Here is a raw glimpse at the Beatles book--which features an 11,000 word chapter on the first take of "A Day in the Life."
The first time I heard this complete take—and there are no breakdowns—I was taken aback by how much of the vocal Lennon had already worked out. My sense is they rehearsed a lot, knowing they had a big boy of a song on the line, but the scansion is tricky.
You’ll experience the same idea with a Nick Drake vocal. The words on the page don’t seem like they’re especially sing-able at a regular meter. The phrasing is everything, and Lennon is one of the premiere commanders of this art along with a Sam Cooke, a Billie Holiday, Dylan, and Lennon’s own hero, Elvis Presley.
Lennon songs move horizontally—he’s a very linear writer. There’s no mucking about in the journey from A to B. An initial attempt at composing “In My Life” meandered all over the place, until Lennon opted for his direct route. His less is always more than someone else’s more. When Lennon himself is most cognizant of this truth is when he both sings and writes his best, and his vocals acquire a quality of composition themselves—sonic narrative architecture.
Certain Lennon vocals are sufficiently well done that you can think they’re doctored after the fact. He doesn’t have McCartney’s range. Few rock singers ever have. Thus, when Lennon hits notes, by and large, that he doesn’t hit elsewhere, we can think, “Wait, what’s going on, man What are you pulling on us?” I recall the first few times I heard his falsetto on “I Should Have Known Better,” unsure if a man of Lennon’s vocal range could really make that sound in a natural way, remaining incredulous until encountering the live version for the BBC, with falsetto intact.
The pared down first take of “A Day in the Life” is particularly revelatory because it takes us back to myriad aspects of its unlikely origins. The final version of the song is so worked up in the studio—it’s a magic carpet ride of the wizardry possible at the time—that it can register as almost a form of extracurricular music. That is, it’s not organic. There’s legerdemain. The Beatles aren’t cheating, of course, but they’re helped. You’re not entirely confident they could realize this on their own, though the credit does go to them. The final track on Sgt. Pepper can even strike us as fluky. Not repeatable. Not that it required repeating.
The first take, though, minus the echo, is something that could be busked at a subway stop. Or in a bathroom. Get your hands on a copy of the primitive recordings made at Liverpool’s 20 Forthlin Road—McCartney’s boyhood home—in April and July 1960. “The One After 909”—which was attempted at EMI Studios on March 5, 1963, and then later revisited for the Get Back sessions in January 1969, with a cranking version done up on the roof—is in attendance here around the tub of the McCartney loo, as well as “Matchbox” from the June 1964 Long Tall Sally EP (with A Hard Day’s Night coming out the next month, to give you some idea of the Beatles’ product-packed release schedule).
During the March 5 session, Lennon chided George Harrison for his lackluster guitar solo. “What kind of solo was that?” Lennon asks as if he were waving a needle about and couldn’t resist poking Harrison with it. It’s buddy humor, a proper raillery, and I’ve wondered if Harrison recalled the jape—which Lennon accentuated by saying that the solo sounded as if it were played on a rubber band—all that time later in 1969 when Harrison graced the eventual Let It Be version with one of his three or four best guitar solos from his Beatles career.
Maybe. But that final phase Harrison solo works so well because even the solo drives the song forward, lashes at the rest of the ensemble. The solo has purpose beyond, “Hey, this is me out in the open, showing you what I can do.” The solo itself has the drive of a band. In the world of the Beatles, the macro functions at the micro level, and vice versa. It’s one technique they utilize to move so seamlessly from the personal to the universal, and back again.
We experience other Beatles guitar solos that function in this manner. Both of the solos on “Yer Blues,” for instance, from the White Album, the first by Lennon, the second by Harrison. Lennon’s proto-Who solo on 1964’s “You Can’t Do That.” Each of the solos—with, again, Lennon taking the first one, Harrison the second—on “Long Tall Sally.” The most efficacious Beatles guitar solos are built upon a foundation of rhythm. It’s the way Pete Townshend soloed—and to some extent Jerry Garcia—and not the style of an Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman.
