One of the stranger habits of The Beatles‘ songwriting process to explain to the younger generations is their frequent use of newspaper headlines and article content to write lyrics. Newspapers are now on the verge of becoming a bygone form of media, relegated to only those older individuals who still find comfort in the daily physical form. There is still something undeniably romantic about churning out hardcopy every single day, but once the internet made news available in real time, the days of the newspaper were officially numbered.
Back in the 1960s, reading the daily paper was an almost universal task. It’s how you stayed up to date on events and happenings, containing all the information that couldn’t otherwise easily be accessed. Largely devoid of sensationalism (there was even a derogatory term for such publications: yellow press), daily papers were trusted sources for any and all citizens, include some of the most famous.
John Lennon, in particular, was an ardent reader. Devoted to his subscription to The Daily Mail, Lennon began lifting headlines and story content anywhere he could find them. A story in the Daily Record about a miserly individual provided the basis for ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’, while a headline in American Rifleman was adapted for ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’. Paul McCartney, not one to be outdone, caught a Daily Mirror story about a teenage runaway and crafted a narrative around it, producing ‘She’s Leaving Home’.
But it would be another Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band song that would forever be associated with pilfering the headlines of the daily papers. On January 17th, 1967, Lennon picked up his copy of The Daily Mail and read a familiar name: Tara Browne, an acquaintance of his who had died a month earlier in a car crash. Browne was the heir to the Guinness alcohol brand, and the story concerned the custody battle between Browne’s estranged wife, Nicky, and Browne’s mother.
At a writing session that afternoon, Lennon had already had the basic chord structure of the verse and the first few lines of the song. He proceeded to show McCartney the story, and they fleshed out the rest of the lyrics and arrangement. References to Lennon’s filming of How I Won the War filled out the second verse, while McCartney wished to add a short song he had written about his childhood as the middle eight. The song began to become dense, but Lennon had one more verse, taken from the same January 17th edition of The Daily Mail.
“I was writing ‘A Day In The Life’ with the Daily Mail propped in front of me on the piano. I had it open at their News in Brief, or Far and Near, whatever they call it,” Lennon explains in Anthology. One of the brief news snippets concerned potholes on English roads, and Lennon lifted the newser almost complete wholesale: “There are 4,000 holes in the road in Blackburn, Lancashire, or one twenty-sixth of a hole per person, according to a council survey.”
With that, ‘A Day in the Life’ officially had its structure. When brought to the recording sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s, an orchestral glissando was devised by George Martin to connect the song’s two disparate sections. But the final verse regarding the 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lennon was missing a crucial word.
“There was still one word missing in that verse when we came to record,” he said. “I knew the line had to go ‘Now they know how many holes it takes to… something, the Albert Hall.’ It was a nonsense verse really, but for some reason I couldn’t think of the verb. What did the holes do to the Albert Hall?”.
Adding: “It was Terry [Doran, head of Apple Music] who said ‘fill’ the Albert Hall. And that was it. Perhaps I was looking for that word all the time, but couldn’t put my tongue on it. Other people don’t necessarily give you a word or a line, they just throw in the word you’re looking for anyway.”
‘A Day in the Life’ was eventually selected as Sgt. Pepper’s closing song, bringing The Beatles most contemporary work to date to a climactic close. It was all thanks to some casual investment in old-school journalism that one of the greatest Beatles songs of all time truly came to life.