The following is an excerpt from author Kenneth Womack’s upcoming Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin, The Later Years, 1966–2016, the eagerly awaited second half of Womack’s two-part biography. (The first half was the universally acclaimed Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin, The Early Years, 1926–1966.) The Chicago Review Press will officially release Sound Pictures on Sep. 4, 2018. Click here to pre-order.
A pair of found objects in John Lennon’s imaginary universe exerted a profound effect upon the direction of George Martin and the Beatles’ creative lives. And they made their presence known in Studio 2 of EMI on Thursday, January 19, 1967.
Both objects originated from newspaper headlines, including a December 19, 1966, issue of the Daily Sketch, which published a photo of socialite Tara Browne’s grisly car crash, along with a January 17, 1967 article in the Daily Mail on The Holes in Our Roads. As Lennon later recalled, it “was a story about 4,000 potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire that needed to be filled.” John’s most recent composition, less than two days old at this point, was borne out of these seemingly incongruous events.
Going under the working title of “In the Life Of . . . ,” the song was debuted during another one of the bandmates’ patented overnight affairs. Years later, Martin recalled hearing the first strains of the composition that would come to be known as “A Day in the Life.” He was spellbound as John began singing and softly strumming his acoustic guitar: “Even in this early take, he has a voice which sends shivers down the spine.” Sitting up in the control booth with Martin, Geoff Emerick was equally rapt, recalling that this new song “was in a similar vein to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’—light and dreamy—but it was somehow even more compelling. I was in awe; I distinctly remember thinking, ‘Christ, John’s topped himself!’” Like George, Geoff was gripped by John’s first pass at the vocal. “Once he started singing, we were all stunned into silence,” Emerick later wrote. “The raw emotion in his voice made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”
With the tape running, George supervised the first take, in which the bandmates began to routine the song in an effort to suss out the instrumentation. For take one, the Beatles established a basic rhythm track with John’s acoustic guitar, Paul on piano, Ringo on bongos, and George on maracas. John counted off the song by muttering “sugar-plum fairy, sugar-plum fairy” to set the rhythm for his guitar cadence. As Martin later recalled, “The first stab at recording ‘A Day in the Life’ concentrated on the bare bones of the song, which so far had no middle section.” For his part, George thought that “John’s voice on the first run-through was marvelous.” But as usual, Lennon despised the sound of his own voice. Martin and Emerick attempted to address the Beatle’s concerns by overloading his vocals with “stupendous amounts of echo.” As George later wrote, “John always hated his voice, always wanted something done to it. In this case, he said he wanted to ‘sound like Elvis Presley on “Heartbreak Hotel.”’ So we put the image of the voice about 90 milliseconds behind the actual voice itself. As the voice goes past the record head, it obviously records. The playback head is situated after the record head, so you hear the voice later. In the old days, we used to do tape echo that way: take the voice off the playback head and feed as much as you wanted of it back into the record head.” The resulting effect exceeded Lennon’s expectations. “John was listening to this in his cans,” George wrote, “and hearing so much distortion on his voice made him feel really happy.”
After debuting the first few verses, John admitted to George, “I don’t know where to go from here.” But John knew he wanted a middle eight, and Paul amiably offered up a solution: “Well, I’ve got this other song I’ve been working on.” To accommodate the buildup to the future McCartney section, Martin instructed Beatles roadie Mal Evans to count off twenty-four bars during the first take for a potential middle eight. As George later wrote, Mal’s “job was to count down the 24 bars in the middle of ‘A Day in the Life’ that were still blank. Why 24 bars? Why not?” As with John’s vocal, Mal’s counting was overladen with echo, increasing as he counted ever higher until the climax of the twenty-fourth bar, which Mal accentuated with the sound of an alarm clock. As Emerick later wrote, there “happened to be a windup alarm clock set on top of the piano—Lennon had brought it in as a gag one day, saying that it would come in handy for waking up Ringo when he was needed for an overdub.”