Part of the reason is a chops issue—Lennon and Harrison weren’t nearly so dexterous—but also one of a band’s implied mission statement to move via groove. The Beatles’ music is oriented around an idea of getting us to a certain point, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually as well, though theirs is a secular spiritualism rather than, say, what we get on Aretha Franklin’s 1972 Amazing Grace. The Beatles’ church, as such, is that forward-leaning guitar, like a layer of bedrock tilted on its side, pushing across the planar field the way that the cavalry always seems to move in John Ford films.
Way back in that McCartney bathroom, Lennon’s rhythm guitar drives this piecemeal band—there’s no drummer—the same way his playing drives this piecemeal, first version of “A Day in the Life.” It’s in 1960 that the Beatles become the Beatles in name, dropping the Quarrymen tag. They’re not going to be the Beatles as we know the Beatles until August 1962, when drummer Pete Best gets the sack, and Ringo Starr takes over behind the kit, proving—despite jokes to the contrary—that a band really is only as good as its drummer, and the Beatles now had the kickass humdinger of a percussionist ready to go.
But we should also note that Starr was helped along—buttressed—by the percussive nature of the band’s guitar playing. The rhythm really was in the guitars—as the boys used to claim when everyone thought they sucked and they couldn’t land a drummer—but I’d also add that almost all of what the Beatles were was in the guitars as well.
The Beatles’ drive is an amalgamation of sonic forces, but their overall sound, ironically, may owe more to the playing of their least-skilled instrumentalist in Lennon. The newly-minted Beatles of the spring and summer of 1960 relished playing in the lavatory because of the echo. It was neat. Cool guy stuff. You probably enjoy some, too, when you sing in the shower and nurse that fantasy that perhaps you could have been in a band after all.
One senses that same allure from the jump of this first take of “A Day in the Life,” with the echo liberally slapped on Mal Evans’ spoken-word/counting segment denoting where the orchestral crescendos will later go. The echo effect is itself a form of fairy dust. Part of the recipe of the transposition to another world, though with fistfuls of belonging in this one. “We are here,” this first take of “A Day in the Life” seems to say, “and we are also here.” Which is what the Beatles were always in search of, after a fashion, going back to their earliest time as official Beatles.
McCartney lost his mother Mary to breast cancer when he was fourteen-years-old, on Halloween 1956. Lennon’s mother Julia died—run down by a car—on July 15, 1958, when Lennon was seventeen. Music is the solace, in part because it’s a form of escapism, but one grounded in the real—there’s no shirking in the rock and roll music the Beatles loved, or that they made. Rock and roll comes at you, in waves, and rock and roll can feel as if it is engineered and exists for the purpose of helping a person who is down on the mat find a way to rise again.
Similarly to the real-life losses that McCartney and Lennon had experienced, and the behaviors they prompted—the escape into rock and roll land art—“A Day in the Life” begins with a note of detachment—the steely gaze of the newspaper reader—and an account of vehicular tragedy, which becomes this orgy of feeling in which we’re invited to participate via Lennon’s line of “I’d love to turn you on.”
It’s what you say to someone about your amazing record collection and that Marvin Gaye record you just have to introduce them to. Or the shared drug that is presumed to open up new worlds. Or as overture to a sexual encounter that is at least pitched as a ne plus ultra form of eroticism. Whether the delivery is there is another matter entirely.
Speaking of the song, Lennon said, “I dug it. It was a good piece of work between Paul and me. I had the ‘I read the news today’ bit, and it turned Paul on. Now and then we really turn each on with a bit of song, and he just said ‘yeah’—bang, bang, like that. It just sort of happened beautifully.”
Note the phraseology. These are men extremely comfortable with each other. The language is redolent of climax—a simultaneous climax. In that Lennon description from 1970, we still experience the earthiness of “A Day in the Life” via interview rhetoric and Lennon’s own associative memory, and the transcendent sensation that we’ve left this mortal coil, gone somewhere else—into the land where one can but be greeted with the liminal-space plainsong of “sugar plum fairy, sugar plum fairy.”
The “I’d love to turn you on” line is a gateway line, a portal via-declarative-sentence, which works as it does because of how it is sung. The Beatles knew what they were doing—that they were being cheeky, and delighted in that rascality.
