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  1. Abbey Road (album)
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A Day in the Life

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


"A Day in the Life" is a song composed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and recorded for The Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. The song was actually a merging of two different, but ultimately complementary, song fragments originally authored independently by Lennon and McCartney. McCartney's fragment was added to the middle of Lennon's. Featuring impressionistic lyrics, innovative production techniques and a complex arrangement including a cacophonous, partially-improvised orchestral crescendo, the song is considered to be one of the most ambitious, influential, and groundbreaking works in pop music history.

Inspiration from a newspaper

Lennon started writing the song while reading the Daily Mail newspaper. Two stories caught his eye; one was about the death of Tara Browne, the heir to the Guinness fortune, and friend of The Beatles, who, on December 18, 1966, drove his Lotus Elan into the back of a parked lorry in Redcliffe Square, South Kensington, London. The other was about a plan to fill 4,000 potholes in the streets of Blackburn, Lancashire.

However, the song did not include a literal description of Browne's fatal accident. Lennon said: "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." Later, fans eager to locate clues about McCartney's supposed death seized upon this segment of the song as a depiction of his alleged accident.

Lennon also sang about how the English army "won the war" in the song. Although Lennon is not known to have explained his exact intention, it is thought to be a reference to Lennon's role in the surrealist comedy film How I Won the War, which saw release in October of that year.

McCartney then added the middle section, which was a short piano piece he had been working on previously, with lyrics about a commuter whose uneventful morning routine leads him to drift off into a reverie. McCartney also contributed the line "I'd love to turn you on," which serves as a chorus to the first section of the song. Lennon explained:

McCartney explained that he wrote the piece as a wistful recollection of his younger years:

McCartney's section of the song was followed by a short wordless vocal chorus which segued back into Lennon's part of the song. This chorus was used a year later by 1970s rock band Deep Purple for their first single Hush.

On August 27, 1992, Lennon's original handwritten lyrics to the song were auctioned, eventually selling for US$87,000 (£50,000).

Impromptu work in the studio

"A Day in the Life" is characterised by crescendoes and sudden instrumental changes. The repeated motif at the end is the infamous "studio chatter".
"A Day in the Life" is characterised by crescendoes and sudden instrumental changes. The repeated motif at the end is the infamous "studio chatter".

The Beatles began recording this new song, at that point titled "In the Life Of. . ." on January 19, 1967, but at the time, Lennon had not yet decided how he would fill in a glaring gap in the song. The two sections of the song were separated by 24 bars. At first, The Beatles were not sure how to fill this transition; at the conclusion of the recording session for the basic tracks this section 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 effect, perhaps an early indication of the bands' desire to have some type of crescendo during this section. The Beatles, particularly Lennon, were enamored of echo effects at this time; Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick recalled: "We'd send a feed from John's vocal mic into a mono tape machine and then tape the output. . . 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."

The 24-bar bridge section ended with the sound of an alarm clock triggered by Evans. The original intent was to edit out the ringing of the alarm clock when The Beatles had filled in the missing section, but because it complemented McCartney's piece very well (particularly because the first line of McCartney's song began "woke up, fell out of bed"), the decision was made to keep the sound. Perhaps it would have remained in any event; Martin later made a cryptic mention that editing it out would have been unfeasible.[1]

Lennon experienced another problem from his unfinished job of composing the song — as he recalled: "And when we came to record the song there was still one word missing from that verse... I knew the line had to go, 'Now they know how many holes it takes to — something — the Albert Hall.' For some reason I couldn't think of the verb. What did the holes do to the Albert Hall? It was [Lennon's friend] Terry Doran who said 'fill' the Albert Hall. And that was it. Then we thought we wanted a growing noise to lead back into the first bit. We wanted to think of a good end and we had to decide what sort of backing and instruments would sound good. Like all our songs, they never become an entity until the very end. They are developed all the time as we go along."[2]

An orchestral "freak out"

The basic track for the song was refined with remixing and additional parts added at recording sessions on January 20 and February 3. By now the original name for the song had been abandoned in favour of the eventual final title. However, The Beatles still had no solution in sight to their missing section of the song, when McCartney had the idea of bringing in a full orchestra and having them "freak out" for the 24-bar middle section. Concern arose, however, that classically-trained musicians would not be able to improvise in this manner, so producer George Martin had to write a loose score for the section — an extended, atonal crescendo — for the musicians to follow (the 41-piece orchestra was also encouraged to improvise within the defined framework).

