We watch, and it feels like anything could happen at a session that doubled as once-in-a-zeitgeist party, with Beatles, a host of rock luminaries—Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Donovan, Mike Nesmith—and forty classical musicians in formal attire gathered for a moment that would change the history of recorded sound.
The scene looks like a birthing ground for chaos. Cinéma vérité has become cinéma psychedelia, with touches of Cocteau, Cornell, and Brakhage. The footage flickers, the camera cutting constantly. A scrim of darkness blankets what we see, which only serves to make these people—their exchanges, the way they regard each other, the looks—appear as if they’re part of a strobing nimbus of light. These are the goings on of the other side of the looking glass.
Still, it’s hard at first to reconcile what the orchestral portions of “A Day in the Life” became while watching the footage of the session. Early on, a female gatecrasher is hauled off the premises. We wonder about the din. Studios and din don’t mix well and there are so many voices in the room.
George Harrison has a private word with Patty Boyd, which must have necessitated turning a would-be whisper into a near-shout. You could think that the Beatles were leaving a lot on that day up to chance and whatever resulted would in part be authored by the whims of the fates. This doesn’t look like a controlled environment that helps with the focus required to create art.
But then there is Paul McCartney, who moves with ease from party to party, person to person. He looks like someone who’d fit in with anyone and make them feel good about themselves. He’s also a Beatle with a plan. John Lennon had the idea for using the orchestra in the first place, mostly because he couldn’t figure out how to close the gaps—or make use of them—in this, the last true Lennon-McCartney songwriting collaboration.
Once the musicians were present, it’s clear McCartney ran the show. He instructs, adjures, conducts. At one point we see him talking with percussionist Tristan Fry, who’d later play on Nick Drake’s “Saturday Sun” off of Five Leaves Left. McCartney is a man at his ease in this footage, someone who understands the premise and power of organized chaos, and the very image of confidence as if he knows exactly the result the Beatles are about to get.
Balloons are fastened to classical instruments, funny glasses and noses get donned by these men in their tuxes; one even sports a third eye on his forehead, as if he’s some Cyclopean delegate to these singular proceedings. Mal Evans twitches his eyebrows like some enlarged elf who already has notable, knowing experience with the two sections in question, having counted out their bars and manned that crucial alarm clock on the song’s first take a few weeks prior.
There’s also a competitive component to this kind of thing, and McCartney reveled in it. These were invited guests, but part of the appeal of having people there was so that when they heard Sgt. Pepper a few months hence, they’d scarcely be able to process how that day led to such an important part of that mind-altering music, to the Beatles’ credit. Now that’s control.
* From Just Like Them: A Piece by Piece Guide to Becoming the Ultimate Thinking Person's Beatles Fan