From conception to recording studio: the original manuscript for one of the most significant works of one of the twentieth century's most revered and influential artists.
"A Day in the Life" embodies all of the contradictions of the tumultuous decade in which it was created. It is the pivotal song of the archetypal Sixties rock 'n' roll album, yet Sgt. Pepper's—unlike the albums that preceded and succeeded its fifteen-week reign at the top of the Billboard charts, Headquarters by the Monkees and Ode to Billy Joe by Bobbie Gentry—remains undated: as relevant, fresh, and listenable today as in 1967. It is the quintessential John Lennon composition—gorgeously melodic, brooding, emotional, darkly comic, obscure—and yet it is his most successful mature collaboration with Paul McCartney. It is an integral part of the Sgt. Pepper's concept, and yet it is an entirely singular achievement; it is difficult to believe that the song describes a day in the life of Billy Shears.
The exceptionalism of "A Day in the Life" has long been remarked on. The album was almost universally acclaimed upon its release as transcending the constraints of popular music. Kenneth Tynan's notice in the Times of London characterized the album as "A decisive moment in the history of Western civilization," while Geoffrey Stokes's review in the Village Voice found that "listening to the Sgt. Pepper album one thinks not simply of the history of popular music but the history of this century."
But even in 1967, there were skeptics. The New York Times critic, Richard Goldstein, wrote a sharp review titled "We Still Need the Beatles, but ...," comparing Sgt. Pepper's to a spoiled, overly stimulated child. "It reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted animal noises, and a 41-piece orchestra," full "of special effects, dazzling but ultimately fraudulent." But "A Day in the Life" escaped Goldstein's withering dismissal. He described the song as "a deadly earnest excursion in emotive music with a chilling lyric [that] stands as one of the most important Lennon-McCartney compositions, and ... is a historic Pop event."
More recently, in a 2007 anniversary notice on TheNation.com, Jon Wiener admitted that "Listening to the CD forty years later, the concept behind this concept album now seems a bit lame. ... Some of the cuts are pretty bad. ... Lennon's song about the world of LSD, 'where rockinghorse people eat marshmallow pies,' is cloying." Like, Goldstein, however, Wiener finds a saving grace: "But one song today seems stronger than ever: Lennon's 'A Day in the Life.' As the cut beings, 'the curtain falls on Pepperland,' Tim Riley wrote, 'just as another is raised on the sobering stage of the real word.'"
The supposedly real world antecedents of the song are well known. The "lucky man" who "blew his mind in a car" is generally thought to be a reference to Tara Brown, a friend of McCartney and an heir to the Guinness fortune, who fatally crashed his Lotus Elan in December 1966. However, both McCartney and producer George Martin believe that this verse was instead a reference to drug use ("blew his mind") and not a direct allusion to Brown. Similarly, the line "The English Army had just won the war" could be nod to the film How I Won the War, a black comedy directed by Richard Lester and starring John Lennon and Michael Crawford, which had completed filming but had not yet been released.
The one indisputable "fact" in the song is appropriately absurd and random. The Daily Mail of 17 January 1967 did indeed print a snippet about the council of Blackburn having had the number of potholes in the district counted. There were 4,000 of them, or, as the article went on to note, one twenty-sixth of hole per resident. This sort of information would have appealed enormously to Lennon as he wrestled with the question of whether everything in life in pointless or if in fact all things were meaningful.
On 19 January, Lennon brought his impressionistic poem, somewhat reminiscent of Edward Lear's nonsense work, to the studio. The manuscript reveals that he was revising the lyrics right up to—and possibly during—recording. In the second verse, Lennon originally followed the line "he didn't notice that the lights had changed" with "and all the people turned away." He scored through this line, changing it to "a crowd of people stood and stared," but adapted the deleted line for the next verse, where it appears as "and though the people turned away." And the now iconic final couplet originally was written as "They had to count them all | They counted every one." In the fair copy, block-letter printed set of the lyrics, Lennon continued his editing, adding the word "Just" to the beginning of the final line of the third verse, but then bracketing it in red to indicate, evidently, that rhythmically it did not work. Similarly in the final stanza he has changed the adjective "very" to "rather" to describe the small size of the holes in Blackburn. Most significantly, Lennon has added the phrase "+ I love to turn you on" in blue fountain pen between the third and fourth verses.
That evening a basic rhythmic track was recorded: Lennon's vocals backed by McCartney on piano, Ringo Starr on bongo drums, and George Harrison on maracas. Lennon had Martin amplify the echo, it is said, because he wanted to capture the despair evoked by Elvis Presley in "Heartbreak Hotel."
Between the third and fourth verses, the Beatles grafted a brilliant, upbeat counterpoint that McCartney had written but not yet employed anywhere. His jaunty lyric "Woke up, got out of bed ...," fits perfectly with Lennon's conception, of course, but it seems to promise a much brighter day than the one described by Lennon. The final phrase of McCartney's section is "I went into a dream," but Lennon's day more closely approximates a nightmare or, perhaps more accurately, a state of suspension in which the narrator can only observe the incidents of everyday life but not participate in them.
