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Why did the BBC ban The Beatles song 'A Day in the Life'?

‘A Day in the Life’ was the first song the Beatles recorded for what was originally going to be a concept album about the band’s childhood in Liverpool. This concept, of course, eventually morphed into a pseudo band via an Edwardian psychedelic marching outfit.

From the album artwork to the schizophrenic nature of the record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band encapsulated the collage-like fever of the summer of love. All the bands by the late 1960s were simply trying to survive and understand what was going on around them at the time. They were supposedly caught up amidst a counter-cultural revolution, one that was based on free love, protest against authority, and a liberation from the conventionality of the previously stifled and stuffy generation.

In 1965, The Beatles had redefined what it meant to be a rock ‘n’ roll band. They stopped touring and began exploring in the recording studio. The Fab Four were, believe it or not, more of the intellectual type of group. Whereas the Rolling Stones exhibited sex as an idea, the Beatles proposed a philosophical conversation surrounding love as a life-changing concept.

The group started working on Sgt. Pepper’s first but would coincide with the recording sessions for their follow-up psychedelic pastiche record, The Magical Mystery Tour. The latter was intended at first to be a concept album about the group’s childhood in Liverpool. “We were not boys, we were men,” Macca said to Rolling Stone, before adding, “Still, like much of Sgt. Pepper, the song retains a certain childlike wonder.”

This idea for a concept album began with the group’s work on songs like ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Recording for this album began in November of 1966 and lasted about a year, while ‘A Day in the Life’ was recorded in January-February of 1967. A record about speculation and reminiscence of childhood; ‘A Day in the Life’ could have fitted on The Magical Mystery Tour. Both albums came out in 1967 and were definitely of the same spirit. 

They were both whimsical albums and were exclusively British. A non-British band could not have created an album like those two, much like the Zombies’ Oddessey and Oracle which came out in the same year; psychedelia was largely a British idea.

The Beatles track ‘A Day in the Life’ was probably the most psychedelic song, by nature, ever created. These days, when we think of psychedelia, we think of a technicolour show, all kinds of delays and tape reverse effects (which The Beatles did as well); ‘A Day in the Life’ is intellectually psychedelic; it captures the very essence of what life is: confusion and disassociation. On another level, it was a song that both Paul McCartney and John Lennon agreed on. “I dug it. It was a good piece of work between Paul and me,” Lennon said according to Rolling Stone. 

Today, we look at the song as one of the best and most classic Beatles tracks; it truly transcended anything that they ever did.

So why did the BBC ban the song, at the time?

The track was written by Lennon-McCartney. (Credit: Alamy)

Why did the BBC ban The Beatles song ‘A Day in the Life’?

The BBC banned the song mostly because of one of the main lyrics leading into the orchestral climactic build-up: “I’d love to turn you on.” Macca said about this to the Rolling Stone: “This was the time of Tim Leary’s ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’.”

McCartney added: “And we wrote ‘I’d love to turn you on.’ John and I gave each other a knowing look: ‘Uh-huh, it’s a drug song. You know that, don’t you?’ Yes, but at the same time, our stuff is always very ambiguous and ‘turn you on’ can be sexual so … c’mon!”

A spokesman for the BBC said in 1967 that “we have listened to this song over and over again,” and added: “We have decided that it appears to go just a little too far, and could encourage a permissive attitude to drug-taking.”

John Lennon retaliated by saying, “I’d like to meet the man who banned this song of ours. I’d like to turn him on to what’s happening. Why don’t they charge the Electricity Board with spreading drugs because to get the electricity you have to ‘switch on’? Everything depends on the way you read a thing.”

The BBC wrote a letter to EMI a week before the official release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, informing the recording company of their decision. The director of BBC’s sound broadcasting, Frank Gillard addressed the letter to the head of EMI, Sir Joseph Lockwood: “I never thought the day would come when we would have to put a ban on an EMI record, but sadly, that is what has happened over this track. We have listened to it over and over again with great care, and we cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that the words ‘I’d love to turn you on’, followed by that mounting montage of sound, could have a rather sinister meaning.”

The ban of the song was not spiteful in any way, just a casualty of the times. Gillard added that “the recording may have been made in innocence and good faith, but we must take account of the interpretation that many young people would inevitably put upon it.”

Adding: “‘Turned on’ is a phrase which can be used in many different circumstances, but it is currently much in vogue in the jargon of the drug addicts. We do not feel that we can take the responsibility of appearing to favour or encourage those unfortunate habits, and that is why we shall not be playing the recording in any of our programmes, Radio or Television.”

The BBC took the decision to ban The Beatles track. (Credit: Alamy)

How did the Beatles react to BBC’s ban of ‘A Day in the Life’?

Even the BBC at the time knew they were going to regret the decision pretty instantly. Frank Gillard included in his letter words on this matter: “I expect we shall meet with some embarrassment over this decision, which has already been noted by the Press. We will do our best not to appear to be criticising your people, but as you will realise, we do find ourselves in a very difficult position. I thought you would like to know why we have, most reluctantly, taken this decision.”

McCartney told reporters, “The BBC have misinterpreted the song. It has nothing to do with drug-taking. It’s only about a dream.” 

John Lennon added to Macca’s statement, saying: “The laugh is that Paul and I wrote this song from a headline in a newspaper. It’s about a crash and its victim. How can anyone read drugs into it is beyond me. Everyone seems to be falling overboard to see the word drug in the most innocent of phrases.”

The Beatles claimed that the BBC misinterpreted the song. (Credit: Alamy)

What is ‘A Day in the Life’ about?

‘A Day In The Life’ is a masterpiece that tells the story of two narrators (Lennon and McCartney) as they go through their day. The final product came from two separate song ideas that Lennon and McCartney pasted together, under George Martin’s guidance. Lennon’s part is slightly surreal and very imagery-based. Lennon said: “I was reading the paper one day and noticed two stories.”

He added, “One was about the Guinness heir who killed himself in a car. That was the main headline story. He died in London in a car crash.” This is how Lennon’s section of the song developed out of a series of loosely connected pictures, giving it a cinematic quality.

McCartney’s section, as was usual for his contribution to the partnership, added a more upbeat and a happier element to the song, making the entire song slightly more whimsical. McCartney commented on the controversial lyric that got The Beatles’ track banned in the first place: “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.” 

That ‘something amazing’ would turn out to be a 40-piece orchestra to create the crescendo at the end of the song. 

Listen to the incredible track, below.

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