Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Day in the Life

The subtitle of this blog, which insinuates that there's a Beatles song for every day of the year, is kind of a lie, because this is it. "A Day in the Life" is the last Beatles song in the catalog for us to listen to. Because if there's an even better ending to this project than a song called "The End" it's an almost-minute-long E major chord. Right? Right. Please sit back for a few minutes and allow this song to blow your mind out one more time.

There's a lot-- a lot-- that's been written about "A Day in the Life," which is not only a complicated track with lots for a critic or critical wannabe to pontificate upon-- the lyrics, the arrangement, the production, the John-vs.-Paul analysis, the drugs, the counterculture, yada yada-- but also generally acknowledged to be the Beatles' best song anyway, making and topping all kinds of lists of such things. It's enough to make a fangirl wonder what she can possibly add. What I can start by adding is that I still remember how I felt the first time I heard this, playing my Sgt. Pepper cassette tape -- one of the few Beatles cassettes that retained the original song order, thank God-- can you imagine "A Day in the Life" being in the middle of the track listing, followed by, say, "Getting Better" or something? But, okay, so I remember how I felt when I first heard this, and I think it's best described as abject terror. I think I was 13 or something, sitting on my bedroom floor and hugging my knees as the famous E major chord receded into the distance, bug-eyed with something that I'd never quite felt before. This was not where I'd expected an album that began with such joyful showmanship to go. But even now I can still get that feeling, which I think is why "A Day in the Life" is one of my personal favorites (in addition to being one of the objectively greatest songs-- the two are different, after all). What can I say? I like being scared. Naysayers (of which there aren't too many) tend to see this song as kind of overblown and pretentious, but given that the song can move me in my gut just as primally as the likes of, I don't know, "Twist and Shout," it's working for me.

A quick recap of The Story of "A Day in the Life": John's song, which became the verses, was written based on a couple different newspaper stories. One was about a young millionaire (a Guinness heir, actually) and acquaintance of the Beatles who died in a car crash, and one was about bureaucrats counting potholes. If "A Day in the Life" is about disaffection and emotional alienation, it's a feeling that seems accidentally illustrated in the very fact that John wrote a song based on newspaper stories at all. His own lethargic habits around this time involved him lying around his gigantic suburban house surrounded by newspapers, which he'd read obsessively until he dozed off (he was apparently a champion sleeper), sleeping for hours only to wake up and get high again. Alienation was practically John's middle name. (See, every song that John writes is kind of about himself. It's like he can't help it.) Anyway, Paul's song, which became the bridge, is less of a song and more of a doodle, a jumpy little thing he wrote about taking the bus to school in the morning as a boy. It's slight on its own (maybe in an alternate universe Paul made it into an interesting whole song), but through the genius of the Lennon-McCartney partnership it was recognized as the perfect foil to the dreamy modernism in John's song.

(That reminds me of something: one of the many pretentious things I've read about "A Day in the Life" is that it's like The Wasteland in rock song form. I don't know whom to credit this assertion to, but I've read it here and there. What a pretentious and annoying thing to say, right? Especially because John's clearly a better writer than Eliot. Yeah, I said it. But I've never been able to get this idea out of my head, this sense that "A Day in the Life" is some kind of modernist touchstone in the same way that The Wasteland is, that they share a sleepwalking narrator and a dawning awareness of the inherent meaninglessness of all things. But if I continue down this path I'll be writing a book, and probably not a very good one. I just thought I'd bring that up, is all.)

Although there's been heaps written about the arrangement and orchestration, which I'll probably be honor-bound as a Beatles blogger to write about a little further down, I want to remind everyone that even with the amazing production effects led by George Martin, "A Day in the Life" is a really excellent song even reduced to its elements-- well-written and well-played by our boys. To say nothing of well-sung by John. Oh, John, how could I possibly make it through one of your songs without fawning over your singing? I love it when John gets all up into his high range-- it makes him sound like he's singing with a smile, though here it's a smile that's a little vacant. It carries notes of amusement and sarcasm, but it's mostly just hazy. Part of the scariness in the song is that John seems to be acting without very much feeling, or at least with feelings that as listeners we have a hard time understanding. The "I'd love to turn you on" refrain isn't so much a call to action or even a mournful statement about how unreachable humanity has become-- it's more of a shrug, something that John might get around to doing if he ever manages to get off the couch. "I'd love to turn you on. Eh, maybe after this cup of tea." It's a speaker as disaffected as everyone else is, only passingly aware that maybe something's a little off. And all of this is just expressed in his voice. For what it's worth, I don't think this is what John would say about this song, but it's what I hear-- more hopelessness that John might necessarily admit to.

But as fantastically as John sings this, most recently I've been almost unable to listen to anything other than Paul's bass. From the first verse on, he's doing one of those countermelodies that he does, in which the bass line is so charismatic that it seems to sing a duet with the vocal melody. The drums are really shining here, too, with Ringo playing fills that have this neat languorous complexity to them. And the fills only get more complicated as the song goes on, perhaps representing an increasing interior tension on the part of the speaker that John continues to not reveal in the vocal. (Or maybe I just so desperately want John's speaker to feel something that I'm making that up.) Too, though, check out the bass and drums in the middle section, the "woke up, fell out of bed" bit-- the repeating downward bass lines and tappa-tappa-tapping sound like something resembling slapstick. It's weird. It's like the instruments are laughing at something here, or at least highlighting the absurdity of this little morning routine, in light of, you know, the meaninglessness of all things. (One of the sadder things about "A Day in the Life," especially if one is going to call it the Best Beatles Song Ever, is that George is barely here. He's playing congas somewhere, I think, but that's it, there being no room for his rock guitar or sitar ramblings in this particular Lennon-McCartney vision.)

