- Album This song officially appears on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Official album.
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“A Day in the Life” is the final song on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Credited to Lennon–McCartney, the song comprises distinct sections written independently by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with orchestral additions. While Lennon’s lyrics were inspired by contemporary newspaper articles, McCartney’s lyrics were based on reminiscences about his youth. The decisions to link sections of the song with orchestral glissandos and to end the song with a sustained piano chord were made only after the rest of the song had been recorded.
The supposed drug reference in the line “I’d love to turn you on” resulted in the song initially being banned from broadcast by the BBC. Since its original album release, “A Day in the Life” has been released as a B-side, and also on various compilation albums. It has been covered by other artists, and since 2008, by McCartney in his live performances. It was ranked the 28th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. On a different list, the magazine ranked it as the greatest Beatles song.
According to Lennon, the inspiration for the first two verses was the death of Tara Browne, the 21-year-old heir to the Guinness fortune who had crashed his Lotus Elan on 18 December 1966 in Redcliffe Gardens, Earls Court. Browne had been a friend of Lennon and McCartney, and had, earlier in 1966, instigated McCartney’s first experience with LSD. Lennon’s verses were adapted from a story in the 17 January 1967 edition of the Daily Mail, which reported the ruling on a custody action over Browne’s two young children:
Guinness heir Tara Browne’s two children will be brought up by their 56-year-old grandmother, the High Court ruled yesterday. It turned down a plea by their mother, Mrs. Nicky Browne, 24, that she should have them … This, she said, happened after Mr. Browne, 21, from whom she was estranged, had taken them for a holiday in County Wicklow [Ireland] with his mother.
Mrs. Browne began an action for their return in October , naming Mr. Browne and his mother as defendants. The action, held in private, was part way through when Mr. Browne died in a crash in his Lotus Elan car in South Kensington a week before Christmas.
“I didn’t copy the accident“, Lennon said. “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.” McCartney expounded on the subject: “The verse about the politician blowing his mind out in a car we wrote together. It has been attributed to Tara Browne, the Guinness heir, which I don’t believe is the case, certainly as we were writing it, I was not attributing it to Tara in my head. In John’s head it might have been. In my head I was imagining a politician bombed out on drugs who’d stopped at some traffic lights and didn’t notice that the lights had changed. The ‘blew his mind’ was purely a drugs reference, nothing to do with a car crash.”
Author Neil Sinyard attributed the third verse line “The English Army had just won the war” to Lennon’s role in the film How I Won the War, released on 18 October 1967, but having filmed his part in September 1966: “It’s hard to think of [the verse] … without automatically associating it with Richard Lester’s film.”
In the authorized biography Many Years from Now, McCartney said about the line “I’d love to turn you on“, which concludes both verse sections, “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?’” Lennon on composing the song with McCartney:
“Paul and I were definitely working together, especially on ‘A Day in the Life’ that was a real … The way we wrote a lot of the time: you’d write the good bit, the part that was easy, like ‘I read the news today’ or whatever it was, then when you got stuck or whenever it got hard, instead of carrying on, you just drop it; then we would meet each other, and I would sing half, and he would be inspired to write the next bit and vice versa. He was a bit shy about it because I think he thought it’s already a good song. Sometimes we wouldn’t let each other interfere with a song either, because you tend to be a bit lax with someone else’s stuff, you experiment a bit. So we were doing it in his room with the piano. He said ‘Should we do this?’ ‘Yeah, let’s do that.'”
McCartney provided the middle section of the song, a short piano piece he had been working on independently, with lyrics about a commuter whose uneventful morning routine leads him to drift off into a dream. McCartney had written the piece as a wistful recollection of his younger years, which included riding the bus to school, smoking, and going to class. This theme matched with the original concept of the album which was going to be about their youth.
Lennon wrote the song’s final verse inspired by a Far & Near news brief, in the same 17 January edition of the Daily Mail that had inspired the first two verses. Under the headline “The holes in our roads“, the brief stated:
There are 4,000 holes in the road in Blackburn, Lancashire, or one twenty-sixth of a hole per person, according to a council survey. If Blackburn is typical, there are two million holes in Britain’s roads and 300,000 in London.
The story had been sold to the Daily Mail in Manchester by Ron Kennedy of the Star News agency in Blackburn. Ron had noticed a Lancashire Evening Telegraph story about road excavations and in a telephone call to the Borough Engineer’s department had checked the now famous annual number of holes in the road. Lennon had a problem with the words of the final verse, however, not being able to think of how to connect “Now they know how many holes it takes to” and “the Albert Hall“. His friend Terry Doran, managing director of Apple, suggested that they would “fill” the Albert Hall.
