mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles

From the publisher

They are the most popular and accomplished musical artists of this century. But for more than three decades, the secrets behind the Beatles’ unparalleled artistic evolution were beyond reach–sealed in a locked room at London’s Abbey Road Studios. In this comprehensive and brilliantly rendered book the only “outsider” to gain access to these invaluable musical archives provides a new, fascinating look at the music and artistry of the Beatles, revealing how four untrained musicians merged their collective genius into a single creative force, how they came together to paint pictures with sound…and how album by album, the Beatles transformed the landscape of popular music forever.

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Combining literary analysis and investigative reporting with page-turning storytelling and musical explication, author Mark Hertsgaard has written the first serious biography of the music of the Beatles. A Day in the Life takes readers inside the Beatles’ creative process as never before, from the first tentative run-throughs in the studio of such classics as “Eleanor Rigby” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to the final master tapes.

Here we learn how George Harrison’s stirring composition “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was completely transformed from an achingly meditative acoustic masterpiece to a hard-rocking hit–in forty-four takes. We recall how the fantastic final mix of “Strawberry Fields Forever” opens the door to a psychedelic utopia, but discover it is the haunting solo version that takes us down to the core of John Lennon’s disillusioned soul. And only here do we see how the Beatles’ audacious ability to reinvent themselves stamped the group’s unfolding ingenuity on each album like a fingerprint.

With rare insight, Mark Hertsgaard unlocks the mystery of the century’s most dynamic musical collaboration: the competitive and creative partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. A Day in the Life traces the way Lennon and McCartney worked together and paints an intricate picture of the composers as we have never seen them before: Paul, the optimistic foil who made John’s ominous fragments whole…John, the natural poet who injected raw sexuality into “I Saw Her Standing There” by making a simple five word change.

Smart, fresh, compulsively readable, A Day in the Life reveals John, Paul, George, and Ringo not as celebrities or cultural icons but as musicians whose work will be remembered as some of the most important art of the twentieth century.

  — Delacorte Press, 1995

Excerpt from the book

… Somewhere inside London’s Abbey Road studios, hidden behind an unmarked, triple-locked, police-alarmed door, are some of the most valuable artifacts of twentieth-century music: the raw tapes of every recording session in the nearly eight-year studio career of the Beatles. One of the most remarkable facts about the Beatles is that they released only ten and a half hours of music during their years together—the contents of the group’s twenty-two singles and fourteen albums. Yet the tapes inside the Abbey Road archives, it turns out, contain more than four hundred hours’ worth of Beatles recordings.

The collection extends from June 6, 1962, the date of the audition that narrowly persuaded George Martin, a producer at EMI Records, to sign the Beatles, to January 4, 1970, when Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr (John Lennon was in Denmark on holiday) recorded the final overdubs for what amounted to the group’s farewell album, Let It Be. In between are tapes of everything else, stored in red-and-white cardboard boxes the size of large telephone books. Pick a favorite Beatles song; the archives hold not only the master tape of that song as it is heard on the album but also the working tapes that trace the song’s evolution from its first run-through to its polished final version. There are also lots of off-the-cuff jam sessions, arguments, horseplay and studio chat, as well as a few songs the general public has never heard.

In the course of the research for this book, I was fortunate enough to gain access to these archives on two occasions. While on assignment for The New Yorker, I spent the equivalent of six full days inside Abbey Road, listening to fifty hours of tapes of the Beatles and of the solo work of John Lennon. I sometimes felt during those days as though I had been allowed to watch Picasso sketch, and never more so than on the afternoon I listened to all seven takes of “A Day In The Life,” the closing song on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

John Lennon recalled Sgt. Pepper as “a peak” in the Beatles’ career, a time when “Paul and I were definitely working together, especially on ‘A Day in the Life.’ ” Indeed, “A Day In The Life” may be the ultimate McCartney-Lennon collaboration, a classic example of how the songwriting style of each man perfectly complemented that of the other. Although John would later confess that he and Paul wrote many songs “eyeball to eyeball,” especially in the early days, their usual practice by this time, January 1967, was for one of them to provide the missing middle or accents to a song that the other had already almost completed. In the case of “A Day In The Life,” it was Paul who made John’s composition whole. Lennon had the melody and story line—the man who “blew his mind out in a car,” the English Army that “had just won the war,” the “four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”—but the song needed something more. Lennon didn’t like laboring over songs, preferring instead the Zen purity of inspiration, so when he got stuck after completing the main verses he set the song aside. “I needed a middle-eight for it [the "middle eight" is the middle of a song where the tune changes before going back to the original verse], but that would have been forcing it,” he later explained. “All the rest had come out smooth, flowing, no trouble, and to write a middle eight would have been to write a middle eight, but Paul already had one there.”

