200 today! My two hundredth post. March 22nd was two hundred days ago. I have no idea how I would have coped without this blog. Thanks to Paddy for suggesting this. It’s great that some people are reading this and I love the comments. I guess I would have still done this if nobody read anything – I guess I am fulfilled by thinking I have accomplished something every day. With lockdown starting as my teaching career ended, the feeling of wasted days passing by without any sense of achievement would have been too unbearable. So, if you’re reading this, thanks very much.
I wanted to mark the two hundredth post with an album that means a lot to me. I think this album is possibly the album that I have played the most. I was twelve years old when I bought it on the day it came out. It has always been an album of wonder and fantasy. I think that it is a contrast of forward thinking sounds and reflective lyrics that are informed by nostalgic memories of all four Beatles. By the time the group started recording the album, John, George and Ringo were taking LSD and Paul would start during the six months it took to record. Research by David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London, indicates that use of LSD can cause the adult mind to revert to the imaginative nature of an infant’s mind and this may explain the many child like images that exist on this album.
The concept of the album was based on a story that The Beatles had heard about Elvis Presley who once sent his Cadillac on tour without him. They were fed up with touring and they thought it would be great to send out an alternative band on tour. The tour would be in the form of an album and the band would play a whole new range of styles. Whereas the common wisdom is that the only thing that is conceptual about the album is the reprise of the title song at the end, the variety of musical styles and lyrical themes make listening to the album feel like watching a variety show with lots of different acts. To me, it will seem like reading an amazing comic book – every time I turn a page, there’s something different, colourful and wonderful on the next page.
The title track starts with tuning up and audience laughter and applause. The tuning up is from the orchestral sessions for “A Day In The Life”. The audience noise is from a recording that George Martin made at a “Beyond The Fringe” revue in 1961. The lead guitar is played by Paul; that’s two albums running where the guitar solo on track one is by Paul and not George. All of this album is so familiar, it’s sometimes difficult to hear new sounds but today, the harmonies on the chorus seem astounding. Paul’s vocal on the first verse is also remarkable – it holds up alongside his most raucous performances – “Long Tall Sally, “I’m Down”, “Oh! Darling” etc.
The original lyrics for “With A Little Help From My Friends” have “would you stand up and throw tomatoes at me” for the second line. Ringo was not amused so John and Paul changed the words. Although The Beatles had vowed never to tour again, he was playing safe. “I thought if we ever did get out there again, I was not going to be bombarded with tomatoes” – a reference to the jelly babies that were always thrown on stage in their early concerts after George Harrison had told an interviewer that his favourite sweets were jelly babies. Ringo has a distinctive voice but he didn’t have the range of the other three. Paul wrote the melody which only consists of five notes from F to B. Ringo was very nervous about hitting the last high note in the song and the others all stood round him while he was singing the song to give him as much support and encouragement as they could. George Martin reckons this is Ringo’s best vocal performance. Obviously, as a twelve year old, I thought the line “I can’t tell you but I know that’s it mine” was very funny. I still do. Joe Cocker changed it to “I can’t tell you, but it sure feels like mine“. James Taylor sings “I can’t tell you but it sure enough must be mine“
“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” was recorded at a frequency of forty five cycles so that when played back at the normal frequency of fifty cycles, everything is speeded up by ten per cent. The very simple but beautiful five note introduction to the song is played by Paul on a Lowry organ. The advantage of a Lowry over a Hammond organ is that the note dies away more quickly giving a much sharper and distinct sound. For years, whenever I couldn’t get to sleep, I would sing this song to myself and picture each of the startling images that John sings about. It invariably worked and I rarely got to the second verse. In 1980, John Lennon told David Sheff that the song contained an image of a girl who would come and save him, “a girl with kaleidoscope eyes“. There are plenty of references to mysterious girls in John Lennon songs – the girl who wears red in “Yes It Is”, the girl that was told that “pain would lead to pleasure” in “Girl”, the girl that doesn’t answer him when “I Call Your Name” etc. It’s as if he was looking for a replacement for his mother, Julia. Arguably, when he found his new muse (Yoko Ono), his creativity diminished. I never really appreciate the greatness of Paul’s bass playing but this clip shows how imaginative he can be.
