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An ode to the "orchestral orgasm" in The Beatles' 'A Day in the Life'


John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn’t know exactly what they wanted, but they knew they wanted something big. In 1967, the evolution that had come out of the pair’s writing had taken a major leap over the past year – after having been turned on to weed by Bob Dylan, and then LSD by a duplicitous doctor, the drug experience and the changing sensibilities of the ’60s began to take a hold of The Beatles. Light pop songs were no longer acceptable, and when they combined two different sections of songs to create the basis for a new track, they knew that they were on to something massive.

As always, when the duo had big ideas that they couldn’t quite convey or articulate, they went to their producer, George Martin. Martin became an expert in translating the group’s wild ideas and near-impossible requests. When Lennon wanted the sound of “a thousand chanting monks” in ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, Martin made it happen. When McCartney requested an impossibly high trumpet part for ‘Penny Lane’, Martin transcribed it and sought out the appropriate player. When Lennon wanted to combine two different takes of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ that were in different keys and set at different tempos, Martin lined up the tapes by hand to make it work.

When Martin was presented with the first arrangement of ‘A Day in the Life’, he was slightly puzzled by how avant-garde the band were willing to be. Without any real idea of what they wanted, the group simply had roadie Mal Evans count out 24 bars between Lennon’s “I read the news today” verses and McCartney’s “Woke up, got out of bed” middle eight. Having embraced overdubs, psychedelic sounds, and experimentation on their past productions, McCartney wasn’t concerned about creating a backing track with such a prominent gap in the music.

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“I said, ‘We’ll take 24 bars, we’ll count it, we’ll just do our song, and we’ll leave 24 bare’,” McCartney recalled later. “You could actually hear Mal counting it out, with more and more echo because we thought it was kinda freaky.” Eventually, McCartney suggested an orchestra be brought in to fill the gap, something that The Beatles and Martin were getting more experience with as the group moved away from their rock and roll roots.

It was Lennon’s idea to have the orchestra engage in “a tremendous build-up, from nothing up to something absolutely like the end of the world.” When Lennon described what he envisioned to Martin, the producer and classically trained pianist explained to Lennon that what he was looking for was a glissando: a rapid slide from one note to another. Lennon and McCartney concurred, but they wanted an entire orchestra to do it, at different intervals, and all at the same time. McCartney thought the musicians could simply improvise the section, but Martin knew that professionals, especially in the classical music realm, would have difficulties following such vague instructions.

So Martin came up with a solution: “At the very beginning, I put into the musical score the lowest note each instrument could play, ending with an E major chord. And at the beginning of each of the 24 bars, I put a note showing roughly where they should be at that point. Then I had to instruct them. ‘We’re going to start very very quietly and end up very very loud. We’re to start very low in pitch and end up very high. You’ve got to make your own way up there, as slidey as possible so that the clarinets slurp, trombones gliss, violins slide without fingering any notes. And whatever you do, don’t listen to the fellow next to you because I don’t want you to be doing the same thing.’ Of course, they all looked at me as though I was mad.”

“It was interesting because I saw the orchestra’s characters,” McCartney remembered in Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. “The strings were like sheep – they all looked at each other: ‘Are you going up? I am!’ and they’d all go up together, the leader would take them all up. The trumpeters were much wilder. The jazz guys, they liked the brief. The musicians with the more conventional instruments would behave more conventionally.”

To get the musicians to loosen up, party favours and costumes were provided to the orchestra, who showed up wearing concert dress. Balloons, streamers, fake nipples, monkey paws, and Groucho Marx glasses were passed around, and the doors to the studio were opened for The Beatles’ friends to take part. Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, Michael Nesmith, Brian Jones, Donovan, Keith Richards, and George Harrison’s wife Patti Boyd were among the guests, along with avant-garde art collective The Fool. After four takes of the crescendo were attempted, the musicians applauded the results, packed up, and went home.

Martin was unsure of the results, recalling to Lewishon that “part of me said ‘We’re being a bit self-indulgent here.’ The other part of me said ‘It’s bloody marvellous!'” It was only when all four orchestral takes were combined that all involved realised the immense sound that they had stumbled onto. No pop act had ever attempted something so grand, so ambitious, and so nebulous before. It wasn’t about the exact notes, but the greater sum that was created. When the musicians added a final E chord on multiple pianos to send out the song in style, ‘A Day in the Life’ quickly took on a life of its own.