The orchestral part for the song was recorded on February 10, with McCartney and Martin conducting a 40-piece orchestra. The recording session was completed at a total cost of £367 for the players, considered an extravagance at the time. Martin later described explaining his improvised score to the puzzled orchestra: "What I did there was to write, at the beginning of the twenty-four bars, 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 each instrument could reach that was 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 also recounted explaining to the orchestra how it was to be done, and the amusing result: "Then I went around to all the trumpet players and said, 'Look, all you've got to do is start at the beginning of the 24 bars and go through all the notes on your instrument from the lowest to the highest — and the highest has to happen on that 24th bar, that's all. So you can blow 'em all in that first thing and then rest, then play the top one there if you want, or you can steady them out.' And it was interesting because I saw the orchestra's characters. The strings were like sheep — they all looked at each other: 'Are you going up? I am!' and they'd all go up together, the leader would take them all up. The trumpeters were much wilder."

McCartney had originally wanted a 90-piece orchestra but this proved unfeasible; the difference was more than made up, however, as the semi-improvised segment was recorded multiple times and eventually four different recordings were overdubbed into a single massive crescendo. For all the chaos of the recording session, the results were a brilliant success; in the final edit of the song the orchestral crescendo is reprised, in even more cacophonous fashion, at the conclusion of the song.

It had been prearranged for this session to be filmed by NEMS Enterprises for use in a planned television special. However, the film was never released in its entirety, although portions of it can be seen in the "A Day In The Life" promotional film, including shots of studio guests like Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richards, Donovan, Pattie Boyd and Michael Nesmith.

Reflecting The Beatles' taste for experimentation and avant garde at this point, the orchestra players (mostly conservative, middle-aged professional musicians) were decked out in formal dress for the film, but also asked to wear or were given a "fancy dress" piece, leading to different players wearing anything from red noses to fake stick-on nipples. George Martin recalled that the lead violinist performed wearing a gorilla paw, while a bassoon player placed a balloon on the end of his instrument.

The chord

Following the final orchestral crescendo, the song ends with one of the most famous final chords in music history: John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Evans, simultaneously playing an E-major chord on three different pianos. The sound of the final chord was manipulated to ring out for as long as possible (nearly a minute) by increasing the sound level to the tape as the vibration faded out (near the end of the chord the recording levels were turned so high that the sound of papers rustling, a chair squeaking, and someone saying "Shhh!" as if they are advising the band members or production staff to keep quiet can all be heard. Some claim that the hum of the Abbey Road studios air conditioning can be heard, despite the fact that the chord was recorded in February).

The piano chord was a replacement for a failed vocal experiment: on the evening following the orchestra recording session, The Beatles had originally recorded an ending of their voices humming the chord, but, even after multiple overdubs, found that they wanted something with more impact.

Due to the multiple takes required to perfect the orchestral cacophony and the finishing chord, as well as The Beatles' considerable procrastination in composing the song, the total duration of time spent recording "A Day in the Life" was 34 hours, a rather long time for the production of one song by The Beatles and standing in marked contrast to their earliest work: their first album, Please Please Me, was recorded in its entirety in only 10 hours.

