orchestra

Imagine, if you will, that our time machine allows us to materialize inside EMI/Abbey Road Studios on this day — maybe in a broom closet. We will be in period dress, of course, in order to avoid being conspicuous; although period dress in this era emphasized being flamboyant, so we’ll have to walk a fine line. These are all details that can be worked out later; the key question is, once we go out into the studio, what will we see?

First of all, half a symphony orchestra in fancy dress, there to record the orchestral overdubs for “A Day in the Life.” The Beatles, at this point able make their merest whims a reality, had decided to turn the session into a party. Says George Martin:

We all felt a sense of occasion, since it was the largest orchestra we ever used on a Beatles recording. So I wasn’t all that surprised when Paul rang up and said, “Look, do you mind coming in evening dress?”
“Why? What’s the idea?”
“We thought we’d have fun. We’ve never had a big orchestra before, so we thought we’d have fun on the night. So will you come in evening dress? And I’d like all the orchestra to come in evening dress, too.”
“Well, that may cost a bit extra, but we’ll do it,” I said. “What are you going to wear?”
“Oh, our usual freak-outs” – by which he meant their gaudy hippie clothes, floral coats and all.

As we wander around the room, trying to look like we belong there, we’ll also see invited guests including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull, Brian Jones, Donovan, Mike Nesmith, and Graham Nash. Not the complete who’s who of late-60s rock, but not bad.

To further increase the surrealism, says Bob Spitz,

The violinists were given red clown noses; their leader, the eminent Erich Gruenberg, fitted with a gorilla’s paw on his bow hand. Balloons were attached to the bows of stringed instruments. The brass and woodwind section wore plastic spectacles, with fake noses and funny hats. Badges, bells, and beads were affixed where applicable. John giddily handed out plastic stick-on nipples and fake cigars.

Some of the musicians might be heard to grumble about this indignity, but a gig is a gig. We’ll listen in as Martin instructs each of them to slowly move from the lowest note on their instrument to the highest, each at their own pace, creating what he would later call “an orgasm of sound.” There will be either four or five takes — sources differ, and who really cares? —  all of which eventually end up being mixed down onto a single track, creating “A Day in the Life” as we know it.

As if all that wasn’t enough, John, Paul, George, and Ringo will be there in the flesh. Try to be cool, though, or we’ll get kicked out and miss the coda. According to Geoff Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere,

After the orchestra left, Paul asked the other Beatles and their guests to stick around and try out an idea he had just gotten for an ending, something he wanted to overdub on after the final orchestral climax. Everyone was weary – the studio was starting to smell suspiciously of pot, and there was lots of wine floating around – but they were keen to have a go. Paul’s concept was to have everyone hum the same note in unison; it was the kind of avant-garde thinking he was doing a lot of in those days. It was absurd, really – the biggest gathering of pop stars in the world, gathered around a microphone, humming, with Paul conducting the choir. Though it never got used on the record, and most of the takes dissolved into laughter, in was a fun way to cap off a fine party.