Paul did indeed have the fragment “Woke up, fell out of bed…” lying around. The two partners agreed that its peppy portrait of the modern urban life—based on Paul’s memories of rushing to school in the morning—made the ideal counterpoint to John’s gently ominous, dreamlike commentary on the hollow absurdity of status, order, and worldly attachments. The initial idea for the song had come, as it so often did with Lennon, from an item in the mass media. “I was reading the paper one day and noticed two stories,” he recalled. “One was about the Guinness heir who killed himself in a car. That was the main headline story. He died in London in a car crash. On the next page was a story about four thousand potholes in the streets of Blackburn, Lancashire, that needed to be filled. Paul’s contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song, ‘I’d love to turn you on,’ that he’d had floating around in his head and couldn’t use. I thought it was a damn good piece of work.”

The Guinness heir, whom the Beatles had happened to know, was born to a life of fantastic privilege. By conventional standards he was “a lucky man who made the grade.” He had everything money could buy, but found himself no more immune to death’s arbitrary, dispassionate arrival than the lowliest proletarian. A momentary, all too human lapse—”he didn’t notice that the lights had changed”—and he was gone. In the moment of death, all delusion is shattered, everyone is equal. Lennon clinches the point with the wistful, mocking epitaph “Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords.” The gathered crowd knows they’ve “seen his face before” but they can’t place it; in the broad scheme of things, he is barely a bit player. The wealth and position that seemed so important, to the heir and the larger society, is revealed as trivial and fleeting. Equally blinded by a different kind of triviality are the bureaucrats of the final verse, who insist on tabulating the precise number of holes in the roads of Blackburn, Lancashire, even “though the holes were rather small.” No wonder the singer would “love to turn you on.” To see his fellow human beings sleepwalking so numbly through the glorious richness that life offers is heartbreaking.

Musicologist Wilfrid Mellers has observed that “A Day In The Life” derives much of its power from the contrast between its relatively simple tune and the horrors described in its lyrics. But it is Lennon’s voice as much as anything that puts the message across. In his 1992 behind-the-scenes documentary The Making of Sgt Pepper, George Martin played an early version of “A Day in the Life.” Referring to John, Martin said, “even in this early take, he has a voice which sends shivers down the spine.” Martin had just heard Lennon’s entranced delivery of the opening lines—”I read the news today, oh boy / About a lucky man who made the grade”—and the deep gaze on his face and the slight glistening in his eyes suggested how moved he still was by the the death of his friend.

  — Mark Hertsgaard, 1995

From an Amazon.com reviewer

If you only buy one book on the Beatles, this is as good as any. I found it immensely readable, and had trouble putting it down. It’s one of the few books I’ve read more than twice. Hertsgaard gleaned much of his information from old interviews with the Beatles and those of their inner circle such as producer George Martin and sound engineer Geoff Emerick, along with Neil Aspinall, Derek Taylor, and many others, as detailed in the nearly 100 pages of notes.

What comes out is a nuanced telling of the Beatles story, much of it already known to fans, but with the addition of notes on the recording session and almost every song they recorded, along with tunes like “Besame Mucho” that showed up on bootlegs and many that appeared in the Anthology Series.

After each chapter, I found myself popping in a disk and listening on the headphones to discover things on the songs I’d never noticed before. A worthwhile read.

  — J. De Turk, Amazon.com review, 2003

A Day in the Life is currently out-of-print.

Second-hand copies can often be found through resellers like:

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2 Responses to “A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles”

  • Leslie Ann Krasicki says:

    Dear Mark,
    I just wanted to drop you a line to let you know that your book on the Beatles called ‘A Day In The Life’ is probably the best book I’ve ever read on the Beatles. I pretty much have read them all and yours is #1.
    Thanks for great reading,
    Love Leslie


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About Mark

Called "one of America’s finest reporters" by Barbara Ehrenreich, Mark Hertsgaard is the author of six books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Earth Odyssey and On Bended Knee. He has covered climate change, politics and the media for leading media outlets around the world, including Vanity Fair, The Nation, Time, The New Yorker, NPR, L’espresso, Die Zeit and Le Monde Diplomatique.

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