New music guest blog by Ruddy Adam.
The Beatles’ Most Sophisticated Song: “A Day in the Life” (1967)
This one is a real right-brain stimulator, if there’s ever been one. The story of how it was made is almost as stimulating as the song, because it took pure musical genius to put this one together. Enjoy!
For the first few years, classical music did not affect the Beatles’ music in the least, though their producer was classically trained. Their songs were simple, yet charming love ballads along with some fine Rock & Roll tunes.
“A Day in the Life,” however, sprang them into another realm and shows how talented the quartet truly was, at least the three of them: George, John, and Paul, though Ringo surely did his part on this song after a lot of coaching and persuading. Yet he was always the weak point among the four.
In this song they give us several things we had not gotten from the group, or from anyone in pop music. Their typically wonderful harmonies are there, and there are numerous chord changes throughout, with a powerful final E Major.
After an unusual yet exciting build (24 bars to be exact) that contains an orchestra playing counterpoint (two different notes played at once in harmony with each other), along with each instrument using glissando (each instrument playing every musical sound it can, yet in harmony with one another), we get a fine climax, and then a classical pause—and then a time change at 2:16. After a voice build and climax, you have an excellent transition at 3:18 back to the slower time.
From 3:18 the lyric leads to a final instrumental build (done in counterpoint and glissando) starting at 3:55 and then another sharp climax. And last, after the second climax and a classical pause, there is a final E Cord played as a cool down, which is held out about as long as you’re ever going to hear a cord held—50-seconds—to end the song.
It took nine takes for Lennon, McCartney, and Mal Evans having to hit the same keys at exactly the same time playing an E major chord on three pianos to pull off this fifty-second hold. Which is likely the longest in history. After those nine takes, the chord was overdubbed several times with pianos and an instrument similar to an organ called a harmonium. The result is astounding!
Great song. Definitely very interesting.
While I myself nor any of our group would put it this high, Pitchfork Media’s “The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s” ranked “A Day in the Life” number five. Numerous musicians, musicologists, and magazines have ranked it as the Beatles’ best song. I will say that it is certainly their most sophisticated and perhaps their most interesting, though not my favorite, or in my view their best song; but I surely do like it, and it is definitely a right-brain stimulator.
John and Paul wrote the song. George Martin (see below if you’re interested), Paul McCartney, and John Lennon did the orchestration. Martin and Lennon the production. The Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras did most of the instrumentation, along with several jazz musicians. The video was done live on the night the instrumentals were done, with everyone in costume for a gag party to be held afterward.
“A Day in the Life,” by the Beatles, 1967 (5:00)
The major influence for “A Day in the Life” was a song that came out a year before in 1966, by the Beach Boys: “Good Vibrations,” which was a very sophisticated studio-produced song that is acclaimed exactly for that: its innovative production. Which “Beach Boy” Brian Wilson was famous for.
The Beatles’ arranger, producer, and advisor, George Martin, who produced most of their songs during the groups’ time together, was in charge of the production of “A Day in the Life,” though John Lennon put a lot of it together, though it is commonly thought of as Paul’s song, because it was mostly his idea.
George Martin was not your run-of-the-street music world musician who didn’t read music, which was typical of musicians and producers during that period (and today!). He studied piano and oboe for four-years at the Guildhall School of Music in England which at that time concentrated on the music of Johnny Dankworth, Cole Porter, Rachmaninov, and Ravel. And he played the piano classically for a while in an orchestra.
After the Beatles did the vocals in January of `67, they got a conglomeration of classical and jazz musicians together, with plans to have a gag party afterwards. The musicians dressed accordingly in Black & White with odd masks and other party dress, as you can see in the priceless video of the whole crew, both invitees and musicians.
When they were first told what was required of them, the musicians sat in shocked silence, but Martin began coaching and explaining. Glissando and counterpoint!!?? Before long they were perfectly into the song, laughing and practicing their parts, which they figured might end up sounding like various metals banging together.
After the final take, however, the result of the sound caused them to give Martin and the Beatles a standing ovation, and began the party.
The Beatles invited people from all parts of society whom they knew or were friends with to hear the instrumental part. Donovan, Mick Jagger, Mike Nesmith, and Keith Richards were a few of the Beatles’ music friends who were in attendance.
It took another thirty-days to put the piece together in the studio. For so many things to be going on at once and the Beatles first attempt at such sophistication, it certainly turned out to be an outstanding piece.
For your right-brain: Ruddy Adam