A Day In The Life

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At 5’03″, A Day In The Life was longer than anything The Beatles had previously released. John Lennon‘s vocal were smothered in tape echo, his lines ‘answered’ by Starr with a series of intuitive drum fills.

I only have one rule and that is to play with the singer. If the singer’s singing, you don’t really have to do anything, just hold it together. If you listen to my playing, I try to become an instrument; play the mood of the song. For example, ‘Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire,’ – boom ba bom. I try to show that; the disenchanting mood. The drum fills are part of it.

While recording A Day In The Life, The Beatles knew that something would fill the sections after the “I’d love to turn you on” lines. They had their assistant Mal Evans count out 24 bars, with Lennon’s piano notes climbing with each number.

To mark the beginning of the middle eight an alarm clock was sounded; although intended to be temporary, it worked well with Paul McCartney‘s middle section, and so was kept in the final version.

I said, ‘We’ll take 24 bars, we’ll count it, we’ll just do our song, and we’ll leave 24 bare. You could actually hear Mal counting it out, with more and more echo because we thought it was kinda freaky.
Paul McCartney

McCartney also had the idea of filling the gaps with an orchestral build up. Forty musicians were employed at a total cost of £367 10s, and the passages were recorded four times via two synced tape machines – the first time such a feat had been achieved in a British studio.

George Martin and McCartney conducted the orchestral glissando, with Martin supplying some basic instructions to the musicians, many of whom were from the Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras.

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 slidey 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…
George Martin
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

McCartney explained how the musicians’ personalities came out in their playing.

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. The jazz guys, they liked the brief. The musicians with the more conventional instruments would behave more conventionally.
Paul McCartney
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

At the end of the orchestral recording, the musicians broke into spontaneous applause. After they had left the studio, The Beatles and a number of friends attempted to record an ending for A Day In The Life. Initially this was to be a hummed vocal chord, taking 11 attempts to get right.

Twelve days later it was replaced by the famous crashing piano chord. Lennon, McCartney, Starr and Mal Evans shared three pianos and simultaneously played an E major chord. They needed to hit the keys at exactly the same time, and take nine was the best, lasting 53 seconds.

69 responses on “A Day In The Life

  1. richard calvert

    ‘A Day In The Life’,… you can almost see it being typed out on paper as the title of a news story;…
    Flash! Just out across the headline news! Speaking for the generation of young people growing up and living out their daily lives; the ‘Ah’ sung and final key played, summed it all up! The Beatles transcended their time to become, larger than life, to truly become ‘the history’ of their own time! Like Mozart, List, and Bethoven before them! This Album and this song resurrected them, metamorphized them, and historically hung them musically in the Louve of modern recorded sound, music and lyrical poetic greatness! We still owe them a big debt of gratitude for their creative genius and courage!
    I believe their MBE’s we’re well deserved…. Her Majesty was also truely, ‘ahead of her time’..,Yes!

  2. Jeff

    When I watch Anthology and you see George Martin playing the song and you see GM, reflecting back on the actual moment

    Its like you can see the words on his forehead, the video in his mind, remembering this great moment

  3. Scott

    Just for fun, here’s an interesting mash-up involving “A Day In the Life” and “Karma Police”. Hopefully it’s okay to post links here…if not, you can remove it. Anyone who doubts that Radiohead was heavily influenced by the Beatles should check this out.

    1. Julio

      Ringo’s drums are just beautiful! In my opinion this is the only song on the album that is really recorded well. I am always in the mood for this one. I will never tire of it. “4,000 holes in Blackburn, lancashire”

  4. Coffee Shop

    If you can find the multitrack version of this, get it! It’s a fascinating listen… especially the vocal track. The cycle-of-fifths chord progression (I think of it as the “dream” part) with Lennon’s “aah ahh ahh” vocals is REALLY spooky when you hear it isolated. The bass and drum track is also very cool.

    1. Wenko Millaard

      Nice you mentioned that part! It has intrigued me because it’s a separate part in the song but I’ve never read anything about it anywhere in books or on the internet, where it came from or who wrote it. Actually my suspicion is that it was an either conscious or subconscious ripp-off of the chord progression to Hey Joe!

  5. revloveR

    Hello Joe! I hate to be boring but shouldn’t Mal Evans be given some form of credit for sounding the alarm clock and counting in the 24 orchestral bars? Both elements greatly add to the song’s atmosphere. Perhaps the term for the count-in could be “backing vocal”?

