A Day In The Life - Reviews

Quoted from Recording Sessions: p.94-100

Thursday 19 January 1967. Studio Two: 7.30pm - 2.30am. Recording: 'In The Life Of...' (working title of 'A Day In The Life')(takes 1-4). P: George Martin. E: Geoff Emerick. 2E: Phil McDonald..

From little acorns ... The song which was to become the stunning finale of the Beatles' next album, 'A Day In The Life', started out simply - but no less magnificently - as a stark, bare recording. A clear parallel between take one of 'A Day In The Life' (or 'In The Life Of ... ' as it was on this first day only) and take one of 'Strawberry Fields Forever' can be drawn in that both sowed the seeds of what would become epic recordings, yet at their early stages both were no less beautiful in their simplicity. And both, of course, were John Lennon songs.

Take one of 'A Day In The Life' used just two of the four available tracks: a basic rhythm (bongos, maracas, piano and guitar) on track one and a heavily echoed Lennon vocal on track four. At this stage of the recording the Beatles only knew that something would later be taped for the song's middle eight structure. Precisely what they did not know. But to mark out the place where the unknown item would go they had Mal Evans count out the bars, numbers one to 24. And to enter into the true spirit of the Beatles recordings 1967-style, this laboured counting was plastered with tape echo, increasing with the numbers until by 24 it sounded like he was in a cave. He was also backed by the tinkling of a piano, the notes climbing in tandem with the numbers. To mark the end of the middle eight overdub section an alarm clock was sounded. There was no Paul McCartney vocal yet, merely instruments at the point where his contribution would later be placed, but then John's vocal returned, leading into another Mal Evans one to 24 count and then a single piano - building, building, building, building, stop. Breathtaking stuff indeed.

With take four John began a series of vocal overdubs onto the two vacant tracks, so that by the evening's end the four-track tape included three separate Lennon vocals, all with heavy echo. "There was so much echo on 'A Day In The Life'," recalls Geoff Emerick. "We'd send a feed from John's vocal mike into a mono tape machine and then tape the output - because they had separate record and replay heads - and then feed that back in again. Then we'd turn up the record level until it started to feed back on itself and give a twittery sort of vocal sound. John was hearing that echo in his cans [headphones] as he was singing. It wasn't put on after. He used his own echo as a rhythmic feel for many of the songs he sang, phrasing his voice around the echo in his cans."

Friday 20 January 1967. Studio Two: 7.00pm - 1.10am. Recording: 'A Day In The Life' (tape reduction take 4 into takes 5-7, SI onto take 6). P: George Martin. E: Geoff Emerick. 2E: Phil McDonald.

Reduction mixes of take four into five, six and seven, each with different console settings. Take six was 'best' and it was overdubbed with another John Lennon vocal, Paul's bass and Ringo's drums.
There was one other new overdub: Paul's vocal contribution, appearing for the first time, and in perfect juxtaposition to John Lennon's. Here was a prime example of how the two songwriters had evolved: Lennon's song had a beginning and an end but no middle; McCartney's had a middle but no beginning or end. But the two pieces came together like a jigsaw, creating a complete picture and the impression that the two pieces were intended as one. The illusion was compounded by the fact that Paul's vocal, the first line of which was "Woke up, fell out of bed", occurred immediately after the alarm clock had been sounded on the original recording to mark the end of the first 24 bar gap. Making good use of the happy coincidence, the alarm clock was kept on the track permanently.
Actually, Paul re-recorded his vocal on 3 February, instantly wiping out this version. This attempt was just a rough guide, ending on an expletive after he had made an error ('Oh shit...!', PD).

Monday 30 January 1967. Studio Three (control room only): 7.00-8.30pm. Mono mixing: 'A Day In The Life' (remix 1, from take 6). P: George Martin. E: Geoff Emerick. 2E: Richard Lush.

A rough mono remix, for demo purposes only. The Beatles themselves did not attend - they were in Sevenoaks, Kent, for the night-time shooting of the 'Strawberry Fields Forever' promotional film. [They would be similarly employed on 31 January, and on 5 and 7 February they made the 'Penny Lane' clip.]

