On the morning of Dec. 18, 1966, John Lennon read an article about Tara Browne, a 21-year old millionaire playboy—and friend of Paul McCartney’s—who had been killed in a car crash in London. Lennon started to tinker with chords, singing lines about “the lucky man who made the grade” who “blew his mind out in a car.” Next, he read a piece about the awful state of the motorways in Blackburn Lancashire. “There are 4,000 holes in the road …” the lead went. John snatched the image for his lyric.
With two strong verses in hand, Lennon brought the song—tentatively titled “In the Life Of … ”—to McCartney, saying it needed “a middle bit.” Paul began to sing, “Woke up, fell out of bed … ”
Recording of the song began at EMI studios on Jan. 19, 1967. Basic tracks went down easy. The empty space was to be filled by an orchestra, creating an effect of escalating mayhem—or in Lennon’s words, “a musical orgasm.” Forty classical musicians were brought in—with the lack of a score. While George Martin had written a few measures, the infamous middle section was notated with a Lewis Carroll-style line: “From here you’re on your own.”
McCartney said, “I had to explain it to them. We recorded it three or four times, and it made this almighty sound.”
The final chord was banged out simultaneously on four pianos and sustained for 53 seconds, with engineer Geoff Emerick nudging up the volume knobs to capture every last bit of reverberation.
What began as a song about a car crash turned into a grand meditation on sleeping, dreaming and waking up, in the broadest sense of those words. Illuminated by a spirit of hope and generosity, the Beatles coined their credo in that one timeless line: “I’d love to turn you on.”
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