Listen to this track by former mop-top British Invasion spearheads and pop music boundary pushers The Beatles. It’s “A Day In The Life” as taken from the modestly successful little platter Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released at the top of the summer of love in June 1967.
By the time work was undertaken to begin the making of this song, and this record, the rules hadn’t really been written as to what an album could be – like, say, a way to create a band inside of a band, and to have the record itself do the job of touring instead of the people behind it having to do it. No one had ever really applied an artistic filter to a record, or to a band in quite this way.
As such, it was a risky approach. There again, the Beatles records always sold well, and I’m sure the project wasn’t thought of as being risky other than by those who undertook it, and who wanted it to be as great as it was on a musical level. The stories around that album, and this track specifically, are fairly well-traveled. But, there is one common thread running through all of those stories; everything about the project drove everyone involved in making it deep into a place of artistic and technological lateral thinking .
Personally, I think the biggest force behind the record’s success didn’t have anything to do with lofty and unifying artistic concepts or technological innovation. I think it had more to do with an honest expression of where the Beatles were at during that time as it was expressed in the songwriting. “A Day In The Life” was one of the first songs the band tackled, helping to set the tone and expectations surrounding the project as a whole.
As such, it’s always seemed kind of ironic to me that this final track on an album that is otherwise thought of as the most technicolour of all Beatles records is so full of forboding.
In that sense, “A Day In The Life” doesn’t fit in at all with the optimistic ’60s vibe with which it is commonly associated. To me, it’s always been a vaguely frightening reminder that life can change at any moment, sometimes with finality. It sketches impressions of lost potential, and marries them with the often mundane nature of reality that plods on no matter what happens, seemingly dispassionate to life-defining events. The song starts out with a death, and of a man who was celebrated; a lucky man that made the grade. The news being sad, the narrator’s reaction is to laugh. It’s defensive laughter, bitter laughter. It is the laughter of the cynic, or perhaps of the disappointed, or the betrayed.
We can see Lennon’s cynical streak in full bore in that “I just had to laugh”, but we also hear the childlike quality of his voice on this track, like it’s a little boy singing it. That has always been the driving contrast in many of the best of Lennon’s performances. A news story of a Beatle acquaintance and Guinness heir Tara Browne’s death in a traffic accident was the source of inspiration for this fictional account of the one in the song. It should also be mentioned that Lennon’s own mother was killed in a freak road accident, hit by an off-duty policeman as she crossed the road near where Lennon lived. That undercurrent adds even more gravity to his delivery, and the sense of great portent a listener can get from it. The sweeping and orchestral “orgasm of sound” shores that up pretty well, too.
McCartney’s middle-eight section was a song fragment he’d been toying with, with a lyrical account of a morning ritual as accompanied by a sparkly little piano line. And you’d think that the big themes of death and loss wouldn’t really welcome that into the mix. But, the absolute opposite is true. In the middle of death, loss, and dark humour, we still have to get up, fall out of bed, and drag combs across our heads, no matter what might be on our minds otherwise. McCartney’s contribution brings Lennon’s part into sharper focus. It is a key example of their capacity for emotional complexity in a pop song without being overbearing.
“A Day in the Life” really is a staggering artistic achievement. But, it’s not a vision of some simplistic hippie ideal, or about the power of the counterculture to change the world. I don’t even think it’s about drugs, although “I’d love to turn you on” and “went upstairs and had a smoke” are certainly references to areas that the Beatles were exploring. What I really think it’s about is how connected the events in our lives are, big and small, even if they don’t feel that way.
This song says that the mundane meets the profound all the time. It’s just down to a matter of finding the right perspective in order to see it. That’s what makes this song so potent as an artistic statement. In a song full of multi-tracked, jury-rigged studio equipment, orchestral instruments, sound effects, and endless piano chords, maybe this is one of the most forward-thinking elements of this song. In the end, “A Day In The Life” could be anyone’s day, and anyone’s life.
For more information about “A Day In The Life”, check out TheBeatles.com, where you can read the lyrics – as if you don’t already know them!
And for the more video-oriented, here’s a Sgt. Pepper making of doc, which also includes bits on “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and “Penny Lane”, which were sort of harbingers of Pepper. Watch it now before The Man takes it down!