Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Day in the Life

Of the many Beatles facts associated with "A Day in the Life" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the most important is that the song is a mixture of a Lennon tune gleaned from articles in the newspaper and a partial song by McCartney, the latter representing the middle of the track that starts after the orchestral buildup and an alarm clock ringing. McCartney's contribution to the track, a snippet he couldn't fully develop, is about waking up and catching a bus.

In the song, Lennon wrote of a car crash in South Kensington that caused the death of Tara Browne, the twenty-one-year-old male heir to the Guinness family. Lennon also used other details he saw in the paper, such as the fact that four thousand potholes needed to be filled in Blackburn, Lancashire. The lyric "I saw a film today ... the English army had just won the war" is a reference to How I Won the War, a Richard Lester film in which Lennon appeared.

The song was recorded at Abbey Road Studios between January 19 and February 10, 1967, with overdubs added later. The original backing track featured Lennon playing an acoustic guitar and McCartney playing piano--nothing more. Lennon counts into the song by saying "Sugarplum fairy, sugarplum fairy," which can be heard on the Anthology version.

Lennon's unusual vocal quality was produced by use of a tape echo. The vocal was sent into the tape machine, where it was split into "record" and "replay," with the "replay" being fed into the machine again (as well as Lennon's headphones).

Roadie Mal Evans counted from one to twenty-four to measure each bar that would later be filled in by an orchestra building to a crescendo. Evans set the alarm clock for timing purposes and was left in because it fit the motif of McCartney's "Woke up, got out of bed ..." The orchestra was McCartney's idea, although George Martin originally believed a building crescendo was over the top.

It was George Martin's idea to have the last note of the song last as long as possible. The note was achieved by three of the Beatles hitting the note on three pianos, with sound engineers controlling the rate of fade-out. The note lasts for forty-five seconds and precedes what is known as "The Inner Groove," a few seconds of repeating gibberish heard if old stereo tone arms were left on the vinyl.

Composer Leonard Bernstein was especially impressed with this track.

Instrumental attributions for Harrison and Starr vary depending on the sources consulted. Lennon and McCartney sang lead vocals for their respective parts. Lennon played his acoustic Gibson J-160E, McCartney piano. The orchestra was a forty-one piece assembly of classical musicians. Most sources agree that Lennon, McCartney, and Starr played the last piano chord, with some sources also putting Starr on toms, drums, or both. Harrison's contribution is unclear, although some sources say he played bongos and one of the pianos at the end. Other sources also have McCartney playing bass guitar. Most sources agree that Martin scored the strings for parts of the song but that McCartney directed the orchestral crescendo.

The song is regarded by fans and musicians alike as one of the most innovative tracks ever written and performed by the band. Lennon thought it to be among his finest work.

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