In my view, this song and “Yesterday” are the finest love songs ever recorded by the Beatles. In fact, I like this one even better than “Yesterday,” though it’s truly a close call.
“In My Life” is from the Rubber Soul album (1965), and is rated, deservedly, #5 on the Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs. (It’s also ranked #23 on the same magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.)*
It’s a perfectly written song, with lyrics that are simple but deeply moving, and has just two verses (no bridge) comparing the past to the present. The piano interlude, by George Martin, makes the song.
It’s surely one of the greatest rock ballads of all time. And Rubber Soul was the start of the greatest run of innovative rock music ever produced by one group.
This song is usually credited to Lennon, though, given its nature, one could easily imagine that it was written by McCartney. In fact there’s some dispute about who did what here. As Rolling Stone notes:
“In My Life” is one of only a handful of Lennon-McCartney songs where the two strongly disagreed over who wrote what: According to Lennon, “The whole lyrics were already written before Paul even heard it. His contribution melodically was the harmony and the middle eight.” According to McCartney, Lennon basically had the first verse done. At one of their writing sessions at Lennon’s Weybridge estate, the two painstakingly rewrote the lyrics, making them less specific and more universal. (Some of Lennon’s lines, like his reference to the late Stu Sutcliffe, the Beatles’ former bassist, in “some are dead and some are living,” remained.) McCartney also says he wrote the melody on Lennon’s Mellotron, inspired by Smokey Robinson, as well as the gentle opening guitar figure.
Regardless of its true authorship, “In My Life” represented Lennon’s evolution as an artist. “I started being me about the songs, not writing them objectively, but subjectively,” Lennon said. “I think it was Dylan who helped me realize that — not by any discussion or anything, but by hearing his work.” The Beatles were huge Dylan fans by early 1964, playing The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan nonstop in between gigs. When Dylan visited the Beatles in New York that August, he famously introduced them to marijuana. (He thought the Beatles were already pot smokers, having misheard the lyrics “I can’t hide” in “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as “I get high.”) Dylan and pot would be the great twin influences that led the Beatles out of their moptop period and on to their first masterpiece, Rubber Soul.
Before that album, “We were just writing songs à la the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly,” Lennon said, “pop songs with no more thought to them than that.” He rightly called “In My Life” “my first real, major piece of work. Up until then, it had all been glib and throwaway.”
I’d give Lennon most of the credit, but, as usual, without the synergy of McCartney this song would never have become a classic.
Wikipedia adds a bit about the recording:
The song was recorded on 18 October 1965, and was complete except for the instrumental bridge. At that time, Lennon had not decided what instrument to use, but he subsequently asked George Martin to play a piano solo, suggesting “something Baroque-sounding”. Martin wrote a Bach-influenced piece that he found he could not play at the song’s tempo. On 22 October, the solo was recorded with the tape running at half speed, so when played back at normal pace the piano was twice as fast and an octave higher, solving the performance challenge and also giving the solo a unique timbre, reminiscent of a harpsichord.
Here are the original lyrics (in Lennon’s hand, I believe), and you can see how much worse they were than in the final version:
*Can you guess what #1 is? Go over and see. It’s not “Layla,” though, which I’d rank as the greatest rock song of all time. But the Beatles are clearly the greatest group. I hasten to add that this is only my subjective opinion (though it happens to be correct).