A Day In The Life - Reviews

Quoted from Many Years From Now: p.322-329

Studio One at Abbey Road is a cavernous aircraft hangar of a place, used almost exclusively for classical recording, as large as a concert hall with enough space for several symphony orchestras to spread out. Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir John Barbirolli and Yehudi Menuhin all recorded there. It is strictly functional space: a vast expanse of parquet flooring littered with movable sound baffles and bits of scaffolding, grey walls which might once have been white, covered by scores of large square sound baffles like a sixties sci-fi movie and studded with speaker cabinets part of the Ambiophonic feedback system. Had Sir Malcolm looked in on 10 February, 1967, he would have been in for a shock: the studio was filled with balloons, and flower children in tattered lace and faded velvet tripped around the room blowing rainbow bubbles. Three Rolling Stones - Brian Jones, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger - accompanied by Marianne Faithfull paraded in King's Road psychedelic finery, with flowing scarves, crushed velvet and satin trousers and multicoloured boots. Donovan, the cosmic troubadour, Graham Nash, the only psychedelic member of the Hollies, the Monkee Mike Nesmith, Patti Harrison (George's wife) and dozens of other friends milled around the edge of the room. The four Dutch designers known as "the Fool" arrived dressed as characters from the Tarot, carrying tambourines and bells, while the mighty Abbey Road air conditioners worked hard to control the rich fragrance of joss sticks and marijuana. At the centre stood George Martin and Paul McCartney, preparing to conduct a symphony orchestra, who were being asked, to their astonishment and for the first time in their careers, to improvise.

The orchestra and George Martin had been asked to attend in full evening dress, which the Beatles also promised they would wear. The Beatles did not keep their word but the orchestra and George Martin looked very smart in their tuxedos. In order to get them into the mood to play something unconventional and to encourage in them an element of playful spontaneity, the Beatles went among the players handing out party favours. Mal Evans had been sent to a joke shop on Great Russell Street and returned with plastic stick-on nipples, plastic glasses with false eyes, rubber bald pates, some with knotted handkerchiefs balanced on them, huge fake cigars, party hats and streamers: David McCallum, the leader of the London Philharmonic, wore a large red false nose; Erich Gruenberg, the leader of the second violins, had on a pair of flowery paper spectac1es and held his bow in a large gorilla paw; the bassoon players, Alfred Waters and N. Fawcett, had balloons attached to their instruments which inflated and deflated with each note, raising a laugh from George Martin. Several film-makers with hand-held cameras circled the room.

The Beatles were recording 'A Day in the Life', one of their most experimental tracks but also one of the most beautiful and satisfying. It is a perfect example of a successful Lennon-McCartney collaboration but also encapsulates the results of Paul's two years of interest and experimentation in avant-garde circles. At the count-in the orchestra began to play a long free-form chord over twenty-four bars, with each player beginning at his lowest possible note and slowly moving up the scale to his highest, at the same time going from pianissimo to fortissimo, while the sound was fed back into the studio by the one hundred Ambiophonic speakers around the walls, filling the space with a massive wall of sound, more like a live concert than a recording session.

Paul: 'It was a song that John brought over to me at Cavendish Avenue. It was his original idea. He'd been reading the Daily Mail and brought the newspaper with him to my house. We went upstairs to the music room and started to work on it. He had the first verse, he had the war, and a little bit of the second verse.'

John Lennon told Rolling Stone: "'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 ... '

PAUL: 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 he didn't notice that the lights had changed. The 'blew his mind' was purely a drug reference, nothing to do with a car crash. In actual fact I think I spent more time with Tara than John did. I'd taken Tara up to Liverpool. I was with Tara when I had the accident when I split my lip. We were really quite good friends and I introduced him to john. Anyway, if John said he was thinking of Tara, then he was, but in my mind it wasn't to do with that.