  6. TheOneBeatle

    The best song created of all time.
    Lennon’s dreamful echoed vocals.
    McCartney’s excellent middle section and sublime bass and backing vocals
    along with George in the ”ahhhh…” section, my favorite along with the orchestra and well, all the whole song.
    Oh, and Ringo’s best drumming of all Beatles song, the best drum i’d ever heard.
    And of course, Mal Evans and the 24-bar section, and the massive Orchestra playing like crazy.
    I have the multitrack tapes from a bootleg, and i remixed the song with the original hum ending and piano chords, and remixed channels.
    But i’d to attempt around 51 mixes to get it right.
    Yup, 51 mixes.
    That’s a record for me.
    I never worked on a song so much attemps and it’s hard to mix it correctly and remaster it.
    Obviously, i would never compare it with 2009 Remasters. These are unbeatable.
    Again, the best song ever created.

  7. Coolazu

    I always thought the ‘holes’ reference was John being smart with what I deemed to be his typical word play i.e. really refering to how many ‘ass-holes’ it took to fill Albert Hall. The information on this site doesnt really point at my assumption as being correct, but (and poetically), this is my intepretation and I believe Johns subliminally intended. How many ass-holes does it take to fill Albert Hall?

    1. McLerristarr

      If that was true, it would probably have been “arse-holes” but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard The Beatles ever say “arse-hole” or “ass-hole”.

      1. Joono

        In the authaurised biography by Hunter Davies it says that it refering to how much cement it would take to fill all the pot holes in that area. it equalled ot enough cement to fill hte albert hall, therefore “how many holes it takes to fill hte albert hall”

    1. Zig

      On the Anthology DVD George Martin said that George Harrison played the maracas. I belive I read that Joe is going to do an article on the Antholgy CD’s soon. Stay tuned to the site.

        1. paulsbass

          I just listened to the vocal track on youtube. Great!!

          And I am now 110 percent sure that the “Aaaa” part is sung by – Paul McCartney!
          Check out the very last seconds to make sure.

          Sorry, EltonJohnLennon, but John didn’t do that one.

        1. EltonJohnLennon

          Oh my God. And you say you are a fan of Paul McCartney? You should know his voice. Paul sings right before that part. You must hear the difference. And don’t say Paul could sing like John.

          Paul is on backing vocals – with George.

          1. paulsbass

            Well, for someone calling himself after John you don’t seem to know his voice very well.
            Paul’s voice is “fuller” than John’s.
            The last high “aaah” sounds like John the most, but at the very, very end it is most obviously Paul.

            The high “aahs” in the background sound very much like John, on the other hand.

            Btw:
            Put in your White Album copy.
            Play “Why don’t we do it in the road” and the next track “I will”.
            You must hear the difference.
            Still both Paul.

            1. EltonJohnLennon

              Very nasty what you said about my CD collection. I have the remastered version of the “White Album”. This “copy”-attack says a lot about your niveau but not about mine.

              I’ve listened to the track on youtube. The backing vocals are scarcely audible. It is nearly impossible to hear who sings it. The lead vocals are so dominant. So you can’t say that you identified John’s voice.

              You say in the last two seconds it sounds very much like Paul. That’s ridiculous. What about the rest? It is so obviously John.

              But, you’re right. This discussion doesn’t make sense. I will never accept that it’s Paul because it’s not true. “A Day in the Life” is John’s song. Paul’s contribution is the very simple middle part.

              1. paulsbass

                I hope Joe will let me say that I didn’t mean to “attack” anyone with the word “copy” in any way.
                I’m not a native English speaker.
                Don’t you say “Good album, you should get a copy”?

  8. Gustavo Solórzano Alfaro

    Both Martin’s and Emerick’s books credit John for the original idea of the building-up sound for the 24 bars. Then, they said McCartney suggested an orchestra, and since they don’t get a full orchestra, it was Ringo (yes, amazing) who suggested double-tracking. But then again, John’s ideas were exactly what Martin used for the free-form score.

    Also, Emerick confirm that the “I’d love you to turn…” part was there in the first John demo.

    But there are more:

    Ringo plays bongos and Harrison maracas, and then Martin decided to switch them. But then again, why we can hear Lennon asking for “his maracas” in the anthology version?

    1. EltonJohnLennon

      I think there is no doubt now that John sang the dream-part after Pauls middle section.

      “I’d love to turn you on” was the only contribution from Paul for Johns part. But I think he only tells him the words. Then John put it into the musical structure.

