The stories behind your favourite songs.
Today we are going to spend some time together discussing one of the most grand and glorious songs ever recorded in modern music history, ”A Day in the Life” by The Beatles. At the time it was recorded in 1967, it clocked in at well over four minutes long, which at the time made it the longest song The Beatles had ever created. “A Day in the Life” is the final song on Side #2 of The Beatles’ biggest selling album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For me, Sgt. Pepper marks the end of The Beatles as we knew them. Sure, they still had The White Album, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be to come, but by then the members of the band had begun pursuing more individualized agendas within the group. Whenever I listen to “A Day in the Life”, I hear it as one of the most audacious and original compositions ever. I also feel and hear quite clearly all of the collaboration, co-operation, creativity, innovation and problem-solving that took place during the recording of that song. I adore creative environments, and there was no greater alchemist’s kitchen anywhere in the world at the time than where The Beatles were during the creation of this song. If you remember your Beatles history, you will know that The Beatles stopped touring in 1966 and became a studio-only band from that point on. This transition allowed them to dabble into drug use, eastern mysticism, as well as exploring new technological innovations that allowed them to play around with the sounds they were making. The extent to which The Beatles were growing in creative confidence first manifested itself in the album Revolver. While that album was a quantum leap forward for the band in terms of their mastery over the music they were making and the creativity of their ideas, it was really the next album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that cemented their reputation as geniuses on a level that no one else had yet attained. The final word on that most ambitious album was “A Day in the Life”. It was the last great Lennon-McCartney collaboration before they began the process of growing apart. It was also one of the band’s most integrated efforts with almost fifty people in total being involved in the process of bringing this masterpiece to fruition. In order to give a song of this magnitude its due, I am going to offer up some general background information and then I will proceed to break the song down into its component parts to show the unified vision behind what some consider to be a cacophony of sound. Thanks to my pal Allister Matheson for nominating this one of a kind, world class piece of music. It doesn’t get much better than this! Here we go!
“A Day in the Life” was written collaboratively by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The inspiration for the song arose from several newspaper articles that John had read in the Daily Telegraph newspaper. The song’s fantastic opening line draws upon this fact.
I read the news today, oh boy!
There are four verses that touch upon three bits of news from the paper that particular day. One was the death of a young man named Tara Browne who was the heir to the Guinness Brewery fortune. A second story was about a movie John was in. The final story was an odd one about potholes in the town of Blackburn, Lancashire that struck John as being absurd in a way that delighted him. While he brought the opening line to the group, it was he and Paul who fleshed out the lyrics. Paul contributed a middle eight verse about getting ready for school which ended with a reference to smoking that was assumed to be about drug use and caused the BBC to ban the song for over five years. But the most imaginative parts of “A Day in the Life” have nothing to do with the lyrics at all. Instead, the genius and musical confidence that the band now possessed showed itself most in how they made use of empty space and how they filled that space with sound. It was actually their use of instrumental music in a completely original manner that stunned so many of their peers in the music business. One of the first to hear the completed track was musician David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) who happened to be in London at the time. His recollection of first hearing “A Day in the Life” was that after the final note sounded, his brain had melted onto the floor. The manager of the band, The Hollies was said to have put his head into his hands and lamented aloud, “What are the rest of us supposed to do now?!” In order to show you how this all came to be, let me walk you through the various parts of the song. All in all, this is an amazing accomplishment by a group of people at the height of their creative powers.
The first two verses of the song concern the news story John had read about the death of Tara Browne. Browne was only twenty-one years of age when he drove through a stop light and smashed his car into a parked truck. Being around the same age as the band members, Browne had actually been an acquaintance, so when John opened with the exclamation of “Oh boy!”, the sentiment of loss and regret was sincere. In real life, Browne had been set to inherit his family’s fortune when he turned 25, so his death, mere years prior to this happening, added to the tragedy of it all. The news story dealt with a custody battle of who would care for his children. In writing the opening two verses, Lennon and McCartney wanted to acknowledge the loss of Browne, but out of respect for the family they opted to create a fictionalized account of the accident. The only thing that was lifted from the pages of the Daily Telegraph was the line about a crowd gathering to stand and stare.