Now, as well as the Beatles themselves are playing here, it's what George Martin brought to this thing that have made it the unforgettable rock-and-roll poem that it is. It starts with just the production, so laden with echo-- particularly on John's vocal-- that we seem to be in a kind of unreal landscape. Echo effects are so key to what's going on here that even Mal Evans' guide vocal during what was to become the first orchestral crescendo was heavily echoed as he counted off. (Mal Evans, the Beatles' road manager, frequently did random things like this on their tracks. Since initially they weren't sure what music would bridge the gap between John's section and Paul's section, Mal just counted off twenty-four measures while John played a little piano-- it was later filled in with the orchestra, but since they never took out Mal, you can actually still hear him counting, and you can hear that he's echoing more and more if you listen really carefully. Nuts, right?)

The orchestral interludes, which I've variously read as either Paul's idea or George Martin's idea, involve a smallish orchestra (produced to sound larger) beginning at the bottom of their range as quietly as they can, then crescendoing gradually as they climb a chromatic scale, up and up and up to the very top of their range-- or at least to the topmost pitch in an E major chord, which is where we land. Martin specifically told the players not to listen to the people sitting around them, to ascend up to the scale at their own pace and, rather than worry too much about articulating new pitches, to just kind of slide as they make their way up. The effect of this is where a lot of the horror in the song comes in-- the high chaos and high drama of this climb from the lowest to the highest point contrasts so nakedly with the apathy of John's lyric and shallowness of Paul's that the orchestral interludes end up being the emotional crux of the song. Without them, there's a hollowness to the song that's almost too much to bear. (You can get a taste for this on Anthology 2.)

Although I could go on forever, as so many have done before me, I think I'll just stop there, because it really is a song I'd rather feel (and fear) than analyze too much more. Sure, something this complicated will always beg analysis, but still and all, "A Day in the Life" ends up being so much more than the sum of its parts that it can't help but catapult itself into the realm of what people call genius, and there's only so much that more analyis can tell us about it. I'll say this much more: for a song about alienation, "A Day in the Life" rings with the ultimate Beatley communal spirit. It is the harmonious marriage of the wildly different aesthetics and skill sets of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Martin. That kind of thing doesn't happen often, not even in the a band like the Beatles-- it's a pretty special day in a pretty amazing life when it can all come together. And you know what else? The very existence of art this fantastic being made, and being so widely embraced and beloved by the masses, might even disprove any dark theories the song propounds about human uselessness. Where art this tremendous can exist, there's always going to be hope for us all.

"A Day in the Life," released in the U.K. side B track 6 of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1, 1967; in the U.S. June 2, 1967.


  1. Awesome.

    I have a different take on "I'd love to turn you on." I'm with you most of the way on it, but I see him as sort of an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of character, unable to relate to the squares. (Note that a crowd of people turned away, but he just had to look.) But if we would get high or drop something, then we really could communicate, him and us, and I hear his delivery almost as a taunt, or at least a tease as to what we are missing.

    But the thing I REALLY love about where you went with this is that (of course) I agree: As much as you could write for a good while about all the elements that went into it, this song has a really visceral effect on the listener, maybe moreso than any other in the catalog. I bet everyone has some story in the same vein as yours -- a moment when the song kind of overwhelmed them. For me, it was when I got the Anthology 2 disc, and read in the liner notes as the song started that this was Take 1. I think the notes even make mention of how John's first crack at the vocal blew George Martin away, and while I was on the other side of a pair of Bose speakers, not the glass separating studio from control room, I felt the same way. It haunted me.

    I took my 4-year-old to see a tribute band play a show in a very nice opera house-type theater in Newark this year, and they played this last before intermission. They had a keyboard player onstage, a fifth guy, recreating everything the four impersonators couldn't, but when he played the orchestral parts, well, it sounded like an orchestra. I could feel it in my stomach, and my little guy looked shaken; I thought he might want to leave. He stayed, happily, but I'll bet he'll never forget that moment or this song.

  2. Spectacular work on all of these songs Meg. Just over a year ago I was a casual Beatles fan at best, and your genuine enthusiasm has been truly authoritative.

  3. Meg, congratulations on what has been the best blog on the internet for the past ten months. Bar none. Your posts were always solid and many - way many - were excellent. Your balancing act of a fan's unabashed love for the Beatles, combined with your ability to write intelligently about the music, was a pure delight to read. The rest of the year shall surely be vacant without your blog to visit.

    Thanks for the effort and the commitment. Your rocked!

  4. I found this blog only a few months ago, and have been busily catching up (and adding my 2 cents somewhat nervously and anonymously) ever since. I just wanted to express my thanks for a terrific read, day in and day out, even when I didn't share you view on a particular song.

  5. I'm saving my eulogy until the end of the year. If Meg managed to post every day from South America, I'm betting we hear from her again before the year is over.

  6. another idea - Beatle cover versions !
    you could blog about them !!!
    something ! anything !
    just keep on writing !!!
    great job !

  7. Oh, thanks, you guys! Aw, shucks. I just got home after being out all day, and I'd written a whole temporary-farewell and status-of-the-blog post above before I saw all your comments. But never fear-- I'll keep writing. (I'm not really capable of shutting up.)

    I'm so glad you guys all had fun. Thanks for this. :)