Prior to the release of The Beatles Anthology Volume 3 CD, Paul McCartney was reported to promise a "big surprise" at the end of the disc. Fans speculated it was to be another "new" Beatles song (after the previous "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love"), but instead turned out to be what the liner notes listed as a "final chord" at the end of the CD's final track, "The End". The "final chord" turned out to be the final crashing note of "A Day In The Life" played backwards to the point where it began, then forwards as it normally plays on the "Sgt. Pepper" album (the only clue to the chord's identity was in the album's liner notes listing the recording date in 1967—two years before "The End" was recorded. Also, the same chair-squeak that was in the Pepper version is audible, which clued other people into its identity).

After the chord

Immediately following the dying moments of the crashing piano chord is an extremely high-pitched tone - too high-pitched for most humans to hear (though some can) but audible to dogs and other animals. The high tone was inserted, as was John Lennon's intention, to irritate the owner's dog.

This noise is interrupted by a loop of incomprehensible Beatles studio chatter, spliced together apparently at random, so that some sections would play forward and others backward. The phrase "Never could see any other way, Aha" can clearly be discerned, and is repeated 'endlessly'. This noise was placed in the concentric run-out groove of the vinyl LP. If the listener's record player had an auto return mechanism, a short burst of noise would be heard before the needle was lifted and moved back into place. Otherwise, the sound would loop infinitely, leading the listener to wonder if something had gone wrong with the record or the record player. Rumours of a 'hidden message', audible only when one played the vinyl copy backwards, abounded for many years without substantiation. This was mainly due to the practical difficulties involved with manually spooling the record backwards whilst maintaining a constant speed.

This combined coda to "A Day In The Life" and the Sgt. Pepper LP was included in British pressings but not in American pressings. The 1987 CD rerelease - in any country - recreates this effect, although, since an infinite loop cannot be created on compact discs, the Beatle chatter is looped eight or nine times before fading slowly out.

On Anthology II, in an early, pre-orchestral version of the song, Paul can be clearly heard saying "You know, the problem with doing something like this..." before the song cuts out.

The Who lampooned this effect later in 1967 with their album The Who Sell Out. The album, an ode to pirate radio that included genuine and false advertisements, ended with an infinite loop featuring voices repeating the words "Track Records" - The Who's record label - over and over.

Brand New also lampooned this noise on their 2003 album Deja Entendu. After the ending of the final track, "Play Crack the Sky", you can hear lead singer Jesse Lacey walk to the back of the room, sing the noise in an upwards crescendo and walk out of a door.

Lyrics and alternate versions

Lyrically, the song is actually a fitting together of two entirely different pieces of music, segued together seamlessly to create a powerful and disturbing portrait of a narrator so consumed by the distractions of his everyday life that he is equally unmoved by a tragic car crash, a brutal war film, and a story about potholes, each of which is recounted in the same trivial tone. At the end of the otherwise fairly upbeat Sgt. Pepper album, this sudden note of profound fatalism is rather startling. A sound bite from the song is available.

The song has been released in several versions with minor variations. The version on Sgt. Pepper has its beginning cross-faded with the end of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)". The versions on the LP release of The Beatles 1967–1970 (the "Blue Album") collection and on a 1978 single have a fade-in in the intro, while the 1988 compilation album Imagine John Lennon and the CD release of The Beatles 1967–1970 have the song with a clean intro. The Anthology 2 release includes an alternate take of the basic track starting with John's bizarre count-in of "Sugar-plum fairy, sugar-plum fairy", then edited together with an alternate mix of the "Woke up, fell out of bed" section, which ends in Paul flubbing the vocal line and swearing.