          1. paulsbass

            Sorry again, but if you think that is NOT Paul you don’t know his voice.
            Did you listen to the vocal track on youtube?
            It is really obvious.

            On the “Love” version it did sound more like John, but I always thought it was Paul, and the vocal track confirmed it.

            We could play this game the whole day I guess. I still know I’m right, of course.

            Btw, while Geoff Emerick used to be one of my Beatle heroes:
            After reading some comments about Emericks words I think it is correct to assume that he cared more about selling his book (by stirring even more conflicts among John and Paul fans) than getting the facts right.

            1. Joe

              This could indeed go on all day, and it’s a little boring to read a conversation that’s clearly going nowhere. I won’t publish any more comments on this matter unless they bring something genuinely new to the table.

              If you want to continue the “It was Paul”/”It was John” debate, feel free to use the forum. You can carry on there to your hearts’ content!

    2. 2much4mymirror

      John attributes the “lovely little lick” of “I’d love to turn you on” to Paul in his 1980 Playboy Interview. I’d like to believe John had the melody but lacked the words because then he also had the melody of “Nobody was really sure…Lords…” What context does Emerick mention this demo, to clarify this point?

  9. mithveaen

    I think I’ll never forget the experience of singing the “ahhhh” chorus in Paul’s concert. It was raining a lot, and I think everybody raised their arms and sang to the top of our lungs. It was amazing.

  10. Deadman

    “[Paul] explained that he wanted his voice to sound all muzzy, as if he had woken up from a very deep sleep … My way of achieving this was to deliberately remove a lot of the treble from his voice and heavily compress it to make him sound muffled. When the song goes into the dreamy section that John sings, the full fidelity is restored.

    “Although the overdubs to the middle section were being done separately from the main body of the song, it had already been edited into the four-track master, which made Richard [Lush]‘s job of dropping in and out a bit tricky. Paul’s vocal, for example, was being dropped into the same track that contained John’s lead vocal, and there was a very tight drop-out point between the two–between Paul’s singing “…and I went into a dream” and John’s “ahhh” that starts the next section. Richard was quite paranoid about it–with good reason–and I remember him asking me to get on the talkback mic to explain the situation to Paul and ask him not to deviate from the phrasing that he had used on the guide vocal. I was really impressed when Richard did that–I thought it showed great maturity to be proactive that way. John’s vocal, after all, had such great emotion, and it also had tape echo on it. The thought of having to do it again and re-create the atmosphere was daunting…not to mention what John’s reaction would have been! Someone’s head would have been bitten off, and it most likely would have been mine. But Paul, ever professional, did heed the warning, and he made certain to end the last word distinctly in order to give Richard sufficient time to drop out before John’s vocal came back in. Listening carefully, you can actually hear Paul slightly rush the vocal; he even adds a little “ah” to the end of the word “dream” giving it a very clipped ending.”

    Geoff Emerick & Howard Massey, Here There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles (London, 2007), p. 152.

  11. Dan

    In the book “Recording the Beatles” by Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew they settle who sings the aaahs in this song. They say it is clearly Paul. From pages 443 to 444: “Though many have understandably attributed this vocal to John Lennon in the past,isolation of the vocal reveals it to be Paul.” By the way, this book is a must read for any fan.

    1. Jack

      John sings the aaahs according to George Martin’s and Geoff Emerick’s testimonies. Not sure if Kevin Ryan was there during the recording though. Nice try though.

  12. Intestinal Disgorge

    Has anyone noticed that the “ahh” section sounds suspiciously similar to Billy Joe Royal’s “Hush” (1967)? I think it’s the same melody.

    1. Vonbontee

      Yeah, I’ve noticed that before! Only I’ve never heard Billy Joe Royal’s version of “Hush”, only Deep Purple’s. (Wasn’t aware that there WAS a Billy Joe Royal version, in fact, with the same “na na na’s”.)

      But yeah, it’s the same melody at twice the speed.

    2. Joseph Brush

      Day In The Life was recorded in Jan-Feb 1967 and released at the beginning of June 1967 just before Billy Joe Royal’s US minor hit version of Hush was released.

  13. Vonbontee

    …September ’67, to be exact. So, either Billy Joe (or Joe South) heard ADITL immediately upon release, liked it, borrowed the “na na na” part for “Hush” and got the whole package written, recorded & released within three months; or the whole thing’s just a coincidence. So, who knows? I’m not going to speculate one way or the other.

