them for a holiday in County Wicklow [Ireland] with his mother.

Mrs. Browne began an action for their return in October [1966], naming Mr. Browne and his mother as defendants. The action, held in private, was part way through when Mr. Browne died in a crash in his Lotus Elan car in South Kensington a week before Christmas.[9]

"I didn't copy the accident," Lennon said. "Tara didn't blow his mind out, but it was in my mind when I was writing that verse. The details of the accident in the song—not noticing traffic lights and a crowd forming at the scene—were similarly part of the fiction."[10]

The third verse contains the line "The English Army had just won the war"; Lennon was making reference to his role in the movie How I Won the War, released on 18 October 1967, having filmed his part in September 1966.

In the authorized biography Many Years from Now, McCartney said about the line "I'd love to turn you on", which concludes both verse sections, "This was the time of Tim Leary's 'Turn on, tune in, drop out' and we wrote, 'I'd love to turn you on.' John and I gave each other a knowing look: 'Uh-huh, it's a drug song. You know that, don't you?'."[11]

Whilst McCartney remembered writing this section of the song together, Lennon, in his 1980 Playboy interview with David Sheff, credited it as being McCartney's alone, stating, "Paul's contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song, 'I'd love to turn you on' that he'd had floating around in his head and he couldn't use for anything. I thought it was a damn good piece of work."[12]

McCartney provided the middle section of the song, a short piano piece he had been working on independently, with lyrics about a commuter whose uneventful morning routine leads him to drift off into a dream.[13] McCartney had written the piece as a wistful recollection of his younger years, which included riding the bus to school, smoking, and going to class. This theme matched with the original concept of the album which was going to be about their youth. In fact "Penny Lane" (a street in Liverpool) and "Strawberry Fields Forever" (an orphanage behind Lennon's house) were songs first written for the album but were released as an A and B side single as the Beatles were due for 45RPM release.[14] The orchestral crescendos that link the verses and this section were conducted by McCartney and producer George Martin.

The song's final verse was inspired by a Far & Near news brief in the same 17 January edition of the Daily Mail as had inspired the first two verses. Under the headline "The holes in our roads", the brief stated:

There are 4,000 holes in the road in Blackburn, Lancashire, or one twenty-sixth of a hole per person, according to a council survey. If Blackburn is typical, there are two million holes in Britain's roads and 300,000 in London.[15]

The story had been sold to the Daily Mail in Manchester by Ron Kennedy of the Star News agency in Blackburn. Ron had noticed a Lancashire Evening Telegraph story about road excavations and in a telephone call to the Borough Engineer's department had checked the now famous annual number of holes in the road.[16] Lennon had a problem with the words of the final verse, however, not being able to think of how to connect "Now they know how many holes it takes to" and "the Albert Hall". His friend Terry Doran, managing director of Apple, suggested that they would "fill" the Albert Hall.[17]

John Lennon on composing the song with McCartney: "Paul and I were definitely working together, especially on 'A Day in the Life' that was a real ... The way we wrote a lot of the time: you'd write the good bit, the part that was easy, like 'I read the news today' or whatever it was, then when you got stuck or whenever it got hard, instead of carrying on, you just drop it; then we would meet each other, and I would sing half, and he would be inspired to write the next bit and vice versa. He was a bit shy about it because I think he thought it's already a good song. Sometimes we wouldn't let each other interfere with a song either, because you tend to be a bit lax with someone else's stuff, you experiment a bit. So we were doing it in his room with the piano. He said 'Should we do this?' 'Yeah, let's do that.'"[18]

Musical structure and recording[edit]

The Beatles began recording the song, with a working title "In the Life of ...", on 19 January 1967, in the innovative and creative studio atmosphere ushered in by the recording of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" over the preceding weeks.[19] The two sections of the song are separated by a 23-bar bridge.[20] At first, the Beatles were not sure how to fill this transition. Thus, at the conclusion of the recording session for the basic tracks, this section solely consisted of a simple repeated piano chord and the voice of assistant Mal Evans counting the bars. Evans' guide vocal was treated with gradually increasing amounts of echo. The 23-bar bridge section ended with the sound of an alarm clock triggered by Evans. The original intent was to edit out the ringing alarm clock when the missing section was filled in; however it complemented McCartney's piece well; the first line of McCartney's song began "Woke up, fell out of bed", so the decision was made to keep the sound.[21] Martin later said that editing it out would have been unfeasible in any case. The basic track for the song was refined with remixing and additional parts added at recording sessions on 20 January and 3 February.[21] Still, there was no solution for the missing 24-bar middle section of the song, when McCartney had the idea of bringing in a full orchestra to fill the gap.[21] To allay concerns that classically trained musicians would not be able to improvise the section, producer George Martin wrote a loose score for the section.[22] It was an extended, atonal crescendo that encouraged the musicians to improvise within the defined framework.[21]

Orchestra[edit]

The orchestral part was recorded on 10 February 1967, with McCartney and Martin conducting a 40-piece orchestra. The recording session was completed at a total cost of £367 (£5,812 as of 2014)[23] for the players, an extravagance at the time.[24] Martin later described explaining his improvised score to the puzzled orchestra:

What I did there was to write ... 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 ... 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 ... Of course, they all looked at me as though I were completely mad.[25]

McCartney noted that the strings were able to keep themselves in the designated time, while the trumpets were "much wilder".[26] McCartney had originally wanted a 90-piece orchestra, but this proved impossible; the difference was made up, as the semi-improvised segment was recorded multiple times and eventually four different recordings were overdubbed into a single massive crescendo.[21] The results were successful; in the final edit of the song, the orchestral bridge is reprised after the final verse. It was arranged for the orchestral session to be filmed by NEMS Enterprises for use in a planned television special.[27] The film was never released in its entirety, although portions of it can be seen in the "A Day in the Life" promotional film, which includes shots of studio guests Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Donovan, Pattie Boyd, and Michael Nesmith.[28] Reflecting the Beatles' taste for experimentation and the avant garde at this point in their careers, the orchestra players were asked to wear or were given a costume piece on top of their formal dress. This resulted in different players wearing anything from fake noses to fake stick-on nipples. Martin recalled that the lead violinist performed wearing a gorilla paw, while a bassoon player placed a balloon on the end of his instrument.[24]

Due to the multiple takes required to perfect the orchestral cacophony and the final chord, as well as their considerable procrastination in composing the song, the total duration of time spent recording "A Day in the Life" was 34 hours.[29] In contrast, the Beatles' earliest work, their first album Please Please Me, had been recorded in its entirety in only 10 hours, 45 minutes.[30]

Final chord[edit]

Following the final orchestral crescendo, the song ends with one of the most famous final chords in music history.[24][31] Lennon, McCartney, Starr, and Evans shared three different pianos, with Martin on the harmonium, and all played an E-major chord simultaneously. The final chord was made to ring out for over forty seconds by increasing the recording sound level as the vibration faded out. Towards the end of the chord the recording level was so high that listeners can hear the sounds of the studio, including rustling papers and a squeaking chair.[32]

The piano chord was a replacement for a failed vocal experiment. On the evening following the orchestra recording session, the four Beatles had recorded an ending of their voices humming the chord, but after multiple overdubs they wanted something with more impact.[33] This final E chord represents a VI to the song's tonic G major, although Pedler argues that the preceding chord changes (from F ("them all") to E ("Now they know") Em7 ("takes to fill") C ("love to turn you") and B ("on")) followed by the chromatic ascent, shift our sense of the tonic from G to E; creating a different feeling to the usual emotional uplift associated with a VI modulation.[34]

Personnel[edit]

Production
Arrangements
  • Orchestrated by George Martin, John Lennon and Paul McCartney
  • Conducted by George Martin and Paul McCartney
Additional musicians

Variations[edit]

On the Sgt. Pepper album, the start of "A Day in the Life" is cross-faded with the applause at the end of the previous track "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)". On The Beatles 1967–1970 LP, "A Day in the Life" fades in through the Sgt. Pepper cross-fade, but on Imagine: John Lennon and the CD version of 1967–1970, the song starts cleanly, without any fade or cross-fade.[36][37]

Following "A Day in the Life" on the Sgt. Pepper album (as first released on LP in the UK and years later worldwide on CD) is a high-frequency 15-kilohertz tone and some randomly spliced Beatles studio chatter. The frequency is best understood as what we know as a dog whistle as the frequency is picked up by a dog's ear and was part of their humour. They joked about picturing barking dogs should they be present when the album would finish. Recorded two months after the mono and stereo masters for "A Day in the Life" had been finalised, the studio chatter (titled in the session notes "Edit for LP End") was added to the run-out groove of the initial British pressing. There are even a few variations of the chatter, though the best known one is them saying during the laughter and chatter "never could see any other way."[38] The Anthology 2 album includes an early, pre-orchestral version of the song and Anthology 3 includes a version of "The End" that concludes by having the last note fade into the final chord of "A Day in the Life" (reversed, then played forwards).[39] The Love version has the song starting with Lennon's intro of "sugar plum fairy", with the strings being more prominent during the crescendos.

Supposed drug references[edit]

The song became controversial for its supposed references to drugs. The BBC announced that it would not broadcast "A Day in the Life" due to the line "I'd love to turn you on", which, according to the corporation, advocated drug use.[7] Other lyrics allegedly referring to drugs include "found my way upstairs and had a smoke / somebody spoke and I went into a dream". A spokesman for the BBC stated, "We have listened to this song over and over again. And we have decided that it appears to go just a little too far, and could encourage a permissive attitude to drug-taking."[40] The ban was eventually lifted on 13 March 1972.[41]

Lennon and McCartney denied that there were drug references and publicly complained about the ban at a dinner party at the home of their manager, Brian Epstein, celebrating their album. Lennon said that the song was simply about "a crash and its victim", and called the line in question "the most innocent of phrases."[40] McCartney later said "This was the only one in the album written as a deliberate provocation. A stick-that-in-your-pipe ... But what we want is to turn you on to the truth rather than pot."[42] However, George Martin later commented that he had always suspected that the line "found my way upstairs and had a smoke" was a drug reference, recalling how the Beatles would "disappear and have a little puff", presumably of marijuana, but not in front of him.[43] "When [Martin] was doing his TV programme on Pepper", McCartney recalled later, "he asked me, 'Do you know what caused Pepper?' I said, 'In one word, George, drugs. Pot.' And George said, 'No, no. But you weren't on it all the time.' 'Yes, we were.' Sgt. Pepper was a drug album."[6]

When Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in South Asia, Malaysia and Hong Kong, "A Day in the Life" "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" were excluded because of supposed drug references.[44]

Recognition and reception[edit]

"A Day in the Life" became one of the Beatles' most influential songs. Paul Grushkin in his book Rockin' Down the Highway: The Cars and People That Made Rock Roll, called the song "one of the most ambitious, influential, and groundbreaking works in pop music history".[45] In "From Craft to Art: Formal Structure in the Music of The Beatles", the song is described thus: "'A Day in the Life' is perhaps one of the most important single tracks in the history of rock music; clocking in at only four minutes and forty-five seconds, it must surely be among the shortest epic pieces in rock."[46] Richard Goldstein of The New York Times called the song "a deadly earnest excursion in emotive music with a chilling lyric ... [that] stands as one of the most important Lennon-McCartney compositions ... an historic Pop event".[47]

The song appears on many top songs lists. It placed twelfth on CBC's 50 Tracks, the second highest Beatles song on the list after "In My Life".[48] It placed first in Q Magazine '​s list of the 50 greatest British songs of all time, and was at the top of Mojo Magazine's 101 Greatest Beatles' Songs, as decided by a panel of musicians and journalists.[49][50][51] "A Day in the Life" was also nominated for a Grammy in 1967 for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist Or Instrumentalist.[52] In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked "A Day in the Life" at number 26 on the magazine's list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time",[5] and in 2010, the magazine deemed it to be the Beatles' greatest song.[53] It is listed at number 5 in Pitchfork Media's The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s.[54]

Legacy[edit]

"A Day in the Life"
Single by Barry Gibb
from the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
B-side "Nowhere Man"
Released July 1978[55]
Format 7"
Recorded September 1977
Genre Psychedelic rock
Length 5:11
Label RSO
Writer(s) Lennon-McCartney
Producer(s) George Martin
Barry Gibb singles chronology
"I'll Kiss Your Memory"
(1970)
A Day in the Life
(1978)
"Guilty"
(1980)

On 27 August 1992 Lennon's handwritten lyrics were sold by the estate of Mal Evans in an auction at Sotheby's London for $100,000 (£56,600).[56] The lyrics were put up for sale again in March 2006 by Bonhams in New York. Sealed bids were opened on 7 March 2006 and offers started at about $2 million.[57][58] The lyric sheet was auctioned again by Sotheby's in June 2010. It was purchased by an anonymous American buyer who paid $1,200,000 (£810,000 ).[59]

McCartney has been performing this song in a majority of his live shows since his 2008 tour, with his latest performance being after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on 13 November 2011. It is played in a medley with "Give Peace a Chance".[60] The Beatles' friend and contemporary Bob Dylan references the song's opening lyrics in his 2012 tribute to John Lennon, "Roll on John".

Covers[edit]

The song has been recorded by many other artists,[61] notably by Jeff Beck on the 2008 album Performing This Week: Live at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club[62] which was also used in the film Across the Universe and won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.[63] As of winter 2013, the jam band Phish has covered the song 61 times.[64]

The London Symphony Orchestra released an orchestral cover of the song in 1978 on Classic Rock: The Second Movement. It was also covered by Barry Gibb in 1978 for the film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and was included on the soundtrack of the same name, recorded in September 1977 and produced by George Martin.[65] Gibb's version was released as a single, with "Nowhere Man" as the B-side (also recorded by him and intended for the film).[66] Also in 1978, his version was used as the B-side of Robin Gibb's version of "Oh! Darling" released only in Italy.[67]

References[edit]

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Sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]