Musical structure and development
In a 1968 editorial for Jazz & Pop, writer Gene Sculatti called the Beach Boys 1966 single “Good Vibrations” the “ultimate in-studio production trip“, positing that it was a primary influence for the recording of “A Day in the Life“.
The Beatles began recording the song, with a working title “In the Life of …“, on 19 January 1967, in the innovative and creative studio atmosphere ushered in by the recording of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” over the preceding weeks. The two sections of the song are separated by a 24-bar bridge. The track was refined with remixing and additional parts added at recording sessions on 20 January and 3 February.
Starr elaborated his approach to drumming on the song:
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.
At first, the Beatles were not sure how to fill its linking section. Thus, at the conclusion of the recording session for the basic tracks, the transition solely 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. 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 alarm clock when the missing section was filled in; however it complemented McCartney’s piece well; the first line of McCartney’s song began “Woke up, fell out of bed“, so the decision was made to keep the sound. Martin later said that editing it out would have been unfeasible in any case.
As a solution for the missing 24-bar middle section of the song, McCartney proposed the idea of bringing in a full orchestra to fill the gap. To allay concerns that classically trained musicians would not be able to improvise the section, producer George Martin wrote a loose score for the section. It was an extended, atonal crescendo that encouraged the musicians to improvise within the defined framework. The orchestral part was recorded on 10 February 1967, with McCartney and Martin conducting a 40-piece orchestra. The recording session was completed at a total cost of £367 (equivalent to £6,007 in 2015) for the players, an extravagance at the time. Martin later described explaining his improvised score to the puzzled orchestra:
What I did there was to write … 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 … 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 noted that the strings were able to keep themselves in the designated time, while the trumpets were “much wilder“. McCartney had originally wanted a 90-piece orchestra, but this proved impossible; the difference was made up, as the semi-improvised segment was recorded multiple times and eventually four different recordings were overdubbed into a single massive crescendo. The results were successful; in the final edit of the song, the orchestral bridge is reprised after the final verse. It was arranged for the orchestral session to be filmed by NEMS Enterprises for use in a planned television special. The film was never released in its entirety, although portions of it can be seen in the “A Day in the Life” promotional film (included in the three-disc versions of the Beatles’ 2015 video compilation 1), which includes shots of studio guests Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Donovan, Pattie Boyd, and Michael Nesmith. Reflecting the Beatles’ taste for experimentation and the avant-garde at this point in their careers, the orchestra players were asked to wear or were given a costume piece on top of their formal dress. This resulted in different players wearing anything from fake noses to fake stick-on nipples. Martin recalled that the lead violinist performed wearing a gorilla paw, while a bassoon player placed a balloon on the end of his instrument.
Due to the multiple takes required to perfect the orchestral cacophony and the final chord, as well as their considerable procrastination in composing the song, the total duration of time spent recording “A Day in the Life” was 34 hours. In contrast, the Beatles’ earliest work, their first album Please Please Me, had been recorded in its entirety in only 10 hours, 45 minutes.
Following the final orchestral crescendo, the song ends with one of the most famous final chords in music history. Lennon, McCartney, Starr, and Evans shared three different pianos, with Martin on the harmonium, and all played an E-major chord simultaneously. The final chord was made to ring out for over forty seconds by increasing the recording sound level as the vibration faded out. Towards the end of the chord the recording level was so high that listeners can hear the sounds of the studio, including rustling papers and a squeaking chair.
The piano chord was a replacement for a failed vocal experiment. On the evening following the orchestra recording session, the four Beatles had recorded an ending of their voices humming the chord, but after multiple overdubs they wanted something with more impact. This final E chord represents a VI to the song’s tonic G major, although Pedler argues that the preceding chord changes (from F (“them all“) to E (“Now they know“) Em7 (“takes to fill“) C (“love to turn you“) and B (“on“)) followed by the chromatic ascent, shift our sense of the tonic from G to E; creating a different feeling from the usual emotional uplift associated with a VI modulation.
On the Sgt. Pepper album, the start of “A Day in the Life” is cross-faded with the applause at the end of the previous track “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)“. On The Beatles 1967–1970 LP, “A Day in the Life” fades in through the Sgt. Pepper cross-fade, but on Imagine: John Lennon and the CD version of 1967–1970, the song starts cleanly, without any fade or cross-fade.
Following “A Day in the Life” on the Sgt. Pepper album (as first released on LP in the UK and years later worldwide on CD) is a high-frequency 15-kilohertz tone and some randomly spliced Beatles studio chatter. The frequency is best understood as what we know as a dog whistle as the frequency is picked up by a dog’s ear and was part of their humour. They joked about picturing barking dogs should they be present when the album would finish. Recorded two months after the mono and stereo masters for “A Day in the Life” had been finalised, the studio chatter (titled in the session notes “Edit for LP End“) was added to the run-out groove of the initial British pressing. There are even a few variations of the chatter, though the best known one is them saying during the laughter and chatter “never could see any other way.”