The song became notorious for its supposedly numerous references to drugs — on June 1, 1967 (two days before the Sgt. Pepper LP was released), the BBC announced it was banning "A Day in the Life" from British stations due to the "I'd love to turn you on" line, which according to them, implicitly advocated drug use. Other verses of the song allegedly referring to drugs include the verses "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."[3]

Lennon and McCartney publicly complained about the ban at a dinner party their manager, Brian Epstein, hosted, to celebrate their new album. Lennon said: "The laugh is that Paul and I wrote this song from a headline in a newspaper. It's about a crash and its victim. How can anyone read drugs into it is beyond me. Everyone seems to be falling overboard to see the word drug in the most innocent of phrases." McCartney said about his part of the song: "The BBC have misinterpreted the song. It has nothing to do with drug taking. It's only about a dream."[4]

McCartney later flatly denied the allegations regarding the verse that got his and Lennon's song banned from British Broadcasting Corporation's stations: "This [line] was the only one on the album written as a deliberate provocation. But what we want to do is to turn you on to the truth rather than on to pot." However, regarding McCartney's segment of the song, Martin said, "At the time I had a strong suspicion that 'went upstairs and had a smoke' was a drug reference. They always used to disappear and have a little puff but they never did it in front of me. They always used to go down to the canteen and Mal Evans used to guard it."

It has been claimed that the BBC's ban has not officially been lifted, but like other former BBC bans it has clearly fallen into abeyance, because the Corporation has played the song quite frequently in recent years. "A Day In The Life" was, tellingly, the last song played by the British offshore pirate station Radio London before it closed down on August 14, 1967 to avoid contravening the Marine Etc. (Broadcasting) Offences Act - pop radio would soon be put into the hands of the BBC, and "Big L" were clearly reflecting a strong feeling at the time that the BBC could never do pop radio in the true, uncensored sense in the way that the much-mourned offshore stations could.[5]

The song also became an integral part of the "Paul Is Dead" urban legend, with part of the song falling under suspicion as the depiction of a motor accident which proved fatal for McCartney.[6]

Controversy about the song remained some 34 years later: In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, a list of songs, including "A Day in the Life", circulated on the Internet purportedly from Clear Channel Communications to its affiliates recommending that the listed songs not be played in order to avoid hurting the sensitivities of the American public (it was later revealed that the original list was the work of a few program directors working on their own, and that the list grew and changed as it was circulated). An urban legend was perpetuated that the intent was an officially sanctioned ban on the listed songs, but this has been denied by Clear Channel Communications.[7]


The song placed twelfth on CBC's 50 Tracks, the second highest Beatles song on the list, second to "In My Life", and also placed 26th on the Rolling Stone Magazine's list of the 500 best songs of all time. It was placed first in Q Magazine's list of the 50 greatest British songs of all time, and also came top of Mojo Magazine's 101 Greatest Beatles Songs, as decided by a panel of musicians and journalists.


  1. ^ Steve's Beatles Page: A Day in the Life and Applecorps: A Day in the Life.
  2. ^ Daily Mail article, 7 January 1967. Web citation of article.
  3. ^ Beatles' song nasty. Retrieved on 2006-09-24.
  4. ^ Associated Press, "Beatles' song nasty -- BBC", 9 June 1967.
  5. ^ "A Day In The Life" in Context. Retrieved on 2006-09-24.
  6. ^ L. John Perkins, A Day in the Life. Bangor, ME: Booklocker, 30 December 2005, ISBN 1591138590. Google Book Search: Page 82
  7. ^ [ HITS Daily Double: Clear Channels List of Songs with Questionable Lyrics


  • Rogers, Joyce A. (1996). Amuse Yourself!. Retrieved Sept. 8, 2004.
  • The Beatles Studio. Retrieved Sept. 8, 2004.
  • Marcos' Beatles Page. Retrieved Sept. 8, 2004.
  • Ottawa Beatles Site. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2004.
  • The Ultimate Beatles Experience. Retrieved Sept. 8, 2004.
  • Retrieved Sept. 8, 2004.
  • Lewisohn, Mark, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Hamlyn, 1998
  • The Beatles Anthology, Chronicle, 2000

External links

  • MoreThings Al Barger's analysis
  • Alan W. Pollack's analysis of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club (Reprise)" and "A Day in the Life"
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