For his part, Martin concentrated on McCartney’s piano part. “Paul was carrying the backing of the song on the piano. During that 24-bar gap, all you could hear was his piano banging away, with a lot of wrong notes, some of them deliberate, the dissonance increasing as his playing got more frenzied towards the end.” After take four of the song was selected as the best, John began overdubbing his vocals on the available tracks, with each one treated with heavy doses of tape echo. As Geoff later recalled, each new recording of John’s vocal was “more amazing than the one before. His vocal performance that night was an absolute tour de force, and it was all George Martin, Phil, and I could talk about long after the session ended.” For his part, Geoff was impressed by the manner in which John’s singing progressed in relation to the sound he was hearing through his headphones. “He used his own echo as a rhythmic feel,” said Emerick, “phrasing his voice around the echo in his cans.”
Even as that first session for “A Day in the Life” concluded during the wee hours of January 20, George and his production team could tell that they were in the presence of something remarkable. But it was already different even than their recent experience with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a song with more concrete structure in evidence during its debut than the current number. The germ of the idea for this latest song would necessitate even more layering to bring the crude track off. At this point, “A Day in the Life” consisted, for the most part, of John’s beautiful, echo-laden verses, Paul’s piano flourishes, and Mal’s blustery counting. But it was an evolving work of art nonetheless.
By the time that George and the bandmates reconvened in Studio 2 some seventeen hours later, they were itching to get back to work. Martin’s first task at hand involved leading the Beatles—Lennon, mainly—through an extensive review of the previous evening’s lead vocals. As Geoff later recalled, “Our job was to decide which of John’s lead vocals was the ‘keeper.’ We didn’t have to necessarily use the entire performance, though. Because we had the luxury of working in four-track, I could copy over (‘bounce’) the best lines from each take into one track—a process known as ‘comping.’ . . . All we were really listening for when we were comping John’s vocal was phrasing and inflection; he never had trouble hitting the notes spot on. Lennon sat behind the mixing console with George Martin and me, picking out the bits he liked. Paul was up in the control room, too, expressing his opinions.”
With the comping process complete, the folks up in the control room had to carry out some important studio housekeeping, with George instructing Geoff to create a reduction mix for take four into three separate mixes—takes five, six, and seven, each with different console settings. After selecting take six as the best, the Beatles added overdubs of yet another vocal from John, Paul’s bass, and Ringo’s drums. With the basic rhythm track and other adornments for “A Day in the Life” now in place, George and his production team turned their attention to Paul’s lead vocal for the middle eight. As George later recalled, “Paul had written a scrap of a song, which John liked.” Paul’s middle eight found its origins in a passage from Dorothy Fields’s 1930 hit “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” McCartney had also supplied the phrase “I’d love to turn you on” for the purposes of the song’s one-line chorus, which Lennon described as a “damn good piece of work.” As it happened, Mal’s ringing alarm clock served as an unintentional but well-timed introduction to the first line of Paul’s middle eight, “Woke up, fell out of bed.” At this point, George flagged Paul’s performance as a guide vocal, given the expletive that he uttered after flubbing one of the lines.
For George and the Beatles, Abbey Road would be dark for the next ten days, largely due to the four-day film shoot associated with the “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” promotional videos. Meanwhile, Martin convened his production team, which included the always reliable Emerick along with Richard Lush—making his first appearance working a Beatles recording since way back on April 13, 1966—for a control room session in Studio 3 on Monday, January 30. The ninety-minute session found George supervising a mono remix of “A Day in the Life” for demo purposes. At this point, he realized that the Beatles’ song needed more time to percolate, to develop into something that they hadn’t quite imagined just yet. As he later wrote, “I loved the song: John’s dry, deadpan voice, Paul’s bouncy middle segment acting as a foil to that, and I really liked the chords that got us back to John’s section, which was in a different key. We were not sure then what else we wanted to do to it, so we left it for a bit, to think. We often worked in this way, starting something new to give us more time on another song in progress. It was the painter laying aside the canvas, starting a new work, then coming back to the first work afresh, able to see at once what was good or bad about it, and what needed to be done by way of improvement.”
Photo: Portrait of John Lennon (Photo by Andrew Maclear/Redferns/Getty)