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
Nobody was really sure if he was from The House of Lords.
Such is the nature of a celebrity death.
The third verse concerned an account of a film that John Lennon had acted in called How I Won the War. This film was directed by a man named Richard Lester, who had directed Hard Day’s Night and Help! This film was the first time any of the Beatles had involved themselves in a solo project. The significance of that move by John Lennon would become apparent in the very near future, as it seemed to spark a wave of individuality that overtook the band following the completion of “A Day in the Life”. However, with regards to the song itself, the most significant part of the third verse was its closing line.
I saw a film today, oh boy!
The English Army had just won the war.
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book.
I’d love to turn you on
The line, “I’d love to turn you on”, was the nail in the coffin, as it were, for this song when it came to drug-related inferences. At the time of the writing of “A Day in the Life”, LSD advocate Timothy Leary was making headlines by advising the youth of the world to “Turn on, tune in and drop out”. Needless to say, the powers that be did not take kindly to the methods that Leary was advocating. So, when such a high-profile band as The Beatles appeared to endorse Leary via this line in the song, it only further confirmed for the authorities that “A Day in the Life” was a drug song and, as such, had no business being on the BBC.
Connecting Lennon’s verses with Paul’s middle eight to come was a 24-bar instrumental segment that acts as a prelude to the orchestral finale that arrives at the conclusion of the lyrical verses. It began as a repetitive piano chord accompanied by studio manager Mal Evans counting off the bars and was augmented in future recording sessions with additional instrumentation. This bridge section, as it became known, ended with the tempered ringing of an alarm clock which led directly to the beginning of Paul’s verse about getting up for school.
After the third verse comes Paul McCartney’s middle eight verse. You will recall from my recent post about Paul Simon and his song “Still Crazy After All These Years” (which you can read here), that a middle eight verse is one in which the flow of the song is taken sideways on tangent-like journey, only to be brought back to the original song after eight bars have gone by. In the case of this song, McCartney drew upon the same sense of childhood nostalgia that informed “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Both of those songs were written for inclusion on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album but, instead, were released as double A-side singles. But the longing to reminisce about fond childhood memories allowed Paul to create a middle eight verse about getting ready for school as a teenager. If the intent of the whole song was to touch upon some of the ordinary events happening on an ordinary day in their lives, then the inclusion of a memory about a normal day for a band member helped portray the band members as each being the same type of person as everyone else was, too. It helped unify the connection the Beatles members had with their fans. Of course, as already mentioned, Paul’s middle eight ended with his reference to having a smoke and lapsing into a dream which was the other supposed drug reference that earned “A Day in the Life” its ban by the BBC.
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream.
The fact that Paul’s closing line is followed by a series of voices singing, “Aaaah!”only fuelled the drug reference conspiracy theories. It also compounded the aural gambit that showed how The Beatles had made the deliberate decision to create open bits of space within the song that would be filled with various soundscapes. The soundscapes began here with the “Aaah” segments but would grow in volume and scope very soon into something completely unheard of and totally unforgettable.
Coming out of Paul’s middle eight verse, the song concludes the lyrics section with John’s take on the article about there being 4000 potholes in need of filling in Blackburn, Lancashire. In the newspaper, the article was a very straight-forward retelling of a municipal council report about the state of Blackburn’s roads. The notion of there being 4000 holes struck John as being whimsical. This caused him to create the verse that equated the 4000 potholes with being the exact number needed to fill all of the seats in Albert Hall. While John denied that there was anything more to the verse that the nonsense it appears to be at first blush, some have taken his reference to be a swipe at the state of music in London at the time by calling those who attended concerts at Albert Hall as being nothing more than empty space (like “holes”).
I read the news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all.
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall
I’d love to turn you on.
Note how John doubles down on the Timothy Leary, “Turn you on” line. If anyone thought it was an accident the first time, this verse leaves no doubt where The Beatles stood on the topic of mind-altering substances.
