Updated: Oct 7, 2020
So, from nothing to…everything. The hinge on which the reputation of the band hangs sways back and forth on these 5 minutes and 32 seconds. From here you can look back to the past and into the future.
Here, we can peep at the rear-view mirror at a fast disappearing vision of boy/girl teen romance and forward toward revelling in the voyeurism of road traffic fatalities, the joys of smoking in public, basking in the simulation of coming up on hard hallucinogens and gaze hazily at pot holes, all blown heads sung very sweetly by a sleep deprived man off his chuff and quite severely malnourished.
Quite the divergence from Love, love me do, no?
"See, the worst thing about doing things like this is that I think that at first people are a bit...suspicious. Y'know, like 'c'mon, what are you up to?'" P. Mac.
1967's P-opera, #ADITL is where it all started getting a bit...Mozartish. Beethoven-y. A touch John Cagen. Not 'Arty' (capital A) but transcandental. Here they rise above trend & artifice whilst simultaneously creating a whole new idiom on which many contemporaries (and since) tried to play, but few could. This song, and the album it lives on, instantly immortalised the band, forever making them synonymous to the year of its creation.
Just five years and SEVEN albums into their recording career (7!), the Beatles had already given their inexhaustible public several distinct incarnations of their ever changing musical personae, they having evolved more in a fistful of years than other bands can only dream of over a two decade life cycle. We’re looking at you too, U2.
They'd tried their hand at, mastered, pioneered and moved on from harmonica infused R&B-pop, lilting melody embossed hook-pop, Screaming proto-punk-pop, introspective folk-pop, medicinally heightened topical-pop, HipHoPop(?), I made that up-pop. Now, however, they were purposely making Avante-Garde Art, but no matter the direction or approach they took in their songwriting, the result was always pop, whether they intended it or not.
Even Beatles mock-fodder Revolution #9 is jam packed full of scattergun melody and memorable soundscapes. Serving to hook you in, enticing you onward like a hand into the woods from a strange man in a hat on a full moon. No, really. Listen to the contemporary Musique Concrete it was inspired by. If you can make it to the 12th minute of Karlheinz Stockhausen's 1966 'Telemusik' without a solemn prayer for the Watusi or waiting for the desperate heartbeat of Yoko's soon to be miscarried foetus you'll have done better than me. Even when inspired by personal tragedy they wrote the best pop around, regardless of medium.
And you get to become naked.
"Have the mic on the piano quite low. Keep it like maracas, y'know those old pianos?" J. Len-o
Sgt. Pepper's closing movement has a curious mix of the Avant-Garde sensibility of the previous year's 'Tomorrow Never Knows' and Pepper's own 'When I'm 64'. If '64' was Paul's postmodern take on ’50s British domestic values viewed through the detached haze of all that love that everyone was smoking, then #ADITL was John's answer to it.
John held little romance for snug domesticity until he found it later in life, so here, he, chemically detached, lost in a state of peace, LOVE and isolation, sung about something he held nostalgia for, whilst single handedly pulling us away from: the home we share. All the recognisable monuments to British life were present - newspapers, class politics & the new free youth movement, schadenfreude at the elite having it all and fucking it up, the military, smoking on the top deck of a bus, heart beating out of your chest, a reference to the northern working class experience and of course, the Albert Hall, a nod to Empire lost.
John's filter was his gift. He and it was never further removed, yet so lucid than during 1967. If you happen to suffer from ADHD, you'll know to take amphetamine (i.e. Ritalin) to 'normalise'. Lennon had been given to pseudo-psychedelic experience since childhood. Making him question his sanity in adolescence, he reconciled himself to it and the following laconic take on his state of mind happens to be one of my favourite Lennon throwaways:
"I can't be mad because nobody's put me away; therefore I'm a genius...if there's such a thing as genius, I am one. And if there isn't, I don't care."
Lennon was probably seeing the world as clearly as he ever had whilst under the spell of potent psychedelics. Whilst others didn't have the same constitution and never came 'backkkk' again (Peter Green, Syd Barrett, that kid in every country who thought he could fly so tried it first off the top floor of a car park), John was home. So instead of imagining tangerine trees and rocking horse pies, he was in Weybridge, sat at his piano reading the Daily Mail (the publication in-between bursts of support