How 24 Bars of Silence Became a Work of Musical Genius: “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles

1967 truly was a magical year as far as music goes.  The Summer of Love is still fondly remembered today and the music of that era has certainly stood the test of time.  There are countless films that document the social, political, and musical movement that took place in the US and around the world.  It was the catalyst that would spawn the Woodstock Festival just two years later.

It’s hard to imagine a more creative time in the history of rock and the social setting and political climate was perfect for adopting this revolution in music.  Existing bands changed their style and new bands took form.  The influence of psychedelics on musical composition aided the transformation.  Music as we know it would never be the same.

Steven Wilson, in his song “Time Flies” (Porcupine Tree, The Incident, 2009), recalls this period of history in the opening lines:

“I was born in ’67
The year of Sgt. Pepper
And Are You Experienced

Into a suburban heaven
Yeah it should’ve been forever
It all seems to make so much sense”

Radio was replete with what would become legendary albums that year.  Just look at this list of only a few of the most influential albums that were introduced in 1967:  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles), Are You Experienced (Jimi Hendrix), The Doors (The Doors), Magical Mystery Tour (The Beatles), Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Pink Floyd), Something Else (The Kinks), Strange Days (The Doors).

Of all the remarkable albums from that year, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band stands out among the crowd, topping most lists as The Greatest Album of All Time.  Whenever you say the phrase “greatest of all time” there’s always an element of subjectivity that must be factored in… but still, when nearly every list by both music critics and music lovers alike place this album at the #1 spot, it deserves a special recognition.

For the album’s 50th Anniversary, our band (Vintage) performed a sold out show where we performed the album in its entirety from start to finish. It remains to this day one of my favorite (if not my absolute favorite) moments on stage in my live music career spanning 30 years.  I recall while rehearsing for that performance that the hardest part to “get just right” was the 24 bar orchestral crescendo in the song “A Day in the Life.”  Let’s take a deeper dive into that musical break in the song and learn a little history about how it came to be.

For one thing, the initial musical backing track (which had to be recorded in one take from start to finish due to limitations of 4 track analog recording in those days) was recorded without the band knowing what they would do about the 24 bars of empty silence in the middle of the song where the orchestral crescendo piece would later be recorded.  In fact, the song wasn’t completely written at the time they recorded the backing track.  The band just wanted to get John Lennon’s initial idea down on tape to begin the process and capture the creativity.  To be sure the band came back in at the right spot, a roadie counted the beat and set off an alarm clock at the end of the 24 bars. But the microphones picked up the alarm clock and sound engineer Geoff Emerick did not know how he was going to get rid of that sound from the tape.  As fate would have it, this didn’t prove to be an issue.  Paul McCartney had previously written a few lines of lyrics that started “I woke up.  Got out of bed.  Dragged a comb across my head.”  These lyrics to another song he had been formulating fit well with the ringing of the alarm clock and that’s what was decided would go down on tape for this song.  Bonus trivia:  why was there an alarm clock in the studio?  John Lennon had brought it in as a joke and said Ringo could use it if he fell asleep waiting to record.

The next dilemma for the band was deciding just what they would put in those 24 bars of silence leading up to the alarm bells.  Lennon simply wanted something that started off minimal and grew to a climax.  McCartney suggested a full orchestra.  Producer George Martin said that EMI and Abbey Road studios would not pay for a full orchestra to come in just to record 24 bars.  Ringo Starr solved the problem by jokingly suggesting they bring in just 1/2 of an orchestra and have them record 2 tracks.  Everyone turned and stared at Ringo.  “That’s brilliant!” someone spoke.  Now who said drummers were dumb?

Problems resurfaced when the half orchestra was in the studio.  Lennon and McCartney wanted them to start off playing softly then play louder and louder until the end of the 24 bars.  But they wanted the orchestra to play independently, not knowing nor caring what the other orchestra members were playing.  The problem here is that while this seems like a simple task, it’s not how orchestra professionals are trained.  In fact, they only know how to work as a unit and listen to those around them – they are not improvisational musicians.  To a trained member of a symphony orchestra, this was indeed a very difficult request.  They were so confused and uncomfortable with the job before them that Lennon decided something must to be done to get them “at ease.”  So he brought in clown noses, wigs, gorilla paws, and clip-on boobs and nipples for the musicians to wear and filled the room with balloons.  The idea was to create a festive atmosphere and allow the musicians to loosen up.

The next time you listen to “A Day in the Life” and hear the orchestral crescendo, you’ll now know the fateful and strange events that went into the recording process to create those 24 bars of musical genius that bridged two very different sections of the song together.  You’ll also know that the two very different sections of “A Day in the Life” actually were, in origin, two different songs.  One by McCartney and one by Lennon.  In today’s digital recording environment, the recording process would be supremely simple and would not even require the pre-recorded backing track.  Odds are, if it were recorded in today’s world, there never would have even been the climactic crescendo in the final master.  But the challenges that the production, engineering, and musical team faced in 1967 by recording on analog equipment actually led to ingenuity and creativity that helped make “A Day in the Life” an even better song that Lennon originally imagined (pun intended).

Make no mistake, there are certainly many advantages to our modern digital recording facilities (or even home studios thanks to software like Apple’s Logic Pro or GarageBand).  But often times the simplicity of modern software ultimately strips us of the need to innovate and get creative in the studio – if you let it.  “A Day in the Life” (and the rest of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) is a masterpiece… not just in its songwriting but also in its engineering and production.

If it’s been a while, give it a fresh listen.

One thought on “How 24 Bars of Silence Became a Work of Musical Genius: “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles

  • May 3, 2021 at 8:25 pm
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    Excellent article.

    Reply

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