I remember when I was a teenager who dreamed of writing about music, how I wanted to get in Rolling Stone and say the word “fuck” in some review and I’d be all badass, etc. You have your version.
This is the basic rock and roll spirit, and Lennon applies it in “A Day in the Life,” where it fleshes out that spirit in conjunction with his “Come and Go With Me”-style of rock and roll guitar playing. We don’t expect that manner of fretboard, chordal approach here, which has that same rhythmic drive as we heard back on the Forthlin Road tapes, and in the thrashing, blocky “You Can’t Do That” solo.
Lennon was the kid who set off a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire a couple days early, and he’s similarly bringing a torch to bear upon convention with that one line, but the Beatles were never cheap thrill artists once they hit their prime. They could opt for a bawdy joke—“Happiness is a Warm Gun,” for instance, is full of risqué patter to make Chaucer’s Wife of Bath blush—but they always aimed galaxies higher than the crass.
The Beatles at their best shot for your soul—and we hear that in a first take that was intended, in theory, as little more than a holding pattern. Or a way to plunge into a new universe, and then go across it. This part of the process wasn’t earmarked as music that would be remembered, but rather an installment in a sequence leading to music that would, ideally, be remembered always. But the Beatles were better than that—their “in-between,” if you will, could be as full as whatever their “final” was.
“A Day in the Life” is the last time we have McCartney and Lennon competing within the confines of the same song. But they’re also competing against past iterations of themselves. Competition was the petrol that made the Beatles machine hum and fly. Competition with other bands—Beach Boys, Stones, Who, Dylan—and between their own two resident geniuses.
In 1964, Lennon—who was writing the bulk of the material at the time, as McCartney would closer to the Beatles’ end—raced out of the studio one day, knowing that the title of band’s first film would be A Hard Day’s Night, because he wanted to get home first and write the tittle track to order before his partner could.
You have to love that. Each man craved the glory, the attention, the praise. The A-side. The cut that would play over the credits to the movie.
But this was not solipsistic glory—it was glory within the context of the band. Let’s call it disciplined, higher-purpose, altruistic solipsism. The Beatles brand. Heard more as a rock and roll number—as with this first take—we can experience how closely related “A Day in the Life” is to “A Hard Day’s Night.” They’re not far from being the same song—only inverted versions of each other.
The Lennon guitar is the driver in both cases, the foundation. A lot is built atop it, and happens upon it, and “A Hard Day’s Night” is certainly an electric-tidal wave of a performance over which atomic vessels seem to race. But it’s also a closely-observed study of a day in the life. A harried day in the life, as seen from the end of that day.
Just as “A Day in the Life” begins with the observation of a life that has reached its own end, with the person—based on Beatles friend and Guinness heir Tara Browne—who “blew their mind out in a car,” “A Hard Day’s Night” is the report from the front of a doozy of an afternoon and evening. Each lyric functions as a brand of reportage—that detail-based writing that someone like Chekhov did so well, when the details stack and stack and via their stackage, we get a story. Both songs are first person songs, but that person is an observer foremost. A chronicler of life, on an ostensibly small scale—that is, “these are the reasons why I want to get home to you, baby” and “Well, I was reading the paper, you see, and there was this guy…”—that becomes far grander. Less one person’s life, and more all of our lives, because we feel like we have skin in both songs. A justifiably famous chord begins one song, and a justifiably famous chord ends the other.
Lennon starts each song and concludes it, with McCartney—the second voice in the room—picking up the story at its midpoint. When he’s done with his second verse of his contribution to “A Hard Day’s Night,” McCartney takes his leave as Lennon sings a subtle “mmmmmm,” under McCartney’s final word.
On “A Day in the Life,” this “mmmmmm,” grows up into that eerie, otherworldly—and yet decidedly of this world—Lennon lament that goes around and around the listener’s head, an enveloping smoke ring of mystery and portent. In the 1951 version of Scrooge, Michael Hordern’s Jacob Marley makes a similar sound when he really wants to blow the miser’s mind, and convey the sentiment of “listen here, bub, this is your eternal soul on the line!” And then we are back into a Lennon verse, same as with “A Hard Day’s Night,” to take us back out into the world—or deeper down into it. Again, a foot upon one external, terrestrial place, a foot in the inner realm.