When Ringo got tonsillitis before The Beatles’ world tour in 1964, he was temporarily replaced by Jimmy Nicol who, at the time, was playing with Georgie Fame. He looked the part and he sounded okay but he was very nervous, especially when confronted with the World’s press. When asked how he was finding the experience, he would always reply “it’s getting better”. Paul used this phrase to write “Getting Better”. One day, during the recording of this song, John complained to George Martin that he wasn’t feeling well who suggested he needed a breath of fresh air at which point he took John to the roof of the studio and left him there to recuperate. When the others found out where he was, they panicked and rushed upstairs to make sure that John, high on LSD, didn’t try to fly down from the roof. This was the first night that Paul took LSD. He knew that John was having a bad trip and he wanted to “get with John” as he put it. On another day, when Paul was rehearsing the song, John walked into the studio just as Paul was singing “it’s getting better all the time“. Straight away, John came back with the riposte “it can’t get much worse“. This was never my favourite song but I love the moment at the end of the first verse when guitars, a tamboura and George Martin “thumping the strings of a pianette” produce a droning sound. There’s a similar sound before the controversial lyrics of “I used to be cruel to my woman”. Although the song was mainly written by Paul, in interviews with “Playboy” shortly before his death, John talked about his past in terms of this lyric. “I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically – any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.” A tragic comment that fills me with sadness.
The first sessions for “Fixing A Hole” were recorded at Regent Sound in Tottenham Court Road because the Abbey Road studios were all booked. Jesus Christ was present at the first recordings, or at least a man who introduced himself as Jesus Christ, and was told to be quiet and sit in the corner. He was never seen again. Paul has said that the phrase “fixing” meant “mending” – it wasn’t a drug reference: “Wanting to be free enough to let my mind wander, let myself be artistic, let myself not sneer at avant-garde things.” This was never a favourite song of mine as it always seemed pretty normal. The bar was set high for experimentation and originality on this album and, in my opinion, this song didn’t quite reach it.
George Martin was very hurt that Paul asked Mike Leander to work out the string arrangement for “She’s Leaving Home”. George Martin was committed to a recording session with Cilla Black. Paul phoned George Martin and asked him to come to his house to work out the arrangement but, when he was told he was busy, he asked Mike Leander to write out the score instead. None of The Beatles play any instruments on this track – John sings on the chorus but otherwise it’s all Paul. Mike Leander went on to have a very successful collaboration with Gary Glitter, co-writing and producing most of his hits. Paul McCartney visited Brian Wilson in Los Angeles soon after writing this song and Paul ate some vegetables to contribute to the sound effects on the song “Vega-Tables”. Later that evening, Paul played “She’s Leaving Home” to Brian Wilson and his wife on a piano. “My wife and I were crying, because it was such a beautiful tune with a really, really touching lyric”. I can only concur – it’s so original and presents both sides of the generation gap. In some ways it’s similar to “Tears Of Rage” from The Band’s first album. There are two versions of this song – the mono mix and the stereo mix. The mono version is a semitone higher as you can hear in this extract.
“She’s Leaving Home” was inspired by an article that Paul saw in a newspaper about a girl called Melanie Coe who had left home and caused much distress and bewilderment to her parents. By coincidence, Paul had picked Melanie Coe out as a winner of a mime competition on Ready Steady Go a few years earlier. She was disappointed to only win an album because she thought the prize was an evening out with Paul.
I used to live in Sevenoaks and I’m pretty sure I know the shop where John bought the poster that had all the lyrics to “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” on it. The Beatles were filming the promotional film to accompany “Strawberry Fields Forever” in Knole Park when John popped into the shop and bought the poster.
If you look closely, you can see practically all the lyrics. The poetic nature of “Over Men & Horses, through Hoops, over Garters and lastly through a Hogshead of REAL FIRE” is there at the bottom right. One of the many ways that John exhibited his genius was to make this flow so beautifully when sung, just omitting the first instance of the word “through”. The location was changed from Rochdale to Bishopsgate and Henry’s original name was Zanthus. This song is a real highlight of the album for me. Despite all the original sounds heard on songs by other groups in the Sixties, nothing surpassed this.
