A Day In The Life - Reviews

Reviewed by Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head:

With STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER and PENNY LANE in the can, The Beatles were confident that their reply to The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was well under way. Capitol, though, needed a new single and the tracks were accordingly requisitioned for a double A-side in February 1967. Since UK chart protocol in the Sixties was that anything issued as a single could not be included on an LP released in the same year, the group submitted to this with ill grace [1]. Apart from putting them back to square one with the new album, the decision killed the informal concept of an LP drawing inspiration from their Liverpool childhoods. Fortunately, they were at the peak of their powers and, only two days after finishing PENNY LANE, they were back in Abbey Road working on their finest single achievement: A DAY IN THE LIFE.

More nonsense has been written about this recording than anything else The Beatles produced. It has been described as a sober return to the real world after the drunken fantasy of 'Pepperland' as a conceptual statement about the structure of the pop album (or the artifice of the studio, or the falsity of recorded performance); as an evocation of a bad trip; as a 'pop Waste Land'; even as a morbid celebration of death. Most of this misinterpretation stems from ignorance of the fact that - apart from the relatively trivial WHEN I'M SIXTY-FOUR - A DAY IN THE LIFE was the first track begun for Sgt. Pepper. At this stage, The Beatles had little idea what the new LP was going to be about (if anything). Conceived on its own terms, A DAY IN THE LIFE fell into place at the end of the finished work four months later with a naturalness that could hardly have been apparent at the time it was recorded. Still less likely is that The Beatles would have set about constructing an album to be 'subverted' or 'commented upon' by a piece of music unlike anything they'd ever done before (not least in being two minutes longer than the longest track in their discography to date: 5:03). Far from a purpose-built grand finale to a masterplan, it was merely a further speculative episode in the parallel developments of its authors.

If anything predetermined A DAY IN THE LIFE, it was LSD. A song about perception - a subject central both to late-period Beatles and the counterculture at large - A DAY IN THE LIFE concerned reality, only to the extent that this had been revealed by LSD to be largely in the eye of the beholder. A scepticism about appearances had figured in some of the songs for Rubber Soul, later coming to the fore in RAIN, AND YOUR BIRD CAN SING, and TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS. STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER and PENNY LANE are further links in a chain of songs about perception and reality of which A DAY IN THE LIFE is an explicit culmination.

A song not of disillusionment with life itself but of disenchantment with the limits of mundane perception, A DAY IN THE LIFE depicts the 'real' world as an unenlightened construct that reduces, depresses, and ultimately destroys. In the first verse - based, like the last, on a report in the Daily Mail for 17th January 1967 - Lennon refers to the death of Tara Browne, a young millionaire friend of The Beatles and other leading English groups. On 18th December 1966, Browne, an enthusiast of the London counterculture and, like all its members, a user of mind-expanding drugs, drove his light blue Lotus Elan at high speed through red lights in South Kensington, smashing into a parked mini-van and killing himself. Whether or not he was tripping at the time is unknown, though Lennon clearly thought so. Reading the report of the coroner's verdict, he recorded it in the opening verses of A DAY IN THE LIFE, taking the detached view of the onlookers whose only interest was in the dead man's celebrity. Thus travestied as a spectacle, Browne's tragedy became meaningless - and the weary sadness of the music which Lennon found for his lyric displays a distance that veers from the dispassionate to the unfeeling [2].

On the next page in the same newspaper, he found an item whose absurdity perfectly complemented the Tara Browne story: "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." This - intensified by a surreal reference to the circular Victorian concert venue the Albert Hall (also in South Kensington) [3] - became the last verse. In between, Lennon inserted a verse in which his jaded spectator looks on as the English army wins the war. Prompted by his part in the film How I Won The War three months earlier, this may have been a veiled allusion to Vietnam which, though a real issue to Lennon, would have overheated the song if stated directly.

At one level, A DAY IN THE LIFE concerns the alienating effect of 'the media'. On another, it looks beyond what the Situationists called 'the society of the Spectacle' to the poetic consciousness invoked by the anarchic wall slogans of May 1968 in Paris (e.g., "Beneath the pavement, the beach"). Hence the sighing tragedy of the verses is redeemed by the line "I'd love to turn you on", which becomes the focus of the song. The message is that life is a dream and we have the power, as dreamers, to make it beautiful. In this perspective, the two rising orchestral glissandi may be seen as symbolising simultaneously the moment of awakening from sleep and a spiritual ascent from fragmentation to wholeness, achieved in the resolving E major chord. How the group themselves pictured these passages is unclear, though Lennon seems to have had something cosmic in mind, requesting from Martin "a sound like the end of the world" and later describing it as "a bit of a 2001". All that is certain is that the final chord was not, as many have since claimed, meant as an ironic gesture of banality or defeat. (It was originally conceived and recorded - Beach Boys style - as a hummed vocal chord.) In early 1967, deflation was the last thing on The Beatles' minds - or anyone else's, with the exception of Frank Zappa and Lou Reed [4]. Though clouded with sorrow and sarcasm, A DAY IN THE LIFE is as much an expression of mystic-psychedelic optimism as the rest of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The fact that it achieves its transcendent goal via a potentially disillusioning confrontation with the 'real' world is precisely what makes it so moving.

The Beatles began recording A DAY IN THE LIFE two days after Lennon was inspired to write its verses. In the intervening period, McCartney added the double-time middle section, a fragment of a number about his schooldays which, in its new context, became a vignette of a vacantly busy life of routine. (The 'smoke' was originally a Woodbine but, as McCartney and Lennon agreed, "Bugger this, we're going to write a real turn-on song!") At this stage, the composition was so new that they hadn't had time to work out how to join Lennon's section to McCartney's and so had to record the basic track leaving two arbitrary gaps of twenty-four bars (counted by road manager Mal Evans, whose reverbed voice remains on the finished recording) [5]. The recording was subsequently built up over the next three weeks - Lennon and McCartney redoing their vocals, McCartney and Starr replacing their bass and drum parts - until the desired effect was obtained.

For the final overdubs, a party was thrown in Studio 1 on Friday 10th February, much as had been done on 1st June 1966 for YELLOW SUBMARINE, except that this time an orchestra was involved. McCartney - who had listened to music by John Cage and Luciano Berio and heard performances by AMM at the Royal College of Art - decided that the twenty-four bar bridges would be filled by a symphony orchestra going from its lowest to its highest note in an unsynchronised slide: a 'freak-out' or aural 'happening'. Charged with realising this, George Martin halved the number of players and scored the glissando individually to ensure the right 'random' effect. Rather than a chaotic tone-cluster, each player was asked to finish on whichever note in the E major triad was nearest the highest on his instrument. A second four-track tape machine was slaved to the one running The Beatles' own stereo track (the first time this had ever been tried in a British studio) and each orchestral glissando was recorded in mono four times before being mixed back to the master as a single monstrous noise (presumably remixed with ADT to take up the spare track). At the end of a festive evening, those in the studio spontaneously applauded the result [6]. The final chord, played by Lennon, McCartney, Starr, Evans, and Martin on three pianos (and 'tracked' four times), was recorded separately twelve days later.

Made in a total of around thirty-four hours, A DAY IN THE LIFE represents the peak of The Beatles' achievement. With one of their most controlled and convincing lyrics, its musical expression is breathtaking, its structure at once utterly original and completely natural. The performance is likewise outstanding. Lennon's floating, tape-echoed vocal contrasts ideally with McCartney's 'dry' briskness [7]. Starr's drums hold the track together, beginning in idiosyncratic dialogue with Lennon on slack-tuned tom-toms [8]. McCartney's contributions on piano and (particularly) bass brim with invention, colouring the music and occasionally providing the main focus. A brilliant production by Martin's team, working under restrictions which would floor most of today's studios, completes a piece which remains among the most penetrating and innovative artistic reflections of its era.


  1. In retrospect, George Martin describes his decision to pull STRAWBERRY FIELDS and PENNY LANE off the album as "the biggest mistake of my professional life" (Summer Of Love, p. 26).
  2. This may not have been entirely simulated. According to Goldman, during the Sgt. Pepper period The Beatles used not only cannabis and LSD but also 'speed-balls' - cocktails of heroin and cocaine. McCartney admits to using cocaine in this period (Rolling Stone, 11th September 1968). Miles confirms that speed-balls were 'around' during the sessions, but is unable to remember whether The Beatles themselves participated. (While recording, the group usually aimed to maintain sobriety.)
  3. Constructed during 1868-70 - partly on the profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851 which took place in the original Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, opposite the present site - the Albert Hall, along with the Albert Memorial which faces it, is the grandest architectural symbol of Victoria's reign. As such, it is held in obstinate affection by the English, despite its notorious echo which, say wags, makes it the only concert hall in the country in which a British composer can be sure of hearing his work twice.
  4. Derek Taylor describes The Beatles as being very happy and relaxed during the Sgt Pepper sessions. (In the country as a whole, economic strictures imposed in the second half of 1966 were beginning to undermine confidence in the Labour government, yet such was the festive atmosphere in English pop culture that disturbances in the political sphere did not intrude significantly until 1968.)
  5. These counts, starting at 1:41 and 3:46, suggest that the final line of Lennon's section ("I'd love to turn you on") was added later. He later credited this line to McCartney. The end of the first of these bridges was marked by an alarm clock, fortuitously anticipating McCartney's middle section.
  6. The orchestral session for A DAY IN THE LIFE was filmed on 16mm hand-held cameras. Some of this footage appears in Part 6 of the Anthology video.
  7. Lennon asked for a sound similar to the echo used on Presley's voice in Heartbreak Hotel. Geoff Emerick came up with a unique twittering effect by feeding Lennon's voice to a mono deck whose record and replay heads rapidly fed back on themselves before the final signal was taken as output to the multitrack. McCartney was initially recorded with the same tape-echo, but this was dropped because the shorter note-values of his section conflicted with the repeat-interval (see Anthology 2).
  8. The deep drum-sounds suggest that this section was recorded at higher speed and slowed down.

Posted: 21 okt 2012

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