Speaking in Images

John Lennon’s approach to creative briefing

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A day in the life of Erich Gruenberg

It is a crisp February morning in 1967. Erich Gruenberg the first violin for the London Symphony Orchestra is walking through St John’s Wood on his way to Abbey Road Studios. Entering a newsagents he peruses the headlines and gives the Daily Express an instant swerve – it’s headline “So much to say at Palace” about a conversation between the British monarch and an Express reporter is not exactly Erich’s cup of tea. For a man who is wearing evening dress at 11am the Times is a far more suitable choice. The perturbed look the newsagent gives his attire is not the first he has received that day, neither will it be the most unusual thing that will happen to him. Erich doesn’t know it yet but the recording session he’s about to attend is going to go down in history – an album which will become known as Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The song he is contributing to – ‘Day in the life’ – has taken its inspiration and first line from the newspaper headlines he’s just cast his eyes over. 

When Erich and the other forty members of the orchestra enter Abbey Road Studio 2 they are greeted not just by the Fab Four and producer George Martin but also a large menagerie of friends of the band – including Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, Mike Nesbith and Donovan. It seems as though this is more a party than a recording session. Jagger doesn’t know it yet but in two days time he will be arrested at his home in West Sussex on drugs charges. The police will be greeted by a party in full flow, Miss Faithful dressed only in a fur rug, and the smell of joss sticks hanging in the air which they will accuse Mick of using to mask the aroma of cannabis.

The scent of joss sticks and other flowery aromas are heavy in Abbey Road Studio 2 and to this backdrop Erich and his LSO colleagues are handed carnival outfits by Paul to help them get into the swing of things. Whilst they were instructed to turn up in the traditional orchestral garb of evening dress the fact that the usually staid George Martin is eagerly attaching a Cyrano de Bergerac nose to his face means that the only option for Erich and his peers is to join in. 

The orchestra takes its places. Erich has attached a gorilla paw to his bowing hand, whilst others wear fake nipples, Groucho Marx moustachioed glasses, and loony hats. George Martin asks engineer Geoff Emerick to play “Day in the life” to the orchestra minus the ending which they’ve been asked to come in and help with. It’s like nothing they’ve ever heard from a pop band before – an intense bricolage of song elements that somehow just works, an art concept beyond the traditional idea of a song, and a moving commentary on modern life, almost classical in its vision and conceit. George Martin hands out a score but tells the orchestra that he will be also looking to them to improvise aspects of their performance to meet the brief. Martin then turns to Lennon saying “John, why don’t you tell the orchestra what you spoke to me about” . John looks at Erich and the orchestra, and then back at Martin, and with that characteristic twinkle in his eye he says:

“What I’d like to hear is a tremendous build-up, from nothing up to something absolutely like the end of the world.”

These are classical musicians, people used to following every minute direction of a conductor, being asked to wearing gorilla paws and improvise. This has taken them way out of their classical music comfort zone. However they instinctively know what Lennon and Martin are asking for even if they’ve never seen or heard the end of the world before. Over the course of the session they make a contribution to an album which will become one of the defining creative achievements of the 20th century. The Times of London will describe Sgt. Pepper as a ‘decisive moment in the history of Western Civilization’ and Rolling Stone magazine will describe the crescendo of ‘Day in the Life’ as making ‘rock music seem like it has infinite possibilities’

 

Speaking in Images

Rock and roll mythology is rife with exaggeration, half-truth and artistic embellishment. In that spirit I’ve reimagined the events at Abbey Road on 10th February 1967, constructed from accounts of those who were present. Lennon’s brief is recounted by George Martin in his book “All you need is ears”.

John Lennon was by all accounts an often curmudgeonly soul. Brilliant of course, one of the greatest artistic visionaries to ever pick up a guitar, but not always the easiest person to work with. He was enigmatic and mistrustful of ’squares’ and their ways and words. He didn’t communicate with the lingua franca of most businesses or marketing departments that we know today. 

When it came to realising his vision for ‘Day in the life’ Lennon came up against an all too familiar barrier we face too often in life – the barrier of our own limitations. He knew what kind of sound he wanted, what kind of emotion he wanted to evoke, and what kind of instrumentation he would need to achieve it. He knew neither he, nor his band, could create this on their own. He needed outside help.

In that situation John Lennon was in the same boat as any business that needs the help of a designer, architect, producer or communications expert and turns to the creative talents of an outside agency. The creative team the Beatles turned to realise sounds they couldn’t realise on their own were producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick. ‘Impossible requests’ is how Geoff Emerick liked to describe these briefs  – I’d imagine many in the agency world would have some empathy with that description. However, I’d argue that the quality of the briefs given played a role in making these ‘impossible requests’ a little more possible.

For ‘Day in the life’ the Beatles needed an orchestra. Classical musicians are used to receiving briefs in the language of classical music, using terms such as ‘glissando’ and ‘pianoforte’ to communicate. Using this would have been the easy route to creating a typical orchestral performance. John Lennon however was not trying to create a typical piece of orchestral music. His vision for ‘Day in the Life’ was to create something that hadn’t been heard before. Maybe Lennon’s lack of formal classical music training was an advantage or maybe even if he was fluent in that vocabulary he would still have chosen to eschew it. Whatever the case, when Lennon had his initial conversations with George Martin about what he wanted to achieve he used the universal creative language of evocative imagery.

In “All you need is ears” Martin says of working with Lennon “As always, it was a matter of my trying to get inside his mind, discover what pictures he wanted to paint and then try to realise them for him”. This reference to pictures is telling. As we can see from the phrase “something absolutely like the end of the world” the secret of Lennon’s method for creative briefing was to speak in images. 

Day in the life – you can hear the orchestra’s ‘end of the world’ crescendo begin at 3:45

 

Sources

Mark Truss, Worldwide Director of Brand Intelligence of J.Walter Thompson, my former colleague and friend – thank you for bringing this story to my attention

“All you need is ears” by George Martin, reprint published by St Martin’s Griffin, original published 1979

BBC news report of Jagger/Richards arrest http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/may/10/newsid_2522000/2522735.stm

Beatles Songfacts website on ‘Day in the life’ http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=129

Beatles Bible website http://www.beatlesbible.com/songs/a-day-in-the-life/3/

Interview with George Martin https://thebluemoment.com/2016/03/09/george-martins-day-in-the-life/

10 bizarre requests John Lennon made of George Martin http://www.vulture.com/2016/03/10-odd-john-lennon-requests-of-george-martin.html

Times and Rolling Stone quotes sourced from http://blog.jivewired.com/2010/11/12-days-of-beatles-day-eight-day-in.html

Image sourced from http://www.thebeatles.com/album/sgt-peppers-lonely-hearts-club-band