“Within You Without You” single handedly pointed Western beliefs towards the East. The most popular band in the world recorded a song which contained Hindu philosophy set to Indian music. The magic of the song unsurprisingly caused many Westerners to investigate and explore what alternatives to their lifestyle awaited them in India. The message chimed precisely with the times: to search for an existence without ego and to find meaning in spirituality. It wasn’t just The Moody Blues who were in search of the lost chord. The instrumentation on the song reflects Western and Eastern cultures combining to produce a song of wizardry. George’s droll vocal style, eight violinists and three cellists played alongside five brilliant Indian musicians who, as soon as they arrived in Abbey Road studios, lowered the lighting, put rugs on the floor and walls and lit joss sticks creating a uniquely warm atmosphere in what were normally sterile surroundings. The message of the song, which contrasts the materialism of the West with the possibility that the universe is all one being, is a serious one. The Beatles were four scally lads from Liverpool who would never take themselves too seriously for fear of being ridiculed. Mainly by people like John Lennon. So, to deflect attention away from this, some canned laughter is added at the end of this song. It’s not clear whether or not George thought this was a good idea but he graciously said “It’s a release after five minutes of sad music. You were supposed to hear the audience anyway, as they listen to Sgt. Pepper’s show. That was the style of the album.”
Paul McCartney often sung songs that John would dismiss as “granny music”. Songs that spring to mind are “Til’ There Was You”, “Your Mother Should Know” and “Honey Pie”. These are good songs but not necessarily my favourites. Sometimes, when he got it absolutely right, he could write some “granny music” which appealed to everyone. “Yesterday” is one example and “When I’m Sixty Four” is another. He started writing this song in the Fifties when he was still living with his Dad and his brother in Liverpool. Personally, I loved the way he pronounced “Chuck” in the names of his three fictitious grandchildren. It was one of the few examples where The Beatles’ Liverpool accent was clear. (Another is “get” on “I’m So Tired”). The Beatles album was released on June 1st and on June 2nd, Bernard Cribbins released his version, also produced by George Martin who had previously produced “Hole In The Ground” and “Right Said Fred”. Obviously, Bernard Cribbins is a national treasure – he was Alfred Perks, the railway porter in “The Railway Children” and Donna Noble’s grandfather in Doctor Who. However, I wouldn’t say that his version of this song is a favourite of mine. The way George Martin has produced this is certainly “granny music” whereas The Beatles’ version was classy.
At around the time the songs for this album were written, parking meters were introduced into London. An American friend of Paul’s remarked on this because he had not realised that “meter maids” existed in the UK. It was the Summer of Love so whereas Paul originally was inspired by this phrase to start writing the song with a view to reflecting the universal disdain and hatred for parking wardens, he “thought it would be better to love her”. There’s a great piano solo in this song which was played by George Martin and recorded three semitones below the normal recording speed which is why it sounds slightly higher pitched, like a honky tonk piano. The final section, my favourite part of this song, was ad libbed when John, Paul and George were recording the backing vocals and they really liked the echo they could hear in their headphones. George Martin wrote that they were “panting like super heated mongrels”.
I love “Good Morning Good Morning”. I love the lyrical references to Corn Flakes and to the sitcom “Meet The Wife”.
The brass instruments on the track were played by Sounds Incorporated. They had opened for The Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965. They had two UK hits, one of which was an instrumental version of Ben E. King’s great “Spanish Harlem”. They were, at one point, Cilla Black’s backing group. Drummer Tony Newman was, for a short while, a member of The Jeff Beck group. This song really rocks and leads wonderfully well into the reprise of the title song with sounds of animals which, John insisted, should be sequenced so that each animal should be capable of eating, or devouring, the next animal. The drumming on this song is exceptional.
Neil Aspinall suggested to Paul that Sgt. Pepper should compere the album and come on at the beginning and the end of the album. Later, John came up to Neil and said “nobody likes a smart-arse, Neil”. In The Beatles “Anthology” programme, Neil Aspinall said “that’s when I knew that John liked the idea and it would happen.” There’s an amazing piece of editing at the start of the song when the cockerel at the end of “Good Morning Good Morning” turns into George’s guitar at the beginning of this song.
The crescendos at the end of each of John’s sections of “A Day In The Life” took their inspiration from the first three minutes of Iannis Xenakis’ Metastasis. Iannis Xenakis was a Greek composer who fled to France in 1947. He was an early exponent of electronic and computer music and he also used mathematical modelling in his compositions including the application of set theory, stochastic matrices and game theory. This piece even includes a ring that sounds like the alarm clock that was used by Mal Evans to signify the end of the 24 bars of silence that would later be used for the orchestra.
Here’s a photo of Paul McCartney’s house in Liverpool that I took in 2016 from which Paul would run to catch a bus before he went upstairs for a smoke.
“A Day In The Life” is one of the most imaginative, inspired, interesting and progressive pieces of popular music ever made and is the crowning glorious climax to one of the most influential suites of music ever released. It’s a work of genius performed by four young men aged 26, 26, 25 and 24, two of whom had the finest rock voices of all time and wrote songs that will endure across many centuries.