    If either Joe DID borrow the tune, however, I gotta say it’s pretty clever of them to disguise it by compressing it into two bars instead of the original four – Beatles did exactly the opposite to conceal “Frere Jacques” within “Paperback Writer”

    1. Joseph Brush

      Yes I agree especially since Royal’s version of Hush was a flop in Europe and was only a minor hit (reached #52 in the USA).
      Soul singers were singing na na na some time before Hush came out.

  14. kedame

    Is that the same David McCallum that plays on NCIS and The Man From UNCLE? It says on his wiki that he is a classically trained musician.

  15. FrankDialogue

    ‘A Day in the Life’is arguably the Beatles peak, and unquestionably one of pop music’s most beautiful and creative songs until this very day.

    Here, we should realize that any arguments about John vs. Paul are simply irrelevant as the song shows their creative partnership in full flower, not to mention the beautiful drumming of Ringo and the master work of ‘facilitator’George Martin, and the rest of the Beatles team.

    Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery also does a nice version, and Jeff Beck does an interesting take on this song.

  16. S.N.

    Amazing article. Amazing song. It combines every song they did in one in a way…

    However, what about the ending? Why doesn’t this article or any discuss the ending!?!?!?

  17. Steveola

    I don’t understand why there was/is such controversy over the “I’d love to turn you on” lyric seeing as the phrase “turn me on” had been used in She’s a Woman all those years earlier?

  18. vonbontee

    Well, the idea of pop stars on drugs (and inciting others to use them) wasn’t really on the radar in ’64, the phrase “turning on” (ie. “getting high”) even less so.

  19. Alex

    The very first sentence of this page is erroneous. “At 5’03″, A Day In The Life was two minutes longer than anything The Beatles had previously released”

    Actually, Strawberry Fields Forver clocks in at 4’07, which was recorded and was released only four months prior to A Day In The Life.

  20. Haley

    Does anyone else hear a chair creak at the end when the piano chord is being held out? I know they brought in a bunch of pianos for that last chord, so I’m assuming it’s the creak of a piano bench…

  21. brian

    someone else mentioned, but I read in Emerick’s book (and I acknowledge that he misremembers some things) that Ringo and George switched percussion instruments and that Ringo ended up on maracas and George on bongos. I notice you have credited it the other way. Are you confident of which it actually is?

    1. Joao Querido

      Great song! My favorite Ringo drumming. Best fills. Best sound. Were some of those fills on timpani drums? Or was this just great engineering on Geoff’s part? Paul’s bass on this is just perfect. Was this his Rickenbacker? I think I like that bass better than the Hoffner.(sorry if bad spelling) They finally started recording the piano well by this point in their career. (I don’t like the piano on early tracts like, “Rock & Roll music” or “Long tall Sally”. The “On air live @ BBE vol II” has far superior versions of some of the early tracts & are much more rocking minus the piano. )
      It shows some humility on George H’s part. Playing only the marraccas! But the Beatle’s use of percussion was always subtle & perfectly placed i.e-Tamborine used in many tunes. Good discussion except the dispute over who sings the “Ahh” part. How about this argument? John’ voice is echoed. (Heartbreak Hotel). Paul’s is not.
      The “Ahh” part is echoed.

  22. Sergio A. Genzon

    By far, Ringo’s best drumming ever, though I must say that albumwise Abbey Road has his best playing overall. But ADITL has Ringo playing at his best! He was very musical and poetic. I don’t think the Beatles could’ve had a better drummer than him. All those comparisons to Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa are just absurd! Apples and oranges. Compare him to some of his contemporary drummers, say Keith Moon or Charlie Watts. I love the Who, but I think Keith would’ve ruined a track like ADITL ( I think he ruined Quadrophenia). Charlie is more technical and ventured out or Rock’n’Roll with his Jazz projects, but Ringo played all the right notes and his sound was unique.

  23. Jérôme Nicolas

    Haley: I’ve never heard it but so many people assumed they did so I finally heard it myself (lol). Also, am I the only one who hears a distant voice yelling “Yeah” just before Mr McCartney stops singing? When he says (or raps) the word “smoke”.
    In my opinion this particular song might as well be credited to”Lennon-McCartney-Martin”. It’s very similar to a movie’s editing more than a song (well to me). I wasn’t even born and this is THE song we speculate the most hardly upon, “and you’ll never know the real story” to quote someone else than the Beatles.

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