The Beatles were not art rockers, and I don’t think they could have made Sgt. Pepper as prog-stylists. They had to find the Jerry Lee Lewis vibe, the Buddy Holly vibe, the Carl Perkins vibe. They nail it with the first take of “A Day in the Life.” They nail something else, too, in the process, and what that was, for the Beatles, was new. One of their chief gifts was having the confidence to be open to that which they’d not done before, and what they might have stumbled upon. Fortuity is a huge part of their legacy and artistry.
In 1964, with “She’s a Woman”—a mostly formless, B-side blues-shouter of a song, that gets by on McCartney’s vocal and that percussive guitar work—it was Macca who exhibited the derring-do.
His love didn’t give him presents—nor boys the eye, thankfully—but she did turn him on when he got lonely. The song is in the nature of what we’d today call a booty call. The singer is on his own, but he has a place he can go—different than the one in “There’s a Place”—where he’ll be taken care of, so to speak. And won’t need to take care of his needs himself, which is where this might have been headed, without the young lady who is worthy of this twelve-bar paean.
But within the framework of the song, the singer is in isolation, same as the singer of “A Day in the Life.” Really, both singers of “A Day in the Life,” given that the section sung by McCartney details a bus ride by a young man who has checked himself out from the world, and rides within a private, dreamy penumbra.
At a session on BBC radio in autumn 1964, presenter Brian Matthews—who most likely didn’t know who had written what—opined that he thought “She’s a Woman” was a much better song than its Lennon-composed A-side, “I Feel Fine.”
You can hear how pissed Lennon is. Not that he wants to slash Matthews’ throat or anything, but that result obviously wasn’t what he was going for. In this court, anyway, Paul has won. Yes, the Beatles win, because they have two top-shelf performances—even if “She’s a Woman” is no more of a song, in some ways, than cornpone, Howlin’ Wolf pastiche “Oh! Darling” five years later—but the competitive juices were surely heated in the pot. When you’re a competitive person, you tend to have a long memory. We’ve seen it with Harrison and “One After 909,” and now we’ll see it again.
Just as McCartney has had his fun and his moment with the “turn me on” lyrical gambit, Lennon wants a go, and a better go at that. Competition, baby. There’s a stately gravitas to his effort as the “turn on” line is imbued with sublimity and a form of self-reference, whereas McCartney was having a bit of a piss take. The Beatles are not just heralding new experience and new worlds—they’re talking about themselves, too. As in, “turn you on with what we are presently doing, now dig this rising mountain of orchestral sound.”
Instead of a mountain, we have a steppe on the first take of “A Day in the Life.” The maracas add an uncanny amount of flavor to the sound—more, perhaps, than they should be able to, if it didn’t feel we’d come upon hallowed ground, our senses heightened. They suggest a procession. Without Lennon’s guitar to compete with, McCartney plays his piano at a lower volume during that steppe passage where the orchestra will later do its thing, as Mal Evans counts the bars as if they represent days, hours, years, decades, coming off of your life.
The first time I heard the official version of “A Day in the Life,” having begun my Beatles’ listening career with heavy doses of A Hard Day’s Night, Live at the Hollywood Bowl (snippets of whose teenybopper applause/adulation features on Sgt. Pepper), and the so-called Red Album with its documentation of the 1962-1966 years, I thought the orchestral passages on “A Day in the Life” were about the most transgressive musical statements a rock band could make. I was shocked by the Beatles’ daring. I listened to a lot of heavy metal, as a teenage boy is wont to do—Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Jimi Hendrix, Guns N’ Roses—but this was heavier.
I think it was the volume—how it rose and rose and rose—and the lack of a key. Atonal music was new to me. Later I’d hear recordings that John Coltrane made in 1965, such as Live in Seattle, which helped put the orchestral sections of “A Day in the Life” in a different context. But the first take—with just the four Beatles and Mal Evans’ specter of a voice—rattled my brain all the more. Frightened me more, in that positive way we can be frightened.