Tara Browne was the son of Lord and Lady Oranmore and Browne, whose great-grandfather was the brewer Edward Guinness. Tara went to Eton and, had he lived, would have inherited £1,000,000 at the age of twenty-five. A charming, likeable boy, with a wide grin and his hair brushed forward in a Beatle cut, he was a great friend of Brian Jones and often stayed overnight tripping on LSD with Brian, Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg at Brian's flat in Courtfield Road. In the book Shutters and Blinds Anita described one trip with him: 'I remember being with Tara Browne on one of the first acid trips. He had a Lotus sportscar and suddenly near Sloane Square everything went red. The lights went red, the trees were flaming and we just jumped out of the car and left it there.'

Tara died in the early hours of the morning of 18 December I966, while on his way to visit David Vaughan, who was painting a design on the front of Tara's Kings Road shop Dandy Fashions. He smashed his Lotus Elan into the back of a parked van while swerving to avoid a Volkswagen which had pulled out in his path in Redcliffe Gardens in Earls Court. He was twenty-one. The coroner's report on his death was issued in january I967.

John told Playboy: 'I was reading the paper one day and noticed two stories. One was about the Guinness heir who killed himself in a car. That was the main headline story. He died in London in a car crash. On the next page was a story about four thousand potholes in the streets of Blackburn, Lancashire, that needed to be filled.' The pot-hole story appeared in the 7 january I967 issue of the Daily Mail.
PAUL: We looked through the newspaper and both wrote the verse 'how many holes in Blackburn, Lancashire'. I liked the way he said 'Lan-ca-sheer', which is the way you pronounce it up north. Then I had this sequence that fitted, 'Woke up, fell out of bed ... ' and we had to link them. 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?'
'Yes, but at the same time, our stuff is always very ambiguous and "turn you on" can be sexual so ... c'mon!'
As John and I looked at each other, a little flash went between our eyes, like 'I'd love to turn you on', a recognition of what we were doing, so I thought, Okay, we've got to have something amazing that will illustrate that.
When we took it to the studio I suggested, 'Let's put aside twenty-four bars and just have Mal count them.' They said, 'Well, what are you going to put there?' I said, 'Nothing. It's just going to be, One, chunk chunk chunk; two, chunk chunk chunk; three ... ' And you can hear Mal in the background doing that. He counted down and on bar twenty-four he hit the alarm clock, Brrrrrrr! It was just a period of time, an arbitrary length of bars, which was very Cage thinking. I'm using his name to cover all the sins, but that kind of avant-garde thinking came from the people I had been listening to.

Next they had to come up with something to put in the gap. The twenty-four bars had been recorded with increasing amounts of reverberation on Mal's voice so by the last bar there was a tremendous echo on it. Paul also added discordant piano chords over Mal's countdown when he recorded the grand opening chords and piano track for the song. The basic tracks were recorded on 19 and 20 January 1967, with Ringo adding a new drum track on 3 February. Paul: 'We persuaded Ringo to play tom-toms. It's sensational. He normally didn't like to play lead drums, as it were, but we coached him through it. We said, "Come on, you're fantastic, this will be really beautiful," and indeed it was.'

It was not until another week had passed, during which they worked on Paul's title song 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' and made promo films of 'Penny Lane' and 'Strawberry Fields Forever', that they returned to 'A Day in the Life'. By now, Paul had decided what to do with the twenty-four bars. He asked George Martin for a symphony orchestra. The Beatles had never used one before, and, as a company man, George Martin immediately thought of the cost. He describes his reaction in Summer of Love: 'Nonsense,' I replied. 'You cannot, cannot have a symphony orchestra just for a few chords, Paul. Waste of money. I mean you're talking about ninety musicians!' ... Thus spoke the well-trained corporate lackey still lurking somewhere inside me. Yet my imagination was fired: a symphony orchestra! I could see at once that we could make a lovely sound.