The Anthology 2 album includes an early, pre-orchestral version of the song and Anthology 3 includes a version of “The End” that concludes by having the last note fade into the final chord of “A Day in the Life” (reversed, then played forwards).
The Love version has the song starting with Lennon’s intro of “sugar plum fairy“, with the strings being more prominent during the crescendos.
Supposed drug references
The song became controversial for its supposed references to drugs. The BBC announced that it would not broadcast “A Day in the Life” due to the line “I’d love to turn you on“, which, according to the corporation, advocated drug use. Other lyrics allegedly referring to drugs include “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.” The ban was eventually lifted on 13 March 1972.
Lennon and McCartney denied that there were drug references and publicly complained about the ban at a dinner party at the home of their manager, Brian Epstein, celebrating their album. Lennon said that the song was simply about “a crash and its victim“, and called the line in question “the most innocent of phrases.” McCartney later said “This was the only one in the album written as a deliberate provocation. A stick-that-in-your-pipe … But what we want is to turn you on to the truth rather than pot.” However, George Martin later commented that he had always suspected that the line “found my way upstairs and had a smoke” was a drug reference, recalling how the Beatles would “disappear and have a little puff“, presumably of cannabis, but not in front of him. “When [Martin] was doing his TV programme on Pepper“, McCartney recalled later, “he asked me, ‘Do you know what caused Pepper?’ I said, ‘In one word, George, drugs. Pot.’ And George said, ‘No, no. But you weren’t on it all the time.’ ‘Yes, we were.’ Sgt. Pepper was a drug album.”
When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in South Asia, Malaysia and Hong Kong, “A Day in the Life” “With a Little Help from My Friends” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” were excluded because of supposed drug references.
Recognition and reception
“A Day in the Life” became one of the Beatles’ most influential songs. Paul Grushkin in his book Rockin’ Down the Highway: The Cars and People That Made Rock Roll, called the song “one of the most ambitious, influential, and groundbreaking works in pop music history“. In “From Craft to Art: Formal Structure in the Music of The Beatles“, the song is described thus: “‘A Day in the Life’ is perhaps one of the most important single tracks in the history of rock music; clocking in at only four minutes and forty-five seconds, it must surely be among the shortest epic pieces in rock.” Richard Goldstein of The New York Times called the song “a deadly earnest excursion in emotive music with a chilling lyric … [that] stands as one of the most important Lennon-McCartney compositions … an historic Pop event“.
The song appears on many top songs lists. It placed twelfth on CBC’s 50 Tracks, the second highest Beatles song on the list after “In My Life“. It placed first in Q Magazine’s list of the 50 greatest British songs of all time, and was at the top of Mojo Magazine’s 101 Greatest Beatles’ Songs, as decided by a panel of musicians and journalists. “A Day in the Life” was also nominated for a Grammy in 1967 for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist Or Instrumentalist. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked “A Day in the Life” at number 28 on the magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time“, and in 2010, the magazine deemed it to be the Beatles’ greatest song. It is listed at number 5 in Pitchfork Media’s The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s. […]
Paul McCartney performed the song live for the first time by any Beatle on 1 June 2008 at Anfield stadium, Liverpool, England. Both Beatles widows, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono, attended the concert. Also he performed the songs at some Spring and Summer shows in 2008 (Kiev, Quebec City and Tel Aviv) and 2009 (Indio, Las Vegas) and throughout his subsequent tours: Summer Live ’09, 2009 Good Evening Europe Tour, 2010–2011 Up and Coming Tour and 2011–2012 On the Run Tour. […]
- [a] mono 22 Feb 1967. edited. crossfaded 6 Apr 1967.
UK: Parlophone PMC 7026 Sgt Pepper 1967.
US: Capitol MAS 2653 Sgt Pepper 1967.
- [b] stereo 23 Feb 1967. edited. crossfaded 20 Apr 1967.
UK: Parlophone PCS 7026 Sgt Pepper 1967.
US: Capitol SMAS 2653 Sgt Pepper 1967.
CD: EMI CDP 7 46442 2 Sgt Pepper 1987.
- [b1] stereo with crossfade cut off 1973.
UK: Apple PCSP 718 The Beatles 1967-1970 1973.
- [b2] stereo with crossfade cut off 1973 by Capitol.
US: Apple SKBO-3404 The Beatles 1967-1970 1973.
- [b3] stereo without crossfade.
CD: EMI CDP 7 90803 2 Imagine/John Lennon 1988, EMI CDP 7 97039 2 The Beatles 1967-1970 1993.
- [c] mono 30 Jan 1967, and mono and stereo 1995. edited.
