a day in the life -- 7/21/23

Today's selection -- from Tell Me Why: The Beatles: Album by Album, Song By Song, the Sixties and After by Tim Riley. Set as the last song in the Beatles’ upbeat and legendary album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the somber Lennon-McCartney composition “A Day in the Life” has endured as one of the most influential songs the group ever recorded:

"[The Beatles’ song] ‘A Day in the Life’ redefines everything that came before. … As a postlude to the Pepper fantasy, it casts a shadow that sets all the other songs (and the Beatles' own career) in perspective. ‘A Day in the Life’ comments on how listening to a pop record relates to what's happening when the show is over.

“The slow guitar chords at the outset have a drag to them, and the piano that soon joins in is wearied as well. The sound is ominous, broad but not dense. Lennon's entrance on ‘I read the news today, oh boy’ is pregnant with disillusionment; the gentle fall on the word ‘oh’ alone is the sound of poignance. The simple surface gestures in the music and the voice gain deep feeling with repeated listenings. ‘And though the news was rather sad,’ he sings, ‘well I just had to laugh.’ The laughter isn't funny but a nervous response to an overwhelming despair.

“Guitar, bass, piano, and gentle maracas carry the first verse. Lennon's delivery from the far left channel sounds distant, adrift in the burdensome events he's reading aloud, unable to make sense of the news that greets his day. The second half makes the anxiety clear: ‘He blew his mind out in a car.’

“Even the way Lennon phrases that horror--borrowing an image from the drug culture to soften the violence--tells us that he has a great deal of trouble accepting the reality itself. Ringo's drum entrance swells this image further, filling up the space with large hollow tom-toms. The crash occurred because ‘he didn't notice that the lights had changed,’ a pitifully small oversight. 

“During the last lines of the first verse, Lennon's voice moves slowly from the far right toward the center as the song becomes more aware of itself and the music gains intensity. The end of the first verse reaches the melodic height with Lennon's falsetto left hanging in the air, unresolved: ‘NobodywasreallysureifhewasfromtheHouseofLords.’ Half of the horror is in the victim's unrecognizable familiarity--he could have been anybody. 

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover

“Ringo's drums comment on each line in the second verse, conveying the emptiness the singer fears in himself. ‘A crowd of people turned away’ from the brutal scenes of the war movie, but the singer cannot turn away--‘having read the book,’ he is impelled to watch, repulsed by the illusions on the screen but unable to turn his eyes from the awful truth it imposes. (The despair hints at atomic devastation.) By the end of the verse Lennon's voice has traveled all the way over to the far left channel, and the journey of awestruck disbelief is complete. As he sings ‘I'd love to turn you on,’ his voice fades into the debris of sound that will soon rise up and overwhelm its meekness. (The BBC banned this song from its airwaves because this line was thought to be a drug reference, when in fact it is probably one of the least drug-oriented on the record.) The cloud of confusion that has grown inside the singer's head since the song began now opens up, slowly at first, then rises toward a torrential downpour of sound. The storm reaches drastic proportions in a matter of seconds. 

“The conglomeration of noise made by over forty orchestral musicians playing without music evokes the image of a train speeding toward a head-on collision--it picks up speed from its own momentum. At the peak of the summit, the moment of reckoning, a breakthrough occurs--an alarm clock goes off, and a befuddled sleeper wakes up and begins his day, oblivious to his own nightmare. The simple snare-to-cymbal rousing that Ringo whips off on Paul's waking words completes the transition. 

“The new beat is chipper, industrious, and comments on its own corporate precision only briefly at the end of lines, where the marshalled bass is set loose for a contrasting harmony (on the words ‘comb across my head’ and ‘in seconds flat’)--the snare marches purposefully onward. The compulsion of the rhythm conveys his obsession with time; after looking up and noticing that he's late, he actually gasps for breath before moving on. 