Paul told him what he wanted to do with it and in the end they settled on half an orchestra, forty-one players, which they could then double-track to make a whole.
PAUL: First we wrote out the music for the part where the orchestra had proper chords to do: after 'Somebody spoke and I went into a dream ... ' big pure chords come in. But for the other orchestral parts I had a different idea. I sat John down and suggested it to him and he liked it a lot. I said, 'Look, all these composers are doing really weird avant-garde things and what I'd like to do here is give the orchestra some really strange instructions. We could tell them to sit there and be quiet, but that's been done, or we could have our own ideas based on this school of thought. This is what's going on now, this is what the movement's about.' So this is what we did.

I said, 'Right, to save all the arranging, we'll take the whole orchestra as one instrument.' And I wrote it down like a cooking recipe: I told the orchestra, "There are twenty-four empty bars; on the ninth bar, the orchestra will take off, and it will go from its lowest note to its highest note. You start with the lowest note in the range of your instrument, and eventually go through all the notes of your instrument to the highest note. But the speed at which you do it is your own choice. You've got to get from your lowest to your highest. You don't have to actually use all your notes but you've got to do those two, that's the only restriction.' So that was the brief, a little avant-garde brief.

The orchestra, consisting mostly of members of the New Philharmonia, was unaccustomed to ad-libbing.
PAUL: So we had to go round and talk to them all, seeing them all separate: 'Wot's all this, Paul? What exactly d'you ...'
'In your own speed ... '
'What do you mean, any way I want?'
'Yeah.' The trumpets got the idea rather easily. I said, 'You can do it all in one spurt if you like. But you can't go back. You've got to end at your top note, or have done your top note.'
It was interesting because you found out the internal character of an orchestra; for instance, all the strings went together like sheep, all looked at each other to see who was going up. 'If you're going up, so am I!' They tried to go up together as a bank. Trumpets had no such reservations whatsoever, trumpets are notoriously the guys who go to the pub because you need to wet your whistle, you need plenty of spittle. So they were very free.
This did actually get a little organised by George Martin. I didn't want that amount of restrietion on them and in my instructions to them I didn't give it, but George, knowing a symphony orchestra and their logic, decided to give them little signposts along the way.

The guests moved to the sides of the studio. The two conductors raised their batons - George Martin in evening dress and Paul McCartney in a red butcher's apron and a purple and black psychedelic paisley shirt - and recording began.
The orchestra played the chord through five times in all, and each take was very different. Then George Martin and his team had to synchronise it with their original four-track master since they did not have an eight-track machine. The engineer Ken Townshend lashed up a method of starting all the tape machines simultaneously using a 50-hertz signal, but even then the synchronisation wasn't quite perfect and on the final mix the orchestra can just be heard going in and out of time.
PAUL: And it became what's been referred to as a 'musical icon'. It's a very famous sound bite and of course John loved it. It was great to bring those ideas to it but this is the difference between me and Cage: mine would just be in the middle of a song as a little solo; his would be the whole thing. So we did this, and it was a great session.

If there was ever an example where up-to-date equipment would have improved a recording, it is 'A Day in the Life'. Because EMI was still using antiquated four-track equipment, nine years after American record companies such as Atlantic had switched to eight-track, George Martin was constantly forced to transfer one track to another in order to record the next layer of sound. As well as taking up a tremendous amount of studio time, each transfer multiplies the signal-to-noise ratio, introducing tape hiss: two copies creates four times the amount of hiss but a third copy increases it by nine times, so George Martin was constantly juggling tracks and worrying about keeping a track free. There is a lot of hiss and noise on 'A Day in the Life', as a pair of decent headphones will show. George Martin and his engineers did a brilliant job considering that they were working in a museum, but the sound quality would have been better had it been recorded on modern equipment. It was typical of EMI that when they did finally decide to upgrade, they opted for an eight-track instead of buying one of the sixteen-track machines that had already become standard throughout the industry. By then, however, rock groups had become accustomed to using the top-of-the-line equipment in the independent studios, and EMI had to replace the eight-track with sixteen within a year.

Posted: 29 okt 2012

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