R.I.P. George Martin: Night Flight remembers “A Day in the Life” of the celebrated Beatles record producer

By on March 9, 2016

We read the news today that Sir George Martin has died. The lanky, aristocratic record producer and Parlophone label executive not only signed the Beatles but then went on to produce many of their greatest recordings, advising them along their mutual journey together on all aspects of songwriting, arranging and orchestrating, and how best to present their musical ideas in a studio setting. He was 90.


In his obituary for Martin, published in Variety, Night Flight contributor Chris Morris writes:

“If there was a sound they heard in their heads, they found a way to execute it on the studio floor. And so the public was gifted with such remarkable feats of recording as “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day in the Life” and the sweeping suite that took up side two of “Abbey Road.”

It’s all the more amazing to consider these achievements in the light of the studio technology employed by Martin and the Beatles, who were using equipment – though top-flight by the U.K. standards of the day — which was trumped by multi-track gear that could already be found in some sophisticated Stateside recording facilities.”


Today, we were reminded of the finale of one of our favorite recordings by the Beatles, “A Day in the Life”Sgt. Pepper‘s magnum opus, unquestionably a modern-era rock masterpiece, and quite possibly one of the last album tracks that John Lennon and Paul McCartney would collaborate on with any degree of empathy — and we realized that it seemed like the perfect metaphor for the summation of George Martin’s life, the way the track builds to a dramatic and climactic symphonic crescendo before crashing with its resounding resolution, that final layer, decaying chord that we continue to hear until we can hear no more of it.

For the recording session in the cavernous EMI Studio 1 — the one used for classical recordings, its large size able to accommodate symphony orchestras — forty musicians were hired for a total cost of £367 and 10 shillings. It was the largest orchestra ever used on a Beatles recording.

Their intention at the time was to include this footage in a television special they planned to make about the behind-the-scenes making of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, (they would abandon plans for this TV special at some later point, and the BBC ended up banning the song from its airwaves — and no doubt would have also banned this subsequent film footage that you see here as well — here due to the song’s drug references).

And so, on the evening Friday, February 10, 1967, a camera crew led by NEMS’s Tony Bramwell were on hand, shooting MOS (silent) footage with their 16mm cameras focused on the orchestra performing their parts for “A Day in the Life,” which had begun life a little less than a month earlier, on January 19, 1967 under the working title of “In The Life Of…”


Loaded 16mm cameras were also given to some of the invited guests, many of whom were among the band’s closest friends, who showed up for the event — including Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, Brian Jones, George Harrison’s wife Pattie, Keith Richards, Anita Pallenberg, Graham Nash, Donovan, Michael Nesmith of The Monkees, and Simon and Marijke of UK design company The Fool — who were shown how the cameras worked, and instructed to film whatever they wanted to film.


In his 1979 autobiography All You Need is Ears, Martin writes:

“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.”


Barry Miles, friend and co-author of McCartney’s Many Years from Now, described the scene taking place in EMI Studio 1 that evening:

“The studio was filled with balloons, and flower children in tattered lace and faded velvet tripped around the room blowing rainbow bubbles. Three Rolling Stones – Brian Jones, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger – accompanied by Marianne Faithfull paraded in King’s Road psychedelic finery, with flowing scarves, crushed velvet and satin trousers and multicolored boots. Donovan, the cosmic troubadour, Graham Nash, the only psychedelic member of The Hollies, the Monkee Mike Nesmith, Patti Harrison (George’s wife) and dozens of other friends milled around the edge of the room. The four Dutch designers known as The Fool arrived dressed as characters from the Tarot, carrying tambourines and bells, while the mighty Abbey Road air conditioners worked hard to control the rich fragrance of joss sticks and marijuana.”


It had been John Lennon’s somewhat unfocused idea to use a symphony orchestra on the song’s instrumental passages, and Paul McCartney added that he thought the musicians should play the lowest possible notes on their instruments, subtly increasing to the highest notes, and they both turned to George Martin in order to make it happen.

Martin recalled that Lennon had wanted him to provide something that would play beneath the lyrics (“…turn you onnnnnnn…”) and so he wrote something for cellos and violas, and had the orchestra play two notes that echoed John’s voice.

“However,” he writes, “instead of fingering their instruments, which would produce crisp notes, I got them to slide their fingers up and down the frets, building in intensity until the start of the orchestral climax.”


For the song’s climactic end, he instructed the orchestra to begin with the lowest possible note, and then over the course of 24 bars of music, they should play until hitting their instrument’s highest notes.

Martin: “At the end of the twenty-four bars, I wrote the highest note each instrument could reach that was near a chord of E major. Then I put a squiggly line right through the twenty-four bars, with reference points to tell them roughly what note they should have reached during each bar…I marked the music ‘pianissimo’ at the beginning and ‘fortissimo’ at the end. Everyone was to start as quietly as possible, almost inaudibly, and end in a (metaphorically) lung-bursting tumult.”


