"We could go anywhere with this song; it was definitely going to go to big places."
-Paul McCartney, The Beatles Anthology
Paul McCartney performed "A Day in the Life" at a concert in Liverpool, with Give Peace a Chance taking the place of the last verse.
January 19, 1967, 7:30 pm–2:30 am — The first four takes of the song were recorded. John sang and played guitar and Paul played piano. Take 1 used only two of the four available tracks. At this time, they knew that something would go in the centre of the song, but they did not yet know what. The echoing voice of Mal Evans counted out the bars, from 1 to 24, accompanied by a tinkling piano with notes ascending in pitch in tandem with the numbers. An alarm clock sounded at the end, and this was ultimately kept in because, according to George Martin, they couldn't remove it! Take 4 consisted of John's vocal overdubs onto two tracks. By the end of the night, three of the four tracks available were replete with John's heavily echoed vocal.
January 20, 1967, 7:00 pm–1:10 am — Reduction mixdowns, vacating tracks for more overdubbing. Take 6 was marked "best" and was augmented with another John lead vocal, Paul's bass, and Ringo's drums. This day also marked the first appearance of Paul's vocal in the middle section. (It was a happy coincidence that the section began right after the alarm went off.) Paul would re-record his vocal on February 3 because this day's work was only a rough guide, and he cursed at the end as he flubbed his line.
February 3, 1967, 7:00 pm–1:15 am — More overdubs onto Take 6. Paul re-recorded his middle vocal and also his bass part. Ringo decided to wipe his original drum track in favour of a new and distinctive tom-tom sound. George Martin commented, "That was entirely his own idea. Ringo has a tremendous feel for a song and he always helped us hit the right tempo first time. He was rock solid and this made the recording of all the Beatles' songs so much easier."*
February 10, 1967 — This was one of the most auspicious days in Beatle history, the day the orchestra was brought in to play the instrumental build-up to fill the 24-bar gap between the John and Paul sections of the songs. Forty musicians (the Fabs originally wanted ninety) were instructed to play from a preselected low note to the highest note their instrument could reach. George Martin sketched out a chart with a squiggly line to suggest the ascent to the high note, and he was paid 18 pounds for his arrangement. The musicians were given somewhat unusual instructions: Start quietly and end loud; start low in pitch and end high; make your way up the scale independent of the other musicians around you. The orchestra cost EMI 367 pounds, 10 shillings. Martin and Paul took turns conducting, leaving Geoff Emerick in the control room to monitor the controls and capture the crescendo. The segment was recorded manipulating the acoustics of the room using "ambiophony," a rudimentary precursor of surround sound.
The recording session, which ran from 8:00 pm to 1:00 am, was an event. The musicians all wore formal evening attire, but they also donned novelty items such as clown noses, fake nipples, and gorilla-paw gloves. Recording was filmed with seven handheld cameras and edited, along with stock (non-Beatles) footage, into an early music video, but it was never broadcast. (It can be seen on the Anthology DVD.) Also on hand were Patti Boyd, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richards and Mike Nesmith. Everyone in the studio broke into spontaneous applause after the last orchestral crescendo. When the orchestra left, the Beatles and friends stayed to record the final chord, a long "hummm," which would remain the song's ending until February 22.
February 13, 1967 — Four new mono mixes were prepared.
February 22, 1967 — The Beatles decided that the choir of humming voices was not powerful enough to end the song. John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans, sharing three pianos, simulaneously stuck an E major chord to replace the choir. The recording went nine takes before they all hit the chord at the right time. Take 9 was overdubbed thrice, and then George Martin added a Harmonium until all four tracks were filled. The concluding wall of sound lasted 53 seconds, although it faded about 10 seconds earlier on the record, because the speakers of the time could not handle the last super-soft sound. (The ending of the 1987 Sgt. Pepper CD also concludes in 43 seconds.)
February 23, 1967 — Geoff Emerick prepared a stereo master.
March 1, 1967 — A new piano track was added to Take 6. This overdub was never used.
April 21, 1967 — Recording of the inner groove chatter. The Fabs recorded gibberish and funny noises, chopped up the tape, put it back together and threw it onto the track. (After the album was released, people of course played the chatter backward, and claims surfaced that it says something naughty. This is not true, according to Geoff Emerick, who swears there is no hidden meaning in the words.) They also recorded the high-frequency sound that only dogs can hear.
June 1, 1967 — First released on the UK LP Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Though many believe the first verse was referring to the death of Tara Browne, a young London socialite who was also from a noble Irish family and heir to the Guinness beer fortune, whose recent death in a car crash had been reported in the newspaper, George Martin has said that this was a drug reference. The line "I'd love to turn you on" is often believed to be a drug reference with no relation to the rest of the song. In interviews John Lennon has said that the car crash was the primary inspiration for this song. The last verse about potholes was originally about a newspaper article talking about how the road to the Albert Hall was full of potholes. However, he couldn't figure out how to connect "Now they know how many holes" and "Albert Hall", so Lennon's friend Terry Doran suggested the word "fill". The middle section about an uneventful morning was contributed by McCartney. The line "I'd love to turn you on" was also contributed by McCartney. In an interview, Lennon said that that one line that was the supposed drug reference was just a random line that McCartney contributed that had nothing to do with the rest of the song.
- John Lennon — lead vocal, acoustic guitar and piano (final E Chord only)
- Paul McCartney — lead vocal, piano and bass guitar
- George Harrison — lead vocal, electric guitar
- Ringo Starr — Drums, bongos, maracas and piano (final E Chord only)
- Mal Evans — Alarm clock and piano (final E Chord only)
- George Martin — Harmonium (final E Chord only)
- Session Musicians — Twelve violins, four violas, four cellos, two double basses, a harp, an oboe, two flutes, three trumpets, three trombones, a tuba, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and a percussionist.