CD: Apple CDP 8 34448 2 Anthology 2 1996.
The orchestra was recorded on 4 tracks of a separate 4-track tape (take 7) and synchronized during mixing with the Beatles tape (take 6).
The edit is for the final note, recorded separately.
The crossfade joins the beginning to the preceding Sgt Pepper (reprise). For the 1967-1970 collection [b1] [b2] and on a 1978 single, the crossfade is just cut off, so the song begins later than its real beginning. The original mix without crossfade [b3] appeared in the documentary film Imagine: John Lennon. The same original mix, also including a countdown that is not heard under the crossfade, appeared in a 1967 promo film.
The Anthology mix [c] is deliberately different and contains some material not used in the standard versions [a][b]. It contains many parts edited together: talk before take 1 (the take used for the standard version); take 2 (not the standard version) from start of song through the 24-bar count; overdubs to take 6 later wiped out for the standard version but preserved in a 30 Jan mono mix; more of take 2 for the last verse; take 2 synchronized with the orchestral overdub of the standard version; and finally talk recorded on Feb 10 and never intended to be used as the conclusion. All of this is mono until the orchestral overdub, which has been remixed to stereo. The Jan 30 overdub mono mix has been available on bootleg since 1987, and shows a different bass part throughout as well as the different Paul vocal highlighted here; but it breaks down after Paul flubs the vocal. The reverb on the 24-bar count was done during recording.
I read the news today oh boy
about a lucky man who made the grade
and though the news was rather sad
well I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
he didn't notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
they'd seen his face before
nobody was really sure if he was from the house of lords
I saw a film today oh boy
the English army had just one the war
a crowd of people turned away
but I just had to look, having read the book
I'd love to turn on you
Woke up, got out of bed
dragged a comb across my head
found my way downstairs and drank a cup
and looking up, I noticed I was late
Found my coat and grabbed my hat,
made the bus in seconds flat
found my way upstairs and had a smoke
and somebody spoke and I went in to a dream
I read the news today oh boy
four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
they had to count them all
now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert hall
I'd love to turn on you
Officially appears on
Official album • Released in 1967
5:37 • Studio version
- Paul McCartney:
- Bass, Piano, Vocals
- Ringo Starr:
- Bongos, Drums
- John Lennon:
- Acoustic guitar, Piano, Vocals
- George Harrison:
- George Martin:
- Harmonium, Producer
- Geoff Emerick:
- Jack Brymer:
- Mal Evans:
- Alarm clock, Piano, Vocals
- Sidney Sax:
- Francisco Gabarro:
- Jurgen Hess:
- John Underwood:
- Alan Civil:
- French horn
- David Mason:
- Neil Sanders:
- French horn
- Erich Gruenberg:
- Granville Jones:
- Bill Monro:
- Hans Geiger:
- D Bradley:
- Lionel Bentley:
- David McCallum:
- Donald Weekes:
- Henry Datyner:
- Ernest Scott:
- Gwynne Edwards:
- Bernard Davis:
- John Meek:
- Dennis Vigay:
- Alan Dalziel:
- Alex Nifosi:
- Cyril MacArthur:
- Double bass
- Gordon Pearce:
- Double bass
- John Marston:
- Basil Tschaikov:
- Roger Lord:
- N Fawcett:
- Alfred Waters:
- Clifford Seville:
- David Sanderman:
- Monty Montgomery:
- Harold Jackson:
- Raymond Brown:
- Raymond Premru:
- T Moore:
- Michael Barnes:
- Tristan Fry:
- Percussion, Timpani
- Marijke Koger:
Official album • Released in 1996
5:05 • Outtake
Official live • Released in 2009
5:42 • Live
5:50 • Live
8:21 • Live
8:30 • Live
Concert • Sep 25, 2008 in Tel Aviv
Concert • Aug 19, 2009 in Dallas
Concert • Dec 03, 2009 in Berlin
Concert • Dec 10, 2009 in Paris
Concert • Dec 16, 2009 in Cologne
Concert • Aug 18, 2010 in Pittsburgh
Concert • Nov 21, 2010 in Sao Paulo
Concert • Nov 22, 2010 in Sao Paulo
Concert • May 22, 2011 in Rio de Janeiro
Concerts where “A Day In The Life” has been played
“A Day In The Life” has been played in 101 concerts.
The numbers of concerts and soundchecks are still a work in progress - Beatles concerts are not covered yet and some solo tours don't have setlists yet (especially in 1972, 2002, 2005). Coverage for soundchecks setlists is still pretty low.
Latest concerts where “A Day In The Life” has been played
Oct 15, 2016 • USA • Indio • Empire Polo Club
Oct 08, 2016 • USA • Indio • Empire Polo Club