A Day in the Life
"A Day in the Life" is a song by the English rock band the Beatles that was released as the final track of their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Credited to Lennon–McCartney, the verses were written mainly by John Lennon, with Paul McCartney primarily contributing the song's middle section. Lennon's lyrics were inspired by contemporary newspaper articles, including a report on the death of Guinness heir Tara Browne. The recording includes two passages of orchestral glissandos that were partly improvised in the avant-garde style. As with the sustained piano chord that closes the song, the orchestral passages were added after the Beatles had recorded the main rhythm track.
|"A Day in the Life"|
Cover of the US sheet music
|Song by the Beatles|
|from the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band|
|Released||26 May 1967|
|Recorded||19–20 January 1967; 3, 10 and 22 February 1967|
|Studio||EMI Studios, London|
|Genre||Psychedelic rock, art rock|
|The Beatles singles chronology|
A reputed 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 release on Sgt. Pepper, "A Day in the Life" has been issued as a B-side and also on various compilation albums. Jeff Beck, Barry Gibb and Phish are among the artists who have covered the song. Since 2008, McCartney has included the song in his live performances. It was ranked the 28th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone. In another list, the magazine ranked it as the greatest Beatles song.
John Lennon wrote the melody and most of the lyrics to the verses of "A Day in the Life" in mid January 1967. Soon afterwards, he presented the song to Paul McCartney, who contributed a middle-eight section. In a 1970 interview, Lennon discussed their collaboration on the song:
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 ... So we were doing it in his room with the piano. He said "Should we do this?" "Yeah, let's do that."
According to author Ian MacDonald, "A Day in the Life" was strongly informed by Lennon's LSD-inspired revelations, in that the song "concerned 'reality' only to the extent that this had been revealed by LSD to be largely in the eye of the beholder". Beatles biographer Jonathon Gould writes that "of the many ambitious pop singles released during the fall of 1966, none had a stronger influence on the Beatles than the Beach Boys' 'Good Vibrations'". In a 1968 editorial for Jazz & Pop, writer Gene Sculatti called the single the "ultimate in-studio production trip", adding that its influence was apparent in songs such as "A Day in the Life".[nb 1]
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, Earl's Court. Browne had been a friend of Lennon and McCartney, and had, earlier in 1966, instigated McCartney's first experience with LSD. Lennon adapted the song's verse lyrics 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.
During a writing session at McCartney's house in north London, Lennon and McCartney fine-tuned the lyrics, using an approach that author Howard Sounes likens to the cut-up technique popularised by William Burroughs. "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." McCartney expounded on the subject: "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."
Lennon wrote the song's final verse inspired by a Far & Near news brief, in the same 17 January edition of the Daily Mail that 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."
The story had been sold to the Daily Mail in Manchester by Ron Kennedy of the Star News agency in Blackburn. Kennedy had noticed a Lancashire Evening Telegraph story about road excavations and in a telephone call to the Borough Engineer's department had checked the annual number of holes in the road. 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 suggested that the holes would "fill" the Albert Hall.
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?'"[nb 2] George Martin 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. "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."[nb 3]
Other reference pointsEdit
Author Neil Sinyard attributed the third-verse line "The English Army had just won the war" to Lennon's role in the film How I Won the War, which he had filmed during September and October 1966. Sinyard said: "It's hard to think of [the verse] ... without automatically associating it with Richard Lester's film."
The middle-eight that McCartney provided for "A Day in the Life" was 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.[not in citation given] McCartney had written the piece as a wistful recollection of his younger years, which included riding the 82 bus to school, smoking, and going to class. This theme—the Beatles' youth in the north of England—matched that of "Penny Lane" (a street in Liverpool) and "Strawberry Fields Forever" (an orphanage behind Lennon's house), two songs written for the album but were released instead as a double A-side single.
Musical structure and developmentEdit
The Beatles began recording the song, with a working title of "In the Life of ...", at EMI's Studio Two on 19 January 1967. The line-up as they rehearsed the track was Lennon on piano, McCartney on Hammond organ, George Harrison on acoustic guitar, and Ringo Starr on congas. The band then taped four takes of the rhythm track, by which point Lennon had switched to acoustic guitar and McCartney to piano, with Harrison now playing maracas.
As a link between the end of the second verse, where Lennon sings "I'd love to turn you on", and the start of McCartney's middle-eight, the band included a 24-bar bridge. At first, the Beatles were not sure how to fill this link section. At the conclusion of the session on 19 January, the transition consisted of a simple repeated piano chord and the voice of assistant Mal Evans counting out the bars. Evans' voice was treated with gradually increasing amounts of echo. The 24-bar bridge ended with the sound of an alarm clock triggered by Evans. Although the original intent was to edit out the ringing alarm clock when the section was filled in, it complemented McCartney's piece – which begins with the line "Woke up, fell out of bed" – so the decision was made to keep the sound.[nb 4]
The track was refined with remixing and additional parts added on 20 January and 3 February. During the latter session, McCartney and Starr re-recorded their contributions on bass guitar and drums, respectively. Starr later highlighted his fills on the song as typical of an approach whereby "I try to become an instrument; play the mood of the song. For example, 'Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire,' – boom ba bom. I try to show that; the disenchanting mood." As on the 1966 track "Rain", music journalist Ben Edmonds recognises Starr's playing as reflective of his empathy with Lennon's songwriting. In Edmonds' description, the drumming on "A Day in the Life" "transcends timekeeping to embody psychedelic drift – mysterious, surprising, without losing sight of its rhythmic role".
The orchestral portions of "A Day in the Life" reflect Lennon and McCartney's interest in the work of avant-garde composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and John Cage. To fill the empty 24-bar middle section, Lennon's request to George Martin, the band's producer, was that the orchestra should provide "a tremendous build-up, from nothing up to something absolutely like the end of the world". McCartney suggested having the musicians improvise over the segment. To allay concerns that classically trained musicians would be unable to do this, Martin wrote a loose score for the section. Using the rhythm implied by Lennon's staggered intonation on the words "turn you on", the score was an extended, atonal crescendo that encouraged the musicians to improvise within the defined framework. The orchestral part was recorded on 10 February 1967 in Studio One at EMI Studios, with Martin and McCartney conducting a 40-piece orchestra. The recording session was completed at a total cost of £367 (equivalent to £6,113 in 2016) for the players, an extravagance at the time. Martin later described explaining his 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.
McCartney had originally wanted a 90-piece orchestra, but this proved impossible. Instead, the semi-improvised segment was recorded multiple times, filling a separate four-track tape machine, and the four different recordings were overdubbed into a single massive crescendo. The results were successful; in the final edit of the song, the orchestral bridge is reprised after the final verse.
Womack describes the "sarcastic brass retort" that ends the sequence as the "most decisive moment" on Sgt. Pepper.
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The Beatles hosted the orchestral session as a 1960s-style happening, with guests including Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Donovan, Pattie Boyd, Michael Nesmith, and members of the psychedelic design collective The Fool. Overseen by Tony Bramwell of NEMS Enterprises, the event was filmed for use in a projected television special that never materialised.[nb 5] Reflecting the Beatles' taste for experimentation and the avant garde, the orchestra players were asked to wear formal dress and then given a costume piece as a contrast with this attire. 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.
At the end of the night, the four Beatles and some of their guests overdubbed an extended humming sound to close the song – an idea that they later discarded. According to Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, the tapes from this 10 February orchestral session reveal the guests breaking into loud applause following the second orchestral passage. Among the EMI staff attending the event, one recalled how Ron Richards, the Hollies' producer, was stunned by the music he had heard; in Lewisohn's description, Richards "[sat] with his head in his hands, saying 'I just can't believe it … I give up.'" Martin later offered his own opinion of the orchestral session: "part of me said 'We're being a bit self-indulgent here.' The other part of me said 'It's bloody marvellous!'"
Following the final orchestral crescendo, the song ends with one of the most famous final chords in music history. Overdubbed in place of the vocal experiment from 10 February, this chord was added during a session at EMI's Studio Two on 22 February. Lennon, McCartney, Starr and Evans shared three different pianos, with Martin on a harmonium, and all played an E-major chord simultaneously. The 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.
Also present at the session was David Crosby of the Byrds. He recalled his reaction to hearing the completed song: "man, I was a dish-rag. I was floored. It took me several minutes to be able to talk after that." Due to the multiple takes required to perfect the orchestral cacophony and the final chord, the total time spent recording "A Day in the Life" was 34 hours. In contrast, the Beatles' debut album, Please Please Me, had been recorded in its entirety in only 10 hours, 45 minutes.
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. Also, the "1967–1970" CD does not have the sped up ending, and instead it just ends after the E Major chord has faded enough so nobody could hear it.
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." 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). The Love version has the song starting with Lennon's intro of "sugar plum fairy", with the strings being more prominent during the crescendos.
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. 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."[nb 6] The ban was eventually lifted on 13 March 1972.[nb 7]
Recognition and receptionEdit
Recalling the release of Sgt. Pepper in his 1977 book The Beatles Forever, Nicholas Schaffner wrote that "Nothing quite like 'A Day In The Life' had been attempted before in so-called popular music" in terms of the song's "use of dynamics and tricks of rhythm, and of space and stereo effect, and its deft intermingling of scenes from dream, reality, and shades in between". Schaffner said that in the context of 1967, the track "was so visually evocative it seemed more like a film than a mere song". 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 … [and] an historic Pop event". In a contemporary music critics' poll published by Jazz & Pop magazine, "A Day in the Life" won in the categories of Best Pop Song and Best Pop Arrangement.
In his appraisal of the song, musicologist Walter Everett states that, as on the band's Revolver album, "the most monumental piece on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was Lennon's". He identifies the track's most striking feature as "its mysterious and poetic approach to serious topics that come together in a larger, direct message to its listeners, an embodiment of the central ideal for which the Beatles stood: that a truly meaningful life can be had only when one is aware of one's self and one's surroundings and overcomes the status quo." Author Philip Norman describes "A Day in the Life" as a "masterpiece" and cites it as an example of how Sgt. Pepper "certainly was John's Freak Out!", referring to the 1966 album by the Mothers of Invention.
"A Day in the Life" became one of the Beatles' most influential songs, and is now considered by many to be the band's greatest work. Paul Grushkin, in his book Rockin' Down the Highway: The Cars and People That Made Rock Roll, called the track "one of the most ambitious, influential, and groundbreaking works in pop music history". According to musicologist John Covach, "'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." In his review of the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper for Rolling Stone, Mikal Gilmore says that "A Day in the Life" and Harrison's "Within You Without You" are the only songs on the album that transcend its legacy as "a gestalt: a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts".
"A Day in the Life" 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". It placed first in Q magazine's list of the 50 greatest British songs of all time, and was at the top of Mojo's 101 Greatest Beatles' Songs, as decided by a panel of musicians and journalists. "A Day in the Life" was also nominated for a Grammy in 1967 for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist or Instrumentalist. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked it at number 28 on the magazine's list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time", and in 2010, deemed it to be the Beatles' greatest song. It is listed at number 5 in Pitchfork Media's "The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s".
|"A Day in the Life"|
|Single by Barry Gibb|
|from the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band|
|Barry Gibb singles chronology|
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). 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. 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).
McCartney has been performing this song in a majority of his live shows since his 2008 tour. It is played in a medley with "Give Peace a Chance". The Beatles' friend and contemporary Bob Dylan references the song's opening lyrics in his 2012 tribute to John Lennon, "Roll on John".
The song has been recorded by many other artists, notably by Jeff Beck on the 1998 George Martin album In My Life and the 2008 album Performing This Week: Live at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club which was also used in the film Across the Universe and won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. As of winter 2013, the jam band Phish has covered the song 61 times.
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. Gibb's version was released as a single, with "Nowhere Man" as the B-side (also recorded by him and intended for the film). Also in 1978, his version was used as the B-side of Robin Gibb's version of "Oh! Darling" released only in Italy.
David Bowie used the lyric "I heard the news today oh boy!" in his 1975 song "Young Americans". Lennon appeared twice on Bowie's Young Americans album, providing guitar and backing vocals. In 2012, Bob Dylan included the same line in his tribute song to Lennon, "Roll on John".
- When asked about "Good Vibrations" in 1990, McCartney responded: "I thought it was a great record. It didn't quite have the emotional thing that Pet Sounds had for me. I've often played Pet Sounds and cried. It's that kind of an album for me."
- While McCartney remembered writing the lyric "I'd love to turn you on" with Lennon, 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." This is confirmed by Lennon's April 1972 Hit Parader interview, in which he had stated: "I think Paul wrote 'I'd love to turn you on.'"
- When the song was banned by the BBC, 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". 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."
- George Martin, the Beatles' producer, later said that editing it out would have been unfeasible in any case.
- Although the special did not take place, portions of the film appear on the Beatles Anthology DVD and in the "A Day in the Life" clip included in the three-disc versions of the Beatles' 2015 video compilation 1.
- According to Tony Bramwell, the BBC ban also led to the film from the orchestral session never being completed. The party aspect of that session was soon reprised by the Beatles when they filmed their performance of "All You Need Is Love" for the Our World satellite broadcast.
- 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.
- Everett 1999, p. 123. "In the United Kingdom Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band... was rush-released six days ahead of its official date, June 1."
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