Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “The Beatles” Edition” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s and 70’s. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
The Beatles A Day in The LifeA 41-piece orchestra played on this song. The musicians were told to attend the session dressed formally. When they got there, they were presented with party novelties (false noses, party hats, gorilla-paw glove) to wear, which made it clear this was not going to be a typical session. The orchestra was conducted by Paul McCartney, who told them to start with the lowest note of their instruments and gradually play to the highest.
This was recorded in three sessions: first the basic track, then the orchestra, then the last note was dubbed in.
The beginning of this song was based on two stories John Lennon read in the Daily Mail newspaper: Guinness heir Tara Browne dying when he smashed his lotus into a parked van, and an article in the UK Daily Express in early 1967 which told of how the Blackburn Roads Surveyor had counted 4000 holes in the roads of Blackburn and commented that the volume of material needed to fill them in was enough to fill the Albert Hall. Lennon took some liberties with the Tara Browne story – he changed it so he “Blew his mind out in the car.”
Regarding the article about Tara Browne, John Lennon stated: “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.” At the time, Paul didn’t realize the reference was to Tara. He thought it was about a “stoned politician.” The article regarding the “4000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” was taken from the UK Daily Express, January 17, 1967 in a column called “Far And Near.”
John’s friend Terry Doran was the one who completed John’s line, “Now they know how many holes it takes to fill…” Terry told him “fill the Albert Hall, John.”
McCartney contributed the line “I’d love to turn you on.” This was a drug reference, but the BBC banned it because of another section, which they assumed was about marijuana:
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream
The ban was finally lifted when author David Storey picked it as one of his Desert Island Discs.
Speaking with GQ in 2018, Paul McCartney explained this song’s origin story: “‘A Day In The Life’ was a song that John had started. He had the first verse, and this often happened: one of us would have a little bit of an idea and instead of sitting down and sweating it, we’d just bring it to the other one and kind of finish it together, because you could ping-pong – you’d get an idea. So he had the first verse: ‘I read the news today oh boy,’ and we sat in my music room in London and just started playing around with it, got a second verse, and then we got to what was going to lead into the middle. We kind of looked at each other and knew we were being a little bit edgy where we ‘I’d love to turn you on.’ We knew that would have an effect.
It worked. And then we put on another section I had: ‘Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head.’ Then we finished the song up and did a big sort of epic recording of it with a big full orchestra and everything. And then did that crescendo thing in the middle of it with the orchestra, which was an idea I’d had because I’d been talking to people and reading about avant-garde music, tonal stuff and crazy ideas. I came up with this idea. I said to the orchestra, ‘You should start, all of you.’ And they sat all looking at me puzzled. We’ve got a real symphony orchestra in London who are used to playing Beethoven, and here’s me, this crazy guy out of a group and I’m saying, ‘Everyone start on the lowest note your instrument can play and work your way up to the highest at your own pace.’ That was too puzzling for them, and orchestras don’t like that kind of thing. They like it written down and they like to know exactly what they’re supposed to do. So George Martin, the producer, said to the people, ‘You should leave this note and this point in the song, and then you should go to this note and this note,’ and he left the random thing, so that’s why it sounds like a chaotic sort of swirl. That was an idea based on the avant-garde stuff I was into at the time.”The final chord was produced by all four Beatles and George Martin banging on three pianos simultaneously. As the sound diminished, the engineer boosted to faders. The resulting note lasts 42 seconds; the studio air conditioners can be heard toward the end as the faders were pushed to the limit to record it.
The rising orchestra-glissando and the thundering sound are reminiscent of “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” from Richard Wagner’s opera “Das Rheingold,” where after the rising glissando, Thor beats with his hammer. George Martin said in his 1979 book All You Need is Earsthat the glissando was Lennon’s idea. After Lennon’s death, Martin seems to have changed his mind. In his 1995 book Summer of Love: The Making of Sgt. Pepper, he states that the rising orchestra-glissando was McCartney’s idea.
This being the last song on the album, The Beatles found an interesting way to close it out. After the final note, Lennon had producer George Martin dub in a high pitched tone, which most humans can’t hear, but drives dogs crazy. This was followed by a loop of incomprehensible studio noise, along with Paul McCartney saying, “Never could see any other way,” all spliced together. It was put there so vinyl copies would play this continuously in the run-out groove, sounding like something went horribly wrong with the record. Another good reason to own vinyl.
In 2004, McCartney did an interview with the Daily Mirror newspaper where he said he was doing cocaine around this time along with marijuana. “I’d been introduced to it, and at first it seemed OK, like anything that’s new and stimulating,” he said. “When you start working your way through it, you start thinking, ‘This is not so cool and idea,’ especially when you start getting those terrible comedowns.”
The movie reference in the lyrics (“I saw a film today, oh boy. The English Army had just won the war”) is to a film John Lennon acted in called How I Won The War.