When was it recorded? Jan. 19-20 and Feb. 3-10, 1967
When was it first released, and on which album? Jun. 1, 1967 on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
Who wrote it? Lennon/McCartney
Have I heard this song before? Indeed
What my research dug up:
Spoiler alert: Rolling Stone magazine ranked “A Day in the Life” #28 on its list of the greatest songs of all time (of all time! Sorry, I’ll stop) and #1 on its list of the best Beatles songs. Soooo if you haven’t heard this one before it’s gonna be a doozy. And loud. Quite loud.
“A Day in the Life” is the final song on The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.
“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 (Rolling Stone)
There’s a lot going on lyrically — especially since it was another song made of one solo Lennon work and one solo McCartney work — so let me try to break it down.
John wrote the first verses while looking at the Jan. 17, 1967 edition of the Daily Mail. The beginning was inspired by the coroner’s verdict of the death of Tara Browne, the 21-year-old heir to the Guinness fortune and former friend of the Beatles. The events in the story were fictionalized though. According to John, “I didn’t copy the accident… 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.”
Paul was… not on the same page as John regarding those verses. His interpretation? “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.”
The line “The English Army had just won the war” is a reference to “How I Won the War,” a 1967 film John was in.
The middle section of the song began life as a different, short song of Paul’s. Quoth Wikipedia, “McCartney had written the piece as a wistful recollection of his younger years”; the Beatles Bible noted, “its practical earthiness providing a perfect counterpoint to Lennon’s languorous daydreaming.”
The final verse again came from the Jan. 17 Daily Mail. Quoth Wikipedia, “Under the headline ‘The holes in our roads,’ the first of the two paragraphs read: ‘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.’” Yes, people actually survey this stuff.
Think the writing process was lengthy? Let’s begin discussing the recording sessions.
Recording “A Day” began on Jan. 19 when it had the working title “In the Life Of…” 23 measures separate John and Paul’s parts, and at first the Beatles weren’t sure how to bridge this gap. In the initial recordings, “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” (Wikipedia). An alarm clock signals the end of his counting. I think the initial idea was for the alarm to just mark the end of Evans’ part and to edit it out. However, Paul’s section begins with the lyrics “Woke up, fell out of bed,” and it being preceded by an alarm clock going off worked damn well. Evans’ counting got covered up (except on “Anthology 2,” see below) but the alarm clock stayed.
The basic song was completed by Feb. 3, but still no one knew what to do with the middle measures… until Paul decided he needed a full orchestra. Producer George Martin “wrote a loose score for the section… an extended, atonal crescendo that encouraged the musicians to improvise within the defined framework.” If you don’t know what that means, Martin explained, “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.”
Martin and McCartney directed the 40-piece orchestra on Feb. 10 in an “extravagant” recording session (I’m too lazy to convert pounds to American dollars tonight). McCartney wanted a 90-piece orchestra but made up for it by overdubbing four recordings into one massive wall of sound.
The orchestra was filmed for a planned TV special, but long story short, that never happened. Clips of them at work can be seen in the “A Day in the Life” promotional film found here (Apple Corps, don’t you dare take this one down too).
The evening after the orchestra recording session, Wikipedia tells me, “the four Beatles had recorded an ending of their voices humming the chord, but after multiple overdubs they wanted something with more impact.” And so one of the most famous closing chords was born. John, Paul, Ringo and Evans used three pianos, and with Martin on the harmonium, all played an E-major chord at the exact same time. The Beatles Bible tells me this chord lasts for 53 seconds. Quoth Wikipedia, “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.” I can verify that last statement (at least on the version I listened to).
Altogether “A Day” took 34 hours to record. Critics love to point out that the Beatles’ entire first album took less than 11 hours. Quantity versus quality, people.
The end of “A Day” features “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” (Wikipedia). (This whole album was made on drugs and the band thought it was funny. That’s my stab at an explanation.)
“A Day in the Life” was released first on the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album, then as a B-side to the single “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With a Little Help from My Friends” in 1978.
The line “I’d love to turn you on” got “A Day” banned from BBC airwaves. I could write about how John and Paul defended their lyrics and denied they had anything to do with drugs, but we all know that’s a lie.
My favorite praise of “A Day” comes from the online Beatles Bible, which said, “The climax of their masterpiece ‘Sgt Pepper,’ ‘A Day In The Life’ found The Beatles at the peak of their creative powers, an astonishing artistic statement that saw them fearless, breaking boundaries and enthralling generations of listeners with the timeless quality of their music.” Well-put. Other cool quotes:
- “one of the most ambitious, influential, and groundbreaking works in pop music history” – Paul Grushkin, Rockin’ Down the Highway: The Cars and People That Made Rock Roll
- “’A Day in the Life’ is perhaps one of the most important single tracks in the history of rock music.” – Eds. Todd Davis & Kenneth Womack, From Craft to Art: Formal Structure in the Music of The Beatles
- “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” – Richard Goldstein, The New York Times
“A Day” also topped Q magazine’s list of the 50 greatest British songs and Mojo magazine’s list of the greatest Beatles song. In 1967 the song was nominated for a Grammy for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist Or Instrumentalist.
As one of the most prolific Beatles recordings, you can bet your bottom dollar there are bootlegs and outtakes. “Anthology 2” features a version of the song before the orchestra part was added. Refer to what I wrote about Mal Evans’ contribution above.
In a way “Anthology 3” includes a version of “A Day in the Life,” but I’ll talk about that in a different post (and you’ll see why).