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A Day in the Life

"A Day in the Life" is a song by the British rock band The Beatles, written by John Lennon with the middle eight by Paul McCartney, credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The song appears as the final track on their album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The song includes portions originally authored independently by Lennon and McCartney, and two cacophonous, part-improvised, orchestral crescendos. Lennon was inspired by newspaper articles on the death of Tara Browne, and a civic plan to fill four thousand potholes in Blackburn. While recording the song, the Beatles were not certain how to fill the gap between Lennon's and McCartney's portions of the song. It was later decided that a partly-improvised crescendo by an orchestra would serve as the bridge.

The supposed drug reference in the line "I'd love to turn you on" resulted in the banning of the song by the BBC. It appears on many top songs lists, and is the 26th best song on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song is considered one of the Beatles' most influential, with the final E major chord becoming popularized to the point of being clichéd in modern music. It often appears in lists and polls of the most influential Beatles songs. Since its original album release, the song has also been released on single, on compilation albums, and has been performed by other artists including Neil Young, Jeff Beck and The Bee Gees. Paul McCartney has played it live four times, once at the Liverpool Sound Concert and at The Independent Concert/Kyiv,Ukraine in June 2008, once at the Quebec City's 400th anniversary in July 2008 and once at the Friendship First concert in Tel Aviv, Israel in September 2008.

Lyrical inspiration and collaboration

There is some dispute about the inspiration for the first verse. Many believe that it was written with regard to the death of Tara Browne, the 21-year-old heir to the Guinness fortune and close friend of Lennon and McCartney, who had crashed his Lotus Elan on 18 December 1966 when a Volkswagen pulled out of a side street into his path in Redcliffe Gardens, Earls Court. In numerous interviews, Lennon claimed this was the verse's prime inspiration. However, George Martin adamantly claims that it is a drug reference (as is the line "I'd love to turn you on" and other passages from the song) and while writing the lyrics John and Paul were imagining a stoned politician who had stopped at a set of traffic lights.

The final verse was inspired by an article in the Daily Mail in January 1967 regarding a substantial amount of potholes in Blackburn, a town in Lancashire. However, he had a problem with the words of the final verse, 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 suggested that they would "fill" the Albert Hall.

The description of the accident in "A Day in the Life" was not 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."

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 reverie. He had written the piece as a wistful recollection of his younger years, which included riding the bus to school, smoking and going to class. The line "I'd love to turn you on" was also contributed by McCartney, which serves as a chorus to the first section of the song. Lennon commented on McCartney's section, saying, "I had the bulk of the song and the words, but he contributed this little lick floating around in his head that he couldn't use for anything. I thought it was a damn good piece of work."

Recording

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. At first, The Beatles were not sure how to fill this transition. Thus, at the conclusion of the recording session for the basic tracks, this section solely consisted of a simple repeated piano chord and the voice of assistant Mal Evans counting the bars. Evans's 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.

The basic track for the song was refined with remixing and additional parts added at recording sessions on January 20 and February 3. Still, there was no solution for the missing 24-bar middle section of the song, when McCartney had 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 for the players, an extravagance at the time. Martin later described explaining his improvised score to the puzzled orchestra:

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, which includes shots of studio guests Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richards, 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 red 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.

Song structure

"A Day in the Life" is in the key of G major, but, as Alan W. Pollack explains, "its true center of gravity is in the parallel minor and the Major keys of E". The verses are in G-major/E-minor and the bridge is in E-major. A 4/4 meter is used throughout.

The song is laid out with an instrumental beginning, followed by three verses, the orchestral bridge, a middle section, the final verse, and an orchestral outro, or conclusion. Each verse follows the same basic layout, except each has a different way of ending. The first verse, which is twenty measures, is unique in respect to the other verses in that it ends with a repetition of the F major chord progression before returning to the home key. The second verse, two measures shorter than the first, ends on the C major chord rather than repeating the F major progression. The third verse is the same as the second, except that there is one more measure (to accommodate the "I'd love to"), and the verse does not return to the home key. Instead it leads to the bridge, a 24-measure long "glissando-like sweep" starting from low E to an E octaves higher. Random cymbal crashes are interspersed near the end to "challenge your sense of meter".

An alarm clock rings, ending the bridge and beginning McCartney's middle section. While the pulse of this section remains the same, the accents suggest a tempo twice as fast as that of the initial section. The three chords in what Pollack calls the "song portion" of this section are the I, flat VII, and V chords (E, D, and B). This portion is nineteen measures long, and leads to the orchestral portion of the section. The orchestral part is twenty measures long, and is a portion of the circle of fifths (from C to E) repeated twice. It leads to the fourth and final verse.

The final verse has the same layout as the third verse. Starr's drumming, however, retains its double-time feel from McCartney's section. This verse leads to the end, which is the same glissando as the bridge. However, after the orchestra hits its highest note, there is a measure of silence, which leads to the "ready-made cliché of a final E-major chord." The fade-out of the chord lasts over a minute, at which time the studio noise can be heard.

The final chord

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 and all played an E-major chord simultaneously. The sound of the final chord was manipulated to ring out for nearly a minute by increasing the tape sound level as the vibration faded out. The chord rings out approximately forty-two seconds. Near the end of the chord the recording levels were turned 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 originally recorded an ending of their voices humming the chord. After multiple overdubs they found that they wanted something with more impact.

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, was recorded in its entirety in only 10 hours. The Anthology 3 version of "The End" concludes with the final chord of "A Day in the Life" to bring closure to the CD series.

Ending

Immediately following the dying moments of the crashing piano chord is a tone too high-pitched for most human ears to hear, but audible to dogs and other animals and most younger listeners. Lennon's alleged intention in inserting the high tone was to irritate the listener's dog.

The crashing piano chord and 15 kHz tone are interrupted by a loop of incomprehensible Beatles studio background noise. Spliced together at random sections, some of the snippets in the loop would play forward to be heard as, "Never could see any other way." Others were played backward as "Will Paul be back as Superman?" This lasts for two seconds and the final three syllables are on the final groove, creating a loop that 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. If the listener's record player had to be returned manually, the sound would loop infinitely, leading the listener to wonder if something had gone wrong with the record or the record player. Rumours of an obscene "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 while maintaining a constant speed. McCartney denied intentionally putting a message in, saying, "If you look hard enough you can make something out of anything." On Anthology 2, in an early, pre-orchestral version of the song, McCartney can be heard saying "See, the worst thing about doing this, that we're doing something like this, is that I think that at first people, sort of, are a bit suspicious. You know, 'Come on, what are you up to?'. But the thing is it really is just..." before the song fades out.

Drug references

The song became controversial for its supposed references to drugs. On 1 June 1967, the day the Sgt. Pepper LP was released, the BBC announced it was banning "A Day in the Life" from British stations 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 / and 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".

Lennon and McCartney denied that there were drug references and publicly complained about the ban at a dinner party celebrating their new album to their manager, Brian Epstein. 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 flatly denied the drug allegations, saying that "what we want to do 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 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in South Asia, Malaysia and Hong Kong, "A Day in the Life" was excluded along with "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" because of supposed drug references.

Recognition

"A Day in the Life" is 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.

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.

On 27 August 1992 Lennon's original handwritten lyrics were sold by the estate of Mal Evans in an auction at Sotheby's London for $100,000 (£56,600). The lyrics were put up for sale again in March 2006 by Bonhams in New York. Sealed bids were opened on 7 March 2006 and offers started at about $2 million.

Cover versions and references

"A Day in the Life" has been covered and referenced numerous times by other artists. Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery covered the song and used it as the title track to his instrumental album "A Day in the Life" (arranged and conducted by Don Sebesky). Phish have covered the song several times throughout their career. The Cat's Miaow version of "A Day in the Life" omitted the orchestral and middle sections, and appeared on their 1996 A Kiss and a Cuddle album. Alternative rock band Mae recorded a version of the song for their album The Everglow EP in 2006.Jazz guitarist Grant Green covered the song on his 1970 album Green is Beautiful (Blue Note Records). The Libertines' Carl Barat and Pete Doherty covered "A Day in the Life" for BBC Radio 2's 40-year-anniversary celebration of Sgt. Pepper, broadcast 16 June 2007. Sting recorded a version of the song on MTV Unplugged. Brie Larson recorded an acoustic version exclusively for her MySpace page. Type O Negative (who have been highly influenced by the Beatles) referenced the song at the closing of their song "Kill You Tonight (Reprise)" with the famous extended E-major chord.

The Devo song "Some Things Never Change" from the 1988 album Total Devo paid homage to the song, starting each verse with the nearly identical, "I saw the news today oh boy", and following similar structure. Soundhog produced a remix version of the song called "A Day in Tracy's Life", incorporating Mogwai's song "Tracy" and bits of work by Kid Loco. Zack de la Rocha & DJ Shadow' track "March of death" contains verse "i read the news today oh boy". In 2008, Yoko Ono toured with a 100-piece collection of Lennon’s artwork drawn between 1968 and 1980 under the title, "A Day in the Life." The tour presented non-original limited edition copies, with many having colour added later on Ono’s orders. Mark Z. Danielewski quotes part of the song's lyrics ("I saw a film today, oh boy") in the beginning of his book House of Leaves.

Neil Young played a version of the song during his 2008 European summer tour

During the seventh season of the hit reality television show American Idol, contestant Michael Johns performed an abridged version of the song as his selection for the second Beatles-based week.

Paul McCartney played 'A Day in the Life' during The Liverpool Sound Festival at Anfield Stadium in Liverpool together with Give Peace A Chance.

Eric Burdon & War recorded this song in an early session in 1969. The incomplete version with 11 minutes was released on their 1976 compilation album, Love Is All Around.

Personnel

Words and Music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Published by Northern Songs

Performance:

  • John Underwood, Gwynne Edwards, Bernard Davis, John Meek: viola
  • Francisco Gabarro, Dennis Vigay, Alan Delziel, Alex Nifosi: cello
  • Cyril Mac Arther, Gordon Pearce: double bass
  • Basil Tschaikov, Jack Brymer: clarinet
  • N. Fawcett, Alfred Waters: bassoon
  • Clifford Seville, David Sandeman: flute
  • Alvin Civil, Neil Sanders: French horn
  • David Mason, Monty Montgomery, Harold Jackson: trumpet
  • Raymond Brown, Raymond Premru, T. Moore: trombone
  • Michael Barnes: tuba
  • Tristan Fry: timpani.
  • Notes

    Further reading

    External links

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