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A Day in the Life: a duet with tape echo

June 9, 2017
The 50th anniversary hoopla surrounding Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band prompted me to re-examine it more closely for its innovative use of recording technology. If you’re interested, there are many “behind the scenes” snippets and outtakes out there, which shed light on how the Beatles and producer George Martin put everything together, working with engineers Geoff Emerick and Richard Lush. This one clip, however, was the most revelatory to me: an isolated a capella rendition of the middle section, just before the final verse begins.
Take a listen to it here.
I must have heard “A Day in the Life” hundreds of times; I’ve been enjoying it ever since I was a kid. Before hearing this specific piece of the recording with the voices in isolation, however, every single time I heard it I always thought John Lennon was singing the melody during this part. Well, he wasn’t, it was Paul McCartney! How weird is that? Heck, I even saw Paul sing the song live in concert and didn’t realize this.
Until hearing this voice track, bathed in eerie tape echo, I mistakenly thought (and surely many others thought this as well) the melody was John’s voice, because of the dramatic change in timbre after Paul’s prior line “I went into a dream”. However, it appears that Paul recorded his entire bridge vocal — everything from “woke up, fell out of bed” up to John’s return for the final verse — as one uninterrupted overdub. That notable change in tone with the “aaaaaah” melody, which feels like a shift in narrative perspective, if you like, largely derives from the recording engineers switching on the tape-echo effect at that point during the overdub. Suddenly, it sounds like a different person altogether — recalling John’s heavily echo-treated performance strongly enough that it overrides the identity of the real singer.

Isn’t that remarkable? While just about every critical analysis of this song recognizes the brilliance of the Beatles’ decision to leave a gap during the recording for two cacophonous ascending orchestral climaxes, and John always gets credit for delivering an amazing lead vocal performance, this little moment is actually my favourite part of the song… and I didn’t even know it was Paul’s the entire time. In retrospect, of course it makes sense for Paul to have sung this part (he also conducted the orchestra while they overdubbed the sustained chords that underscore it), as its melismatic tenor delivery is more typical of him than John’s more straightforward baritone singing. I didn’t hear John and George’s extemporaneous falsetto “oooooooh” vocals in the background, either (they’ve been there the entire time, just buried in the finished mix).

Tape echo (more commonly known as “delay”, in today’s recording parlance) was an important factor in John Lennon’s vocal performances throughout his career. He apparently loved hearing it back on headphones, drenching his voice as he sang; it gave an extra rhythmic element that he could play against, inventing unique vocal phrasing in the moment. This technique is all over John’s work on “A Day in the Life”, but the real insight for me is how much the production decision to stop the vocal echo for Paul’s “woke up” line, and then resume it for the “aaaah”, is what makes the middle bridge section so compelling. The surreal nature of the echo is a defining texture, enhancing John’s voice so well that when Paul’s “dry” voice first comes in, echo-free, it really is like waking out of a dream — and then plunging back into one, when the echo returns.

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