Martin again:

“After one of the rehearsals I went into the control room to consult Geoff Emerick. When I went back into the studio the sight was unbelievable. The orchestra leader, David McCallum, who used to be the leader of the Royal Philharmonic, was sitting there in a bright red false nose. He looked up at me through paper glasses. Eric Gruenberg, now a soloist and once leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, was playing happily away, his left hand perfectly normal on the strings of his violin, but his bow held in a giant gorilla’s paw. Every member of the orchestra had a funny had on above the evening dress, and the total effect was completely weird.”


Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’s chief studio engineer at EMI (a job he’d earned at age nineteen, in 1966), also recalls the February 10th recording session in his excellent book Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles (published in 2006):

“John seemed lost in thought for a moment, and then brightened up. ‘Well, if we put them in silly party hats and rubber noses, maybe then they’ll understand what it is we want. That will loosen up those tight-asses!’ I thought it was a brilliant idea. The idea was to get them into the spirit of things, to create a party atmosphere, a sense of camaraderie. John was not seeking to necessarily embarrass them or make them look silly – he was actually trying to tear down the barrier that had existed between classical and pop musicians for years…To gales of laughter from the others, Lennon began reeling off a list of what he wanted Mal to purchase at the novelty store: silly hats, rubber noses, clown wigs, bald head pates, gorilla paws…and lots of clip-on nipples.”

It was Mal Evans’s job to hand out the party favors, Emerick says:

“‘Here you go, mate, have one of these,’ he would say amiably in his working-class Liverpool accent, rubber nose or fake boob in hand…Most of them ended up donning hats, gorilla paws, and the like, though I suspect they probably would have been a little more resistant if it wasn’t for the fact that Mal was six foot four and weighed well over two hundred pounds.”

(Malcolm Frederick “Mal” Evans was the road manager, assistant, and close friend).


Emerick continues, saying that the Beatles themselves wanted to conduct the orchestra themselves.

“As the evening wore on, Paul decided to have a go at conducting, too, and despite his inexperience he did quite a good job. They took slightly different approaches: George imparted a little more instruction than Paul did, giving the musicians little signposts along the way, while Paul urged them to play more free-form. The combination and contrast between the two different styles made for an interesting sonic experience when we finally listened back to the tracks – well after the musicians had packed up and left for the night.”

The February 10th recording session lasted from somewhere around 8pm until 1am the next morning, ending on a high note: when George Martin put down his baton and said “Thank you, gentlemen, that’s a wrap,” the entire studio gathering — orchestra musicians, the Beatles and their friends — all broke into spontaneous applause, the perfect ending to a remarkable evening.


After the orchestra musicians were gone, still quite early in the wee hours of the morning of Saturday, February 11th, Martin and the Beatles began discussing how to end the song, thinking that the orchestra’s abrupt ending wasn’t quite right for the song, as it needed something more.

It was decided that the band — and their studio guests — would hum a single note, lasting for eight beats, their shared voices coming together into one studio microphone. The first three of these takes ended with everyone breaking down and laughing, but finally, they were able to complete the task.

George Martin — speaking in a sequence that was subsequently cut from the Anthology documentary — explains that the band had originally thought of having Buddhist monks chanting, and says, “We thought it’d be a great idea to have everybody messed in the studio doing ‘Ommmm,’ hanging onto it, and multiply it many times. And the result was – pathetic!’ Upon hearing this, we can’t help but notice the similarity this had to what The Moody Blues performed the following year in their song “Om” from the album In Search Of The Lost Chord.


Three more overdubs of humming were eventually added, and this was to be the ending for “A Day In The Life,” until the famous piano chord was recorded on February 22nd. That session also took place during the evening hours, in EMI Studio 2.

John C. Winn, writing in his book That Magic Feeling: The Beatles’ Recorded Legacy, Volume Two, 1966-1970, writes about it:

“A suitably dramatic ending for “A Day in the Life” was recorded this evening. Using three pianos and a harmonium, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Mal Evans, and George Martin all slammed down an E major chord on the count of four as Geoff Emerick sat in the control room capturing every last iota of sound. It took nine attempts to synchronize everyone’s fingers, but the best take (A) lasted for 48 seconds, and was duly overdubbed with three more tracks (two of pianos, one of harmonium) to thicken the sonic impact.”


Today, and for the new few weeks, you will likely see many lengthy obituaries for George Martin published online and wherever news of this sort is appropriate, and many of those obits were no doubt written in advance of the day that inevitably comes for each of us.

However, when someone like George Martin’s long life and career comes to its conclusion, we think it’s entirely appropriate to take at least a moment to stop and recognize the man for what he’s accomplished during his time on Earth, and in some way we hope this post shows how much we appreciate the inventive and creative contributions he made to the world of modern recorded music.

For the rest of our lives, we’ll remember how his significant contributions to some of the music we’ve all loved changed how we listen to music in general, which we plan on enjoying for the rest of our own lives.

Thank you for that, Sir George Martin.


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.