Friday 3 February 1967. Studio Two: 7.00pm-1.15am. Recording: 'A Day In The Life' (SI onto take 6). P: George Martin. E: Geoff Emerick.

More overdubs onto take six of 'A Day In The Life' including the re-recorded Paul McCartney vocal. When the Beatles heard the 30 January demo remix of 'A Day In The Life' they must have considered the drum and bass sound unsatisfactory, for they also re-recorded both parts again on this night, wiping out the previous attempt in the process. Ringo taped his contribution on tomtoms, giving the song a distinctive percussion sound. "That was entirely his own idea," says George Martin. "Ringo has a tremendous fee I for a song and he always helped us hit the right tempo first time. He was rock solid and this made the recording of all the Beatles' songs so much easier."

Friday 10 February 1967. Studio One: 8.00pm-1.00am. Recording: 'A Day In The Life' (tape reduction take 6 into take 7, reduction of take 7 with SI onto take 6, edit piece takes 8-11). P: George Martin. E: Geoff Emerick. 2E: Richard Lush.

There can be no doubt that 1967 was a heady year for the Beatles. And 10 February must have ranked as one of the highlights. It was Paul who decided upon the best way of filling the 24 bar gap in 'A Day In The Life': an orchestral build-up, with perhaps 90 musicians playing from a pre-selected low note to the highest their respective instruments could play. As usual, the task of making this vision a reality fell to George Martin. "At the very beginning I put into the musical score the lowest note each instrument could play, ending with an E-major chord. And at the beginning of each of the 24 bars I put a note showing roughly where they should be at that point. Then I had to instruct them. 'We're going to start very very quietly and end up very very loud. We're to start very low in pitch and end up very high. You've got to make your own way up there, as slide-y as possible so that the clarinets slurp, trombones gliss, violins slide without fingering any notes. And whatever you do, don't listen to the fellow next to you because I don't want you to be doing the same thing.' Of course they all looked at me as though I was mad ... " "The orchestra just couldn't understand what George was talking about," says Geoff Emerick, "or why they were being paid to go from one note to another in 24 bars. It didn't make any sense to them because they were all classically trained."

Studio documentation shows that 40 outside musicians were employed. The total cost of the musicians was £367 10s, quite an investment. "It was quite a chaotic session," recalls Alan Civil. "Such a big orchestra, playing with very little music. And the Beatle chaps were wandering around with rather expensive cameras, like new toys, photographing everything."

Although only 40 musicians were used instead of 90, Paul McCartney got more than he originally requested because the orchestra was recorded four times, on all four-tracks of a tape, and this was then mixed down to one. So he had the equivalent of 160 musicians. It was clear before the session even began that there might be technical problems and Ken Townsend felt a new invention coming on. "George Martin came up to me that morning and said to me 'Oh Ken, I've got a poser for you. I want to run two four-track tape machines together this evening. I know it's never been done before, can you do it?' So I went away and came up with a method whereby we fed a 50-cycle tone from the track of one machine then raised its voltage to drive the capstan motor of the second, thus running the two in sync. Like all these things, the ideas either work first time or not at all. This one worked first time. At the session we ran the Beatles' rhythm track on one machine, put an orchestral track on the second machine, ran it back, did it again, and again, and again until we had four orchestra recordings. The only problem arose sometime later when George and I were doing a mix with two different machines. One of them was sluggish in starting up and we couldn't get the damn things into sync. George got quite annoyed with me actually." George is more forgiving today: "The synchronisation was rather a hit-and-miss affair and the orchestra is slightly out of time in places, but it doesn 't matter."

George Martin and Paul McCartney conducted the orchestra, leaving Geoff Emerick to get the sounds down on tape in the correct manner. "It was only by careful fader manipulation that I was able to get the crescendo of the orchestra at the right time. I was gradually bringing it up, my technique being slightly psychological in that I'd bring it up to a point and then slightly fade it back in level without the listener being able to discern this was happening, and then I'd have about 4 dB's in hand at the end. It wouldn't have worked if I'd just shoved the level up to start with."
The recording was made using the unique 'ambiophonics' system of the massive Abbey Road studio one, whereby 100 loudspeakers, fitted symmetrically to all four walls, artificially tailor the acoustics by feeding signals delayed at different intervals, the resulting sound being called 'ambiophony'.

