Every single day is a Beatles anniversary of some kind. This week alone marks several worthy commemorations. 1963: the Beatles scored their second No. 1 hit with “She Love You.” 1965: “Yesterday” was released as a single in the US. 1966: Revolver started a six-week run atop the US chart. 1967: the Fab Four began filming Magical Mystery Tour. 1968: “Hey Jude,” clocking in at seven minutes and ten seconds, became the longest chart topper of all-time. In this edition of Audio Rewind, though, I’m honoring an anniversary with a much shorter lifespan, an event that long eclipses the Beatles era.
This week in 2005, Q Magazine polled music experts and determined “A Day in the Life” to be the best British song of all-time, calling it “the ultimate sonic rendition of what it meant to be British.” And indeed, the track is one of the most indelible in modern music history—British or otherwise. Complex. Innovative. Topical. Dynamic. Haunting. A sonic approximation for what it feels like to live “A Day in the Life.”
The song arrived as the final track on the Beatles seminal record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The 1967 full-length is one of the earliest examples of the concept album, where narrative ties together a record’s individual songs. For Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles donned alter egos as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and found artistic freedom in their alternate identities. That, in addition to their then-recent decision to stop touring (a Ron Howard documentary about their touring years hits theaters today), prompted them to be more experimental. They wouldn’t have to play these songs live, so they were unencumbered by the limitations of instruments and physical spaces. In short, they could do whatever they wanted. And man did they ever.
“A Day in the Life” is perhaps most remarkable for its starkly contrasting sections and the massive orchestral bridges that tie them together. John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote its respective parts, with Lennon’s two sections sandwiching McCartney’s.
Lennon’s portion was inspired by the death of 21-year-old Tara Browne, a friend and the heir to the Guinness fortune. In the piece’s opening lines, he references a newspaper clipping from the Daily Mail about the posthumous custody battle over Browne’s two children. Lennon draws political allusions to a man in traffic who “blew his mind out” (Browne died in a car accident) and “didn’t notice that the lights had changed.”
In a 1998 biography, McCartney provided a corrective to the suicidal undertones, explaining that these were actually drug references to a politician “bombed out of his mind on drugs,” which makes sense amidst the song’s other drug innuendos, like “I’d love to turn you on,” a reference to Timothy Leary’s countercultural catchphrase, ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out.’
McCartney’s verse, alternatively, was filled with reminiscences from his youth. A personal, quotidian agenda to balance Lennon’s politicization—”Woke up, got out of bed / dragged a comb across my head.” (Although McCartney, too, includes another likely drug reference: “found my way upstairs and had a smoke / somebody spoke and I went into a dream”). Still, as a whole, the sections act as a juxtaposition of the personal and the political, a balance that undoubtedly helped them top the Q Magazine survey.
Musically, the song is extraordinary. “A Day in the Life” begins by crossfading from the applause in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” into the piece’s unmistakable opening guitar strums. During the first verse, Lennon’s voice pans slowly from right to left (in the stereo recording). McCartney’s vocal, when it arrives, then hops back to the right side, and then, for Lennon’s second verse, it jumps back to the left. Connecting the two sections, which are in many respects completely different songs, are colossal orchestral glissandos and ghostly vocals hovering at the periphery, this time zinging all around our listening headspace. The effort behind these bridges and their chasmal effect was remarkable.
At first, the song existed without an orchestra and consisted of only the lyrical sections. A 24-bar space of piano harmonies acted as placeholder for something to come later, with an alarm clock marking the end of the twenty-fourth measure. The clock sound was meant to be removed once the space was filled, but it fit so well with McCartney’s verse (“woke up, got out of bed”) that it stayed. And it was McCartney that had the initial idea to use an orchestra for the latent 24 bars, spurring the band to hire 40 orchestral musicians.
At the Beatles bidding, the late George Martin wrote a barebones score in which the ad hoc orchestra would riff on a single atonal chord. In essence, he instructed each instrument to start on its lowest possible note and gradually ascend to its highest by the end of the 24 bars. The resulting cacophony that you hear is four overdubbed versions of that same chord, and together they piece together what is perhaps the band’s magnum opus. It heaves like ocean waves, fulfilling Lennon’s desire to create “a sound building up from nothing to the end of the world,” and it all ends with mindless Beatles chatter, perhaps the maniacal portent to said world’s end.
When all was said and done, the Beatles had spent 34 hours recording “A Day in the Life.” The entirety of Please Please Me, for comparison, was recorded in just under 11. Their assiduous efforts were worth it, of course. In 2004, Rolling Stone named it 28th on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and in 2010 the magazine named it the best Beatles track—no small statement considering their immense catalog. It beat out songs like “Waterloo Sunset” (The Kinks), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen), “Sympathy for the Devil” (The Rolling Stones), and “Life on Mars” (David Bowie) to claim the honor as Best British song ever. And it’s deserving. The most elusive quality in art, and the most celebrated, is the portrayal of life in all its reality: complicated, dynamic, beautiful. These are what the days in our lives are like, and the art that ably captures that will always be our most treasured. Such is “A Day in the Life.”
Image: StudioCanalUK; Apple