This verse concludes the spoken word portion of the song. Up until this point, there are arguments to be made about how clever this song is and about how well it managed to achieve its goal of documenting a day in the life of English citizens, as well as The Beatles. But it is what happens next that separates “A Day in the Life” from all songs that came before it. The boys in the band decided to weaponize empty space by dedicating another whooping 28 consecutive bars of it to follow John’s final verse. This decision was influenced, not only by LSD and eastern mysticism, but also by the fact that the members of The Beatles were becoming fans of avant garde musicians. Part of the reason for this attraction was their growing realization that sounds could be expressed in an almost infinite variety of ways and still hold their credibility as a source of music. Without veering off on too much of a tangent, one of the reasons that John Lennnon left his wife, Cynthia, was that he found her conventional way of thinking to be frustrating and limiting to him. Part of his attraction to Yoko Ono was her wide open mindset as to what could be considered music and Art.
So it was that The Beatles decided to create an aural soundscape that would act in the same way as a lyrical verse would. It would hold the same basic physical space within the structure of the song. Specifically, it would last for 28 bars. In order to fill this space with an avant garde-type of sound, The Beatles brought in a full forty-piece orchestra. Producer George Martin instructed the orchestra members to start at the lowest notes possible for their instruments and then, in a coordinated fashion, they would all move up through the scales together until they reached the highest notes possible. The task was simplified, in a way, by having to do this all within the 28 bar limit. The orchestra members had never played in this fashion before. In order to help them adapt to the revolutionary nature of the task at hand, they were each given props to wear such as red clown noses, wigs, feather boas, etc. The Beatles treated this session as if it was a Hollywood movie premiere. They invited all sorts of celebrity friends to attend the recording session. A film was made of the event which, as it turns out, was transformed into the music video you will see at the end of this post.
To critics of this song, this 28-bar segment is nothing but calamitous noise and, in fact ruins whatever musical qualities the initial part of the song may have contained. But to those in the band and to their peers (like David Crosby), this 28-bar segment was the musical equivalent of releasing the Kraken. It was a declarative statement by The Beatles that any organized collection of sounds could be and should be considered as music. It was a challenge to the orthodoxy of traditionalists who stressed that the only good music was music that contained harmonies and melodies. With their 28-bar segment, The Beatles gave permission to all other musicians and bands around the world to use sounds as they saw fit. It really changed the creative process for everyone who followed in their wake. In this way, the Sgt. Pepper album, in general, and “A Day in the Life”, specifically, were groundbreaking in their influence and importance.
But, the final note of the 28-bar segment did not end the song. Instead, in case anyone missed the message that The Beatles were attempting to make, they formally ended the song with a bang! George Martin, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and studio head Mal Evans used four pianos to simultaneously play one note as hard and with as much vigor as they could manage. Each take was recorded at the highest possible level the recording equipment could muster in an attempt to track the reverberations of this single note for as long as was possible. On the ninth take, the recording equipment detected the sound of that note for 53 seconds. The microphones were at such a sensitive point that they managed to pick up the sound of breathing, the movement of a single sheet of paper and the shuffling of someone’s foot. That authoritative final note ended the song and the album. The world of music was forever changed because of it.
While I like the music that The Beatles created after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, songs like “Let It Be” and “Here Comes the Sun” always seem more like solo projects released on band albums. If there is a musical hill for me to die on, it is my view that “A Day in the Life” was the last true piece of music that The Beatles produced as a band. I so admire the ingenuity, the courage, the confidence with which each member of the band approached this final song. The completion of “A Day in the Life” was truly a team effort. I feel that our world is better as a result.
The link to the video for the song “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles can be found here. ***This video was composed using film from the night of the orchestral recording session. Many celebrities can be seen throughout the course of the film. Lyrics are provided on screen.
The link to the official website for The Beatles can be found here.
The link to the video trailer for the movie How I Won The War can be found here.
***If you have any song requests that you would like to see me cover for you, feel free to leave them in the comment box below. Any song in any genre from any era is welcome.
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