But the technical aspects of the recording tell only half the story. The session was more than anything else an event. "The Beatles asked me, and the musicians, to wear full evening dress, which we did," recalls George Martin. "I left the studio at one point and came back to find one of the musicians, David McCallum, wearing a red clown's nose and Erich Gruenberg, leader of the violins, wearing a gorilla's paw on his bow hand. Everyone was wearing funny hats and carnival novelties. I just fell around laughing!" "I remember that they stuck balloons onto the ends of the two bassoons," says violinist Sidney Sax. "They went up and down as the instruments were played and they filled with air!"

"Only the Beatles could have assembled a studio full of musicians, many from the Royal Philharmonic or the London Symphony Orchestras, all wearing funny hats, red noses, balloons on their bows and putting up with headphones clipped around their Stradivari violins acting as microphones," jokes Peter Vince, who - like many of the Abbey Road engineers - attended as a spectator and was highly impressed with what he saw. Tony Clark didn't even bother to go inside the studio; by just standing outside the door he could feel the excitement. "I was speechless, the tempo changes - everything in that song - was just so dramatic and complete. I felt so privileged to be there ... I walked out of the Abbey Road that night thinking 'What am I going to do now?' It really did affect me." Malcolm Davies recalls Ron Richards sitting in the corner of the control room with his head in his hands, saying "I just can't believe it .. .I give up". "He was producing the Hollies," says Davies, "and I think he knew that the Beatles were just uncatchable. It blew him away ... "

As Alan Civil noted, the entire session was filmed. In early 1967 the weekly pop music newspapers regularly reported the Beatles' plan to make a television special about the making of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It never happened, but the footage shot on this night was to have been the start and it duly captured the craziness of the evening, making for a compelling, if chaotic, little film, with all of the musicians in evening dress, everyone - including John Lennon - wearing silly novelties like upside down spectacles, plastic stick-on nipples, imitation bald heads, red noses, false eyes, fake cigars and knotted handkerchiefs on heads. It also shows George's wife Pattie Harrison and the many friends especially invited along by the Beatles - among them Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richard, Mike Nesmith, Donovan and Simon and Marijke of designers the Fool. [Marijke played a tambourine during the orchestral overdub which appeared on the final record.] It shows girl fans being ejected by Neil Aspinall and bubbles floating around the expanse of studio one. Tony Bramwell, an employee of Brian Epstein's NEMS company and in charge of the shooting, remembers the outcome. "It never got shown because the BBC banned the song, thinking it related to drugs. But the party idea was picked up again for the 'All You Need Is Love' broadcast."

It would almost be superfluous to state that the original tapes of the night's work are immensely absorbing. But they are revealing too, showing how - when the orchestra had packed up and gone home - the Beatles and various friends (at least one female voice is evident) gathered around the studio microphone and attempted to record the song's coda - later a crashing piano chord - which at this stage was going to be a long 'hummmmmm'. "Eight beats, remember" says Paul, leading them into the first take of this edit piece. This and two others (numbered eight to ten) dissolved, understandably, into laughter. But take 11 was good so onto this the ensemble recorded three overdubs, filling the four-track tape. It was undoubtedly a fine idea, and it was to remain the best solution to ending the song until the famous piano chord was recorded on 22 February.
The tapes also reveal how, at the end of the orchestra's tremendous 33½ second build-up near the end of the song, everyone in the studio broke into a spontaneous barrage of applause. This, too, makes for remarkable listening. It must have been a remarkable night in all ways, best summed up by George Martin. "When we'd finished doing the orchestral bit one part of me said 'We're being a bit self-indulgent here'. The other part of me said 'It's bloody marvellous!"

Monday 13 February 1967. Studio Two: 7.00pm - 3.30am. Mono-mixing: 'A Day In The Life' (remixes 2-5, from take 7). Recording: 'Not Known' (working title of 'Only A Northern Song')(takes 1-9) P: George Martin. E: Geoff Emerick. 2E: Richard Lush.