“A Day in the Life” is a song about time. How much of it you could have left when you really lock in on and start to appreciate its circumscribed nature—which is also more pliable than we’re generally lent to believe—and what you’re able (and willing) to do with it.
Are you going to watch the world pass you by or are you going to be someone who can turn a seemingly simple outing on a bus into a a journey of discovery—the same journey of discovery we find with what might otherwise be “just” an orphanage and playground in “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “just” a piddling, gloomy roundabout with a barber’s shop in “Penny Lane”?
The intensity might not be at a higher level in the first take of the song, but the portentousness is. The Beatles had hit a gateway, and this is the sound of them coming to a spot they’d not come to before.
Listen to the first take of Lennon’s “God,” from the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band sessions in autumn 1970. The final version of the song will represent one of Lennon’s best vocals, along with “A Day in the Life,” “Twist and Shout,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Help!”, the 1963 BBC cover of Little Eva’s of “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby,” and the languidly heroic “I’m So Tired.”
He’s not there yet on this early version, and he trips up on on the word “Beatles” in that inventory—for this is a form of list song—of all of the things he does not believe in. Dylan. Bibles. Mantra. It’s like he still can’t find a way to denounce the band’s power in this same song that is the closest his solo career got to that nimbus of “A Day in the Life.”
“God” has a similar feel, and despite its title, is an equally secular work. It’s what the McCartney’s character in “A Day in the Life” might be meditating upon in that lonely Liverpool bus on the way home from the pub or the gig. We watch the girls chase the Beatles at Marylebone Station in A Hard Day’s Night, and we think of that time period as their apogee. Lennon’s “toppermost of the poppermost” made flesh. They did not look at it this way. Nor did manager Brian Epstein. That was pop stardom—Sgt. Pepper was the arrival and reign as zeitgeist gods.
I was reading an article recently where a classical music critic wondered aloud if Mozart said to himself, “Goddamn, son, you just wrote a piece for the ages, that will live for evermore,” or whether it was simply another day, another job, more wood that got chopped, only it was called a movement in whatever horn concerto he was working on at the time.
The critic concluded that Mozart must have known, and I know the Beatles knew what they had come to when they got to the first take of “A Day in the Life,” and Lennon sang and played as he did, and the orchestral sections waited to be filled in. But in the meanwhile, they held pockets of energy unlike anything I’ve experienced in my listening life.
Shakespeare opined, via a pointed finger, that the bell toils for all of us, while making it seem like he was talking to each and every person privately, and I hear life itself counting down in those passages while we wait for Lennon’s vocal return.
We need his voice to come back, because it is affirming, and it’s an attempt, in singing, to make sense of the mystery that envelopes us all. The mystery that can be quite mundane—an account of holes in a road that is learned about over the breakfast tea that may or may not be dosed with a tab of acid—but a mystery that is always more than it seems. Just as a Beatles’ first take can be.
This first take of “A Day in the Life” speaks to us in the way the Beatles knew best—via rock and roll and what is now the outer edge of their understanding of rock and roll—while also moving us, and them, beyond those shores of the big beat, the ripping guitars, the harmony vocal. The process is equally as important as the final product, especially as the fruits of that process can themselves be works of art that you could quite easily prefer.
The official version of “A Day in the Life” is so different than the first attempt at it. One clearly had to go on the record—you couldn’t stick the first take there—and one clearly had to be a piece of outright wonder and awe that a person could mull for all of the time they have left. The time that is both portended, charted/counted, and transcended on this first take of the Beatles’ finest song, which, in the days of my life, is the ‘A Day in the Life” I return to the most, because in its prismatic aura of flux, I see the world and I see art as entities of beauty and truth that can be just too easy to sleep on, and miss. And I hear a band—and I especially hear a singer—having the exact same epiphany.
That, to me, is a moment of music-making that a formal, proper, “this is our next one!” record can hardly hope to hold. But which a legacy like the Beatles’ could, when we extend our own parameters of how we thought we knew them.
Take the sugar plum fairy to the ball, and when you get back, everything is different, and the newest of new days perpetually dawns. Dub the mic on the piano quite low, indeed.