Some hail it as The Beatles' finest work. It's hard to argue otherwise, as the duality and interplay of "A Day in the Life", combined with its high-quality production, astounding arrangement choices, and poignant lyricism - John's strongest suit - makes the song a personal favorite, and a fitting end to the greatest album of all time, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Musically, the song is taxing, a work of highest regard for John, Paul, and George Martin. Beginning with the simple acoustic guitar strum, the song comes into its lilting downward scale progression as John sings (similar to George's bridge on "Something" and certainly comparable to "Sexy Sadie", written shortly thereafter.) The drums come in only sparingly to emphasize the song at certain points, though in later parts of the song they provide one of the most interesting and thoughtful rhythms in Ringo's Beatles anthology. The trick of using the "turn you on" chromatic rise to lead into the orchestral fills is brilliant; the first random surrealist 24 bars that the orchestra provided (under Paul's direction) creates a lot of moody tension, with many of the strings holding back while the drums crash forward, keeping an unevenly fast beat and forcing the band to rush at the end to reach their high C destination, creating an altogether satisfying climax into the 2/4 clunk of Paul's piano interlude. Paul's section is nothing short of spectacular, with his descending bassline making good use of a production pun with the lyrics ("Found my way downstairs") and his laconic vocal phrasing playing nicely with the harmonics of the simple piano part, before coming back to John's harmonizing.
The orchestra again provides more tension - this time a bit more directed - building up from resolution in the fourth to a resolution in the first, which brings John back in for another verse (and Ringo's insistent and beautiful drumming) before going back to the orchestral tension again, and culminating in the 53 (!) second long piano sustain (played by Mal Evans, using his big hands to play out the extended 5th as C-E-G-C-E-G-C-E for the take, while George Martin and Paul sheepish just played C-E-G-C-E-G on their own pianos). To keep the volume constant during the duration of the chord, the amps were turned to their highest gain, but placed farther away from the mics. As the sound diminished and faded away, the mics were moved closer and closer - perfection! Interestingly, the song not only doesn't finish, but offers a mysterious fading flourish to the entire affair: several seconds of a high-pitched electronic squeal (purposely put on by Lennon to annoy your dog) and then a collected tape loop experiment by the Fab Four, consisting of mostly gibberish recorded by the group at odd times of the day during their session.
Lyrically, this song provides one of the first glimpses into the meta-referencing that John would fall back on for most of the later parts of The Beatles' career. Using a newspaper report from December 12, 1966, John sat at his piano and wrote out the bulk of his lyrics. The subtle allusions within the lyrics require some sort of annotation, so I'll do my best to get it all here. The first two verses were about a car accident that killed one of their friends, Tara Browne (an heir to the Guinness brewing company fortune). John carefully uses the last two lines of the second verse to make his point: that death strikes us all, and no amount of fortune or fame will stop you from it - telling words for the portentous fate of The Thoughtful One himself. The third verse makes a direct reference to John's recent starring role in the film How I Won The War. John himself had helped bankroll the film after many of the major studios had passed on it; thus, the line "A crowd of people turned away/But I just had to look." His final verse, with its line about "four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire", was also from the newspaper, this time a story about the road to Blackburn, Lancashire, and its numerous holes. John thought the counting process was funny, and made a joke about having to "count them all"; stuck for a rhyme, he asked his friend Terry Doran, who gave him "Albert Hall", a nonsense rhyme for instant effect.
Paul's middle eight, on the other hand, plays as a perfect counterpoint to John's commentary work, giving himself a character and a story in his brief time on the microphone. Paul has admitted that his character waking up late was a result of smoking pot, and the rest is the tale of the average urban worker; grabbing a cup of coffee, barely catching the bus, filching a smoke, and lapsing into a daydream to pass away the dreary day. That The Beatles could so adequately capture that "dream" as a musical intonation is a testament to their songwriting and musical mastery.
And now for something completely different: when the orchestra came in for the recording session, they were being recorded for a television special about The Beatles, and so the band had asked them to come in wearing funny clothes. Led by George Martin in a comically oversized nose, the violinists, trombonists, and flautists arrived in clown's costumes, baggy pants, make up, wigs, and Halloween attire. One bassoonist stuck a balloon on the end of his instrument, making it inflate with every puff! Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Mickey Dolenz also attended the session, though they didn't participate in the actual recording.
For Paul is dead followers, this is the definitive song for lyrical references to the demise of The Cute One. The first two verses make obvious references to Paul's accident, and the people stopping and staring, and recognizing him but only vaguely because of his extensive injuries. This song being John's more serious commentary work, and deeply personalized, convinced most fans that Paul was dead.
This song has been covered numerous times, albeit mostly without the heavy production and innovative arrangements, by, among others, soul jazz pioneer Brian Auger, lo-fi outsider rock king Eugene Chadbourne; lead singer of The Animals Eric Burdon; country legend Charlie Daniels; Soft Boys member Robyn Hitchcock; metal gods Iron Maiden; jam band scions Phish; operatic impresario Jose Feliciano; guitar icon Jeff Beck; space soul kings War; art punks The Fall; and the smooth Brit himself, Sting. The sheer variety and breadth of these fans should tell you how important this song is in terms of rock and music history.
The song's two major sections, the orchestral crashes, and the sustained chord at the end were all recorded separately. The primary portion of the song features John on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Paul on piano, and Ringo on drums. John was recorded solo on January 19, with Paul and Ringo filling in their parts the following day. Two weeks later on February 3, Paul added his own part (again playing piano, and adding his own bassline) with George on bongos and Ringo on drums. On February 10 Paul directed the orchestra through their two famous sections of crashing noise. It wasn't until February 22, some 35 days after the initial recording, that Mal Evans was prodded into the recording the piano chord at the end of the song. If you try, you can hear Mal counting from 1 to 12 at the beginning of the orchestra's first movement; this was left over from the first take, wherein the bars were intentionally left blank for later filling.
A Day In The Life
I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made a grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn't notice that the lights have changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They've seen his face before
Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords
I saw a film today, oh boy
The English army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book, I'd like to turn you on
Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up I noticed I was late
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in second flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream
I heard a news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall
I'd love to turn you on ...
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)