“Paul's complementary section is the day in the life of a modern everyman who sets forth each morning unaware of the tragedy around him--a kind of rock-'n'-roll Babbitt. Lennon's agonized empathy surrounds Paul's blissful ignorance: as it did the protagonist of ‘Good Morning,’ life is passing this figure by; he is not of this world but out of it, preoccupied with his schedule and bland attire. Hopping on the bus ‘in seconds flat,’ he climbs to the top level of the doubledecker (where smoking is allowed) and has his routine ciggy to start his day. The nightmare returns. 

“The blurring of the dream life and the real world adds to all the confusion. We're never sure whether Lennon's section is the ‘real’ world or if it's merely the dream that Paul slips back into atop the bus. The alarm clock blurs these boundaries: is Paul waking from Lennon's nightmare, or is Lennon imagining Paul's generic day in the life? The song inside a song works like the play within a play: the interdependence of reality and illusion is telescoped into one setting. As Paul drifts further off into his ‘dream,’ his ‘ah’ travels from right to left and back to the right again, very slowly, doubling the distance that Lennon took over the course of the first two verses. The rhythm softens to a comfortable back-beat by slicing the rigid military snare in half, allowing a smooth transition back to Lennon's final verse. In fact, the pulse is constant until the end, and the basic rhythm track was recorded live after days of rehearsals, even though bass, drum and vocal tracks would be overdubbed several days later. (The orchestra was added last.) A loud brass line announces the return, and Lennon appears way over to the left, where he had arrived at the end of the second verse. 

“This last verse goes by more swiftly than the first two; the forces that are set in motion for the first orchestral ascent are starting up again here, only much sooner. This time the train is a runaway from the very beginning of the verse, and the loss of control is apparent with each passing line. 

“The final image of the song is trivial: the ‘four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire’ are potholes that the local authorities had to count. (There is disagreement about this image: Richard Poirier writes morbidly of Scotland Yard searching ‘for buried bodies on a moor by making holes in the earth with poles and then waiting for the stench of decomposing flesh.’) Lennon comments on bureaucratic absurdity wryly: ‘Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.’ What all the holes refer to doesn't matter as much as where Lennon takes the image--by devoting attention to such a meaningless counting task, he emphasizes the disparity between this verse (and the warped values it implies) and the other two. 

“The second orchestral tidal wave is larger and more disturbing than the first. Instead of arriving at an alternative world, the roaring tumult crashes headlong into the defeat that was its fate from the very beginning. The tangle of instruments was never scored; each player was told to follow George Martin's gestures and reach a certain pitch as he conducted the ensemble. It is the sound of utter turmoil, an ocean of vexation, churning from beneath everyman's subconscious and ready to explode at any second. When the climax is reached and the final declamatory chord hammers the song closed, it is bombastically hollow. 

“The sheer force of energy released from it is enormous, but the tension remains unresolved; it leaves the listener more disturbed than mollified. This final chord, struck mightily by the four Beatles at three pianos on a simultaneous cue, hangs in the air forever, echoing until the final strains disintegrate before our very ears. The aural image couldn't be more stark; it has a sense of tragic inevitability that haunts long after the record is played. 

“In the context of the album, the track begins as an encore and winds up a eulogy; it dismantles the illusory world the Beatles entered as Sgt. Pepper's Band. Because ‘A Day in the Life’ sits next to an unabashedly fun set of songs, it sounds all the more stark. But the Sgt. Pepper journey isn't futile; its despair is ultimately hopeful. ‘I'd love to turn you on’ is a motto of enlightenment, of Lennon's desire to wake the world up to its own potential for rejuvenation, not self-annihilation. If ‘A Day in the Life’ were a single, it would be unbearably pessimistic; as the final track to the Pepper road show, it cools the freak-out optimism and challenges its listeners to scheme beyond the numbing ordinariness that daily life confronts them with. ‘A Day in the Life’ affirms the imaginative landscape of the rest of the album by acknowledging our need for it. Because of the larger context, it's not ‘a song of wasteland,’ as Richard Poirier suggests. The final blow doesn't summon the fate of modern man; it decries the tragedy of the fullness available and denied in our culture."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Tim Riley


Tell Me Why: The Beatles: Album By Album, Song By Song, The Sixties And After


De Capo Press


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment