The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’ is not just the mercurial ending to one of the greatest records ever in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but is also a composite of true stories married, mixed and matched into one of the band’s best songs.
The song’s first verse is possibly one of the most engaging in music history. Written by John Lennon, the first line of the song refers to the loss of one of both Paul McCartney and Lennon’s friends—Tara Browne. In this first verse, Lennon sets out the tone of the entire song; we are all viewing this and many other tragedies together, as one audience.
On this day in 1966, Browne, the heir to the Guinness fortune, was in a fatal car crash. The 21-year-old was a friend of the band’s and his death would’ve clearly rocked Lennon and Co. to their core. A month later, and just a few days before The Beatles would go into the studio to lay down ‘A Day In The Life’, there was an article in the paper surrounding the custody battle for Browne’s two children.
Lennon would often use the papers as a source of inspiration and upon reading that certain article would pen one of the most famous opening lines of all time, “I read the news today, oh, boy,” delivered with Lennon’s impeccable tone.
Though Paul McCartney later claimed that he thought the verse was more about “a politician bombed out on drugs” following the line “Nobody was really sure if he was from the House Of Lords,” Lennon confirmed that it was indeed about Browne. “Tara didn’t blow his mind out,” Lennon said, “but it was in my mind when I was writing that verse. The details of the accident of the song—not noticing traffic lights and a crowd forming at the scene—were similarly part of the fiction.”
The next true story, which is woven into the tapestry of the song, is certainly a lighter one as Lennon makes reference to his then-recent concluded role in Richard Lester’s How I Won The War. Lennon plays Musketeer Gripweed in the film and had just concluded filming when returning to the studio. As the verse ends the line which would see the song become banned by the BBC. “I love to turn you on,” hangs heavy in the air.
The “I’d love to turn you on” line, McCartney once remembered as: “John and I looked at each other, a little flash went between our eyes, like ‘I’d love to turn you on,’ a recognition of what we were doing, so I thought, OK, we’ve got to have something amazing that will illustrate that.” They did do something amazing, they gathered a 40-piece orchestra, they put silly clothes on them and asked them to fill the 24 bars roadie Mal Evans was counting with something purely orgasmic.
Most orchestras are trained to sound like one singular voice. A one-man show played by 40 people, but for this gig, George Martin and the band implored them to express themselves individually. Starting from their lowest to their highest notes the orchestra provided one of the most sensational moments in any pop record, all until the Mal Evans’ alarm clock rings and we dive into McCartney’s bopping next verse. It would be the genius inclusion that would marry this song of two clear halves.
Devoid of the kind of plaguing finality of life that Lennon was employing at the time, McCartney instead took the song back to his roots and delivered a pretty simple if not a suitably catchy verse about his time in Liverpool. Fitting too, as originally, the song had been intended to be part of a sort of concept album where The Beatles’ reflected on their lives in Liverpool.
With the end of McCartney’s verse comes the return to John Lennon’s broadsheet meandering as he again chose to bring to the writing table something he had just read. In the same paper as the Tara Browne article was a piece on the failing roads of Northern England. “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,” read the piece and allowed Lennon to add another thread to his weave.
It may sound flippant to create work this way. To go to the papers find some stories and, in essence, read them back to you in rhyme over the music. However, Lennon is instead trying to tell us something with this process. He is not only trying to attach himself to us as the audience, as being just like us. But also for us to engage with the world as he is. To not let stories or actions pass us through inactivity. It’s a sensational piece of writing that continues to impress us even today.
As the verse ends and returns us back to our “musical orgasm” via the 40 piece orchestra there is one last nugget of genius left to find. The climbing notes of the orchestra were meant to finish with John, Paul, George, and Ringo providing a “cosmic hum” in E-major. The band though thought this to be a little bit flimsy so instead, John, Paul, George Martin and the best roadie the world has ever known, Mal Evans sat at their respective keys and brought an end to one of the best songs ever written on one of the best albums ever produced.