George Harrison's initial song for Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was 'Only A Northern Song', its title being a wry comment on the fact that it would be published by Northern Songs Ltd, the company 50 per cent owned by Oick James and 50 per cent by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Brian Epstein's NEMS Enterprises Ltd. George himself was only a contracted songwriter. (Actually, in keeping with George's frequent shortage of songtitles, it was known on this day as 'Not Known'!). But 'Only A Northern Song' did not end up on Sgt Pepper, indeed it didn't show up on record until January 1969 as part of the Yellow Submarine film soundtrack album. Once again, Beatles myth has the real story all wrong, one book - basing its "facts" directly from a quote - stating that 'Only A Northern Song' was written very much at the last minute, in the spring of 1968, at 2 o'clock in the morning at Abbey Road "with the London Symphony Orchestra waiting patiently to go home". There was certainly no London Symphony Orchestra [which The Beatles never contracted anyway] in Abbey Road on this night in February 1967 when the Beatles recorded 9 takes of the song's rhtythm track - only four complete and the 'best' being take 3. Vocals would follow the next day.

Wednesday 22 February 1967. Studio Two: 7.00pm-3.45am. Recording: 'A Day In The Life' (edit pieces 1-9). Mono mixing: 'A Day In The Life' (remixes 6-9, from takes 6 and 7). Editing: 'A Day In The Life' (of remix mono 9 and edit piece take 9). Stereo mixing: 'A Day In The Life' (remixes 1-9, from takes 6 and 7). Recording: 'Anything' [aka 'Drum Track (1)']. P: George Martin. E: Geoff Emerick. 2E: Richard Lush.

There remained the question of how to end 'A Day In The Life'; how to follow the staggering build up of orchestrated sound after the final Lennon lyrics. The 'choir' of voices (as it was so described) taped at the end of the eventful 10 February session was clearly along the right lines, but not powerful enough. Judging by the original tape of this session, Paul was in charge of the special overdub.
Paul: "Have you got your loud pedal down, Mal?"
Mal [Evans]: "Which one's that?"
Paul: "The right hand one, far right. It keeps the echo going."
John: "Keep it down the whole time."
Paul: "Right. On four then. One, two, three ... "
What followed was the sound of John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans sharing three pianos and simultaneously hitting E major. Bunnggggg.

It took nine takes to perfect because the four players were rarely able to hit the keys at precisely the same time. Take seven was a good attempt, lasting longer than any other at 59 seconds. But it was take nine which was considered 'best' so it was overdubbed three more times, with George Martin compounding the sound further on a harmonium, until all four tracks of the tape were full. The resultant wall of sound, which lasted for 53½ seconds (it was faded a little early on the record), was the perfect ending.
Geoff Emerick, up in the control room, once again had to ensure that every last droplet of sound from the studio was captured onto tape. To do this he used heavy compression and all the while was manually lifting the volume faders, which started close to their lowest point and gradually made their way to the maximum setting. "By the end the attenuation was enormous," says George Martin. "You could have heard a pin drop." Pins dropping there are not, but one can hear a rustle of paper and achair squeaking. lnterviewed in 1987, after the compact disc release of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Geoff Emerick noted, "Actually the sound could have gone on a bit longer but in those days the speakers weren't able to reproduce it. So we thought there wasn't any more sound but there was - the compact disc proves it."

The Beatles were especially keen to sit in on the remixes of 'A Day In The Life', mono and stereo, and these were done next, utilising the two tape machines in sync, as invented by Ken Townsend on 10 February. But there was still some time left at the end of this session so the Beatles set about recording another of their experimental tapes. Ringo was to the fore in this one, the tape being 22 minutes and 10 seconds of drum beat, augmented by tambourine and congas. Quite what is was meant for is not clear. It was certainly never used, nor was it remixed.
It was customary by 1967 for friends of the Beatles to pop into their sessions at Abbey Road and spend some time chatting. A visitor on this evening was David Crosby of the American group the Byrds.

Thursday 23 February 1967. Studio Two: 7.00pm-3.45am. Stereo mixing: 'A Day In The Life' (remixes 10-12, from takes 6 and 7). Editing: 'A Day In The Life' (of remix stereo 12 and edit piece 9). Recording: 'Lovely Rita' (takes 1-8, tape reduction take 8 into take 9). P: George Martin. E: Geoff Emerick. 2E: Richard Lush.

Posted: 27 okt 2009

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