A Day in the Life

My father, Alan Smyth, was a viola player. When I was young, in the 1980s, he mentioned a couple of times that he’d played with the Beatles. He wasn’t very interested in them; growing up, I wasn’t either. Years later, now that I’ve become very interested in them, I think often about his casual aside.

My dad died in 2002. In early 2020 I made contact with his musician friends to ask if they had any memories of his playing with the Beatles. John Underwood, the viola player in the Delmé String Quartet, played on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in April 1966, on ‘A Day in the Life’ in February 1967, and on ‘She’s Leaving Home’ in March 1967. John said my father didn’t play on these songs, and he couldn’t remember if he played on others.

The fixer who arranged string players for lots of Beatles sessions was Sid Sax. He died in 2005. In the 1980s, when my dad was freelance and eternally worried about money, hanging on every phone call, Sax’s was a familiar name in our house, a kind of incantation. He was half-patron, half-demon. Peter Willison, a cellist my dad shared a flat with in St John’s Wood in the mid-to-late 1960s, remembers returning home at about 10 p.m. on 6 October 1967 after a concert at the Albert Hall and getting a call from Sax, telling him to drive to Studio Two at Abbey Road, immediately, for an all-night recording of what turned out to be ‘Blue Jay Way’. Peter arrived at the studio still wearing tails. At 27, he was about the same age as the Beatles. ‘They didn’t really have a clue what they were doing,’ Peter told me. ‘There were no other musicians. There was no music stand and no music. George Martin asked me to listen to the track and just play along. We experimented a bit. Finally at 4 a.m. we were finished.’ Could he remember my dad playing on any Beatles tracks? He couldn’t.

I trawled through footage of Beatles’ recordings online, looking for moments when the string section was visible. For a while I felt certain I could see my father among the black-tie-wearing string players on ‘A Day in the Life’, despite what John Underwood had said; I could certainly recognise some of his friends among the players. But after a few minutes even the wobbly tracking camera couldn’t conceal the fact it was a violinist, not a viola player. When I sent Peter a photo for confirmation, he said the hand position wasn’t quite right for my dad’s bow arm.

I wrote to Mark Lewisohn, the author of The Complete Beatles Chronicle (1992) and the monumental Tune In (2013), a product of such meticulous care that after 946 pages the Beatles story has progressed only as far as December 1962, two months after the release of their first single, ‘Love Me Do’. (Two more volumes will follow.) Lewisohn replied:

The names of the outside musicians brought in to augment Beatles recordings come solely from documents kept by EMI in its archive. It is an incomplete set of papers. It’s a frustration to history that holes remain in the collection. In those documents we do have, your father’s name does not show. In those we don’t have ... well, there’s simply no knowledge.

I asked him specifically about ‘A Day in the Life’, hoping I’d been wrong. Lewisohn has documents for that session listing all the musicians, with addresses and signatures. ‘Your father can’t be among them.’

I tried other routes. I spoke to someone at Abbey Road, who told me to try Universal Music Archives, which includes the Abbey Road archive; they directed me to the EMI Archive Trust. I talked to the former chief accountant of Warner Brothers who runs Crescendo Music Services, which collects unpaid historic fees for session musicians. The trail ran cold. This all happened while Covid-19 was turning from a story about elsewhere to the only news in town.

Was my father mistaken? Did he imagine himself into a famous period of music history? Did he blur one of the hundreds of recording sessions he did with the recordings he’d heard his colleagues discuss? Did he make it up to impress me? Had I misheard him, or misremembered him, or reimagined something slightly different? I can’t see a way to resolve these questions. I feel a moment in the past dwindling, receding towards a dot.

[This was first published on the London Review of Books blog on 24 December 2020.]