In the studio

The Beatles began recording ‘A Day In The Life’ on 19 January 1967, initially with the working title ‘In The Life Of…’ Four takes were attempted of the rhythm track – bongos, maracas, piano and guitar. Onto the fourth take were added three vocal overdubs by John Lennon, with high levels of tape echo.

There was so much echo on ‘A Day In The Life’. 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 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.

On that first day Mal Evans counted out the bars in the instrumental sections, and sounded the alarm clock. Paul McCartney had yet to write the words for the middle passage, so it was left as an instrumental at this point.

The next day ‘A Day In The Life’, as it was then known, received more overdubs: another Lennon vocal, plus bass from McCartney and drums from Ringo Starr. McCartney also added a vocal for the middle section. This was re-recorded on 3 February, but can be heard on Anthology 2.

Along with McCartney’s new vocals, 3 February also saw the re-recording of the drum and bass parts, all originally taped on 20 January. It was at this point that Starr’s distinctive tom-tom fills were added.

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.
Paul McCartney

10 February was the day the orchestra recorded the climactic instrumental passages. The day’s recording was filmed, but the resulting footage remained unseen until a short passage appeared in the Anthology series.

The musicians wore evening dress, and fancy dress items including red noses, bald wigs and novelty glasses. Erich Guenberg, leader of the violins, wore a gorilla paw on his bow hand. Friends of The Beatles, including Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richards, Mike Nesmith and Donovan, were also present for what was intended as an event.

The song was finally completed on 22 February, when the final crashing piano chord was recorded. This took nine attempts to get right, and was overdubbed three times with more pianos and a harmonium played by George Martin.

Geoff Emerick was in charge of recording the instruments. To capture every last droplet of sound – including the rustling of paper and a squeaking chair – he used heavy compression and careful manipulation of the faders.

By the end the attenuation was enormous. You could have heard a pin drop.
George Martin
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

The BBC ban

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?’
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

A week before the release of Sgt Pepper, the BBC’s director of sound broadcasting, Frank Gillard, wrote to EMI head Sir Joseph Lockwood with the news that the corporation was banning ‘A Day In The Life’ due to the refrain “I’d love to turn you on”.

Gillard’s letter, dated 23 May 1967, read:

I never thought the day would come when we would have to put a ban on an EMI record, but sadly, that is what has happened over this track. We have listened to it over and over again with great care, and we cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that the words “I’d love to turn you on”, followed by that mounting montage of sound, could have a rather sinister meaning.

The recording may have been made in innocence and good faith, but we must take account of the interpretation that many young people would inevitably put upon it. “Turned on” is a phrase which can be used in many different circumstances, but it is currently much in vogue in the jargon of the drug-addicts. We do not feel that we can take the responsibility of appearing to favour or encourage those unfortunate habits, and that is why we shall not be playing the recording in any of our programmes, Radio or Television.

I expect we shall meet with some embarrassment over this decision, which has already been noted by the Press. We will do our best not to appear to be criticising your people, but as you will realise, we do find ourselves in a very difficult position. I thought you would like to know why we have, most reluctantly, taken this decision.

The Beatles hit back at the decision, with Paul McCartney telling reporters: “The BBC have misinterpreted the song. It has nothing to do with drug taking. It’s only about a dream.” John Lennon added: “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.”

BBC letter informing EMI of the ban of A Day In The Life

Previous song: ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)’
Next album: Magical Mystery Tour
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