Probably the most innovative song in the world: The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’

February 14, 2011 at 2:51 pm 2 comments

by Claire McEneaney

Let’s be honest here, no compilation of innovative songs is complete without a Beatles track. That much is a given. My problem then really presented itself – which song would I choose?! There are so many that could be classed as ‘innovative’: I am the Walrus and its use of words for their sounds, rather than their meanings; Eleanor Rigby and one of the first examples of telling a story through popular music; Strawberry Fields Forever and its use of recording and mixing techniques that were incredibly new…I could go on. In the end, however, I decided to plump for A Day in the Life.

A Day in the Life appears on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as the final track. Sgt Pepper is arguably one of the most important albums in popular music history, using an enormous variety of musical styles and recording techniques. The cover is iconic and the whole thing is probably the closest that the Fab Four ever got to a concept album. A Day in the Life is my song of choice for the innovative way it evolved from something quite simple into a complex piece, that was banned by the BBC!

A Day in the Life was another McCartney/Lennon partnership. The interesting thing about this song is that the song comprises distinct segments that were written totally independently by each man. Lennon’s opening segment was influenced by a newspaper article written at the time about the death of Tara Browne who died in a car crash. McCartney’s segment is rather more whimsical and reminiscent of his youth – taking the bus to school and smoking. The line “I’d love to turn you on” which concludes both segments, was seen by the BBC as being a drug reference, and the song was subsequently banned from radio.

I suppose for me the really exciting bits of this song are the bridge between the sections, and the final chord at the end of the song. The bridge was originally a real struggle for the band and, by the end of the recording session, consisted of a repeated piano chord and voice of Mal Evans counting the bars. They added a bit of echo to Evan’s voice, but suffice to say that this song wouldn’t be the recording that it is if they had left it at that. Paul McCartney had the brain wave of bringing in a full orchestra to fill the gap. George Martin wrote a very loose score for the musicians to follow but ultimately, they were free to improvise. The piece builds to a crescendo, ultimately ending on an E major chord. The instruments in the orchestra all built to this point in their own way, leading to the rather discordant, but ultimately satisfying conclusion. The segment was recorded 4 times and then overlayed into a single recording, giving the piece an incredible richness and depth. I love this bridge – it totally takes you by surprise the first time you hear it. I also love that it ends with a ringing alarm clock, signally the start of McCartney’s section. Normally such a crescendo would illustrate the climax of a piece, rather than sitting slap bang in the middle of it. I love the contrast of the richness of sound, with the simple sung sections.

The orchestral crescendo is repeated at the end, and following it is arguably one of the most famous final chords in musical history. This piano chord evolved as a replacement for a failed vocal experiment – they had recorded an ending of their voices humming the chord, but despite multiple overdubs, wanted something more powerful. The chord was created using three different pianos with Paul, John, Ringo and Mal Evans. George Martin was on the Harmonium. Together they all played an E-major chord simultaneously. The chord is made to last by increasing the recording sound level as the vibration faded. At the end, the level was so high that if you listen closely you can hear the sounds of the studio, including rustling papers. I love the boldness of this chord – its such a statement of finality. It really signals the end of the album.

I still get shivers up my spine listening to this song. For me, it’s the contrast of the simple lyrical sections, with their stories of ordinary people woven through, with the bold orchestral statements. I love the discordant nature – something that not many people have ever been bold enough to do. For me, McCartney and Lennon managed to do so many visionary things – lyrically, instrumentally, and technically. This song brings all those elements together beautifully and epitomises for me why they are still, for me, the most creative and innovative musicians in history.

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Entry filed under: Most innovative songs in the world.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Lockey  |  February 15, 2011 at 12:44 am

    It’s an absolutely incredible song, fit to grace any list.

    Reply
  • 2. alecpatton  |  February 15, 2011 at 8:52 am

    Couldn’t agree more – but I didn’t know anything about the recording of it, so thanks for all that detail – fascinating stuff!

    Reply

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