There was uncertainty about how to fuse the two sections, so the middle section was intentionally left unaccomplished: twenty-four empty bars were counted off by the Beatles' assistant and mate Mal Evans, to whom Lennon gave these lyrics.
Evans joined the Beatles entourage in 1963 when he was hired by Brian Epstein to be a roadie. He was eventually promoted to road manager and then to personal assistant, and he travelled with the group not only on tour but on vacation as well, including the celebrated journey to India. Evans played a role in many Beatles recordings, perhaps none more so than "A Day in the Life." In addition to counting down the blank bars in the middle section, he marked their conclusion by setting off an alarm clock, which, intentionally or not, provided the perfect segue to McCartney's section of the song. He was also involved in climactic E chord that gives the song its dramatic and disturbing conclusion.
To further unite the two sections, George Martin—largely at the instigation of Paul McCartney who was inspired by Lennon's request "for a sound like the end of the world"—brought in forty-one musicians from the London Philharmonic. They were asked to improvise on their instruments a disjointed crescendo from the lowest notes they could achieve to the highest. Five takes were recorded and overdubbed on to a single track, creating a sound that Martin described as an "orchestral orgasm." (Just in February of this year, Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, posted a blog entry titled "The Beatles and the Avant-Garde" that speculated on possible sources for this orchestral passage. Ross cites both Iannis Xenakis's "Metastasis" [1953-54], in which "forty-six string instruments begin together on the note G and then slide away from it in an expanding web of glissandos, until they achieve a massive cluster chord." He also remarks on the group's familiarity with Karlheinz Stockhausen, who actually appears among the celebrated faces on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's.)
"A Day in the Life" concludes with a monumental piano chord achieved by five men—Lennon, McCartney, Martin, Ringo Starr, and Mal Evans—pounding a holding an E chord on three grand pianos and a Harmonium organ. The recording engineer continually increased the fade so that the note is audible for nearly a minute (together with considerable studio background noise). Bob Spitz, author of The Beatles: A Biography, calls the final chord "a magnificent—stirring—effect" and deems the full song "perhaps the Beatles outstanding studio performance."
Acclaim for the song has been near universal. "A Day in the Life" has been compared to Eliot's "Waste Land" and Picasso's "Guernica." Paul Gruskin's Rockin' Down the Highway calls it "one of the most ambitious, influential, and groundbreaking works in pop music history." "A Day in the Life" is all of that and more, and at the song's center—and paradoxically at its foundation as well—are these two pages of John Lennon's handwritten lyrics. They provide the song's gravity and dignity and significance.
Jon Wiener concludes his anniversary review of "A Day in the Life" by equating its "confusion and quiet horror" to the 1960s. Wiener quotes a speaker in Mark Kitchell's 1990 documentary film Berkeley in the Sixties, whose words, unfortunately, apply not only to the decade but to John Lennon's too-brief existence: "so much life, so much death; so much possibility, so much impossibility."
Philip Norman, author of John Lennon. The Life (2008) and Shout! The True Story of the Beatles (1981, has also written biographies of The Rolling Stones, Elton John, and Buddy Holly. On the occasion of the sale of the lyrics for "A Day in the Life," he reflects on the cultural significance of John Lennon:
Addressing a mass peace rally organised in 2003, the Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered a roll-call of the twentieth-century's most inspirational peacemakers: 'Abraham Lincoln ...John F. Kennedy ...Martin Luther King ... John Lennon ...'
Twenty-eight years after his death, Lennon has become almost a modern secular saint in the global love, loyalty, and fascination he commands. His song Imagine is the world's favourite anthem, uniting all races, cultures, and religions in its vision of peace and tolerance. The hits he wrote during his time with the Beatles—Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, Strawberry Fields Forever, A Day in the Life, and a score of others—delight and dazzle and intrigue the twenty-first-century pop audience as much as they did the Sixties generation that first heard them. Scraps of his handwritten song-lyrics are revered like Holy relics and sell for fortunes. His art works, once condemned as infantile or pornographic, can now be seen as precursors of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and others who have turned art into 'the new rock 'n' roll'. His writing, whether in song-lyrics or prose, has been compared with Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.
Lennon's story is a modern fable, as human and charming as it is incredible—how a bluntly-spoken Liverpool boy, for whom his schoolteachers predicted only failure, formed the most adored pop band of all time, wrote music that was compared with Schubert, then ditched the Beatles to team up with Japanese performance artist Yoko in a partnership that was to mystify and exasperate the whole world. Fortune can never have wrought a more astounding transformation—from no-hope art student to the hero of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan; from impish moptop at the 1963 Royal Command Variety Performance to the apostle-bearded hippy, holding court in his hotel bed as a demonstration for world peace, to the Seventies radical and the devoted househusband and father of his final days. The shock of his assassination, outside his New York apartment in front of Yoko, still resonates even amid the new dark age of senseless murder that came after it. At the same time, on record and film, his personality remains unquenchably alive—spontaneous, irreverent, vulnerable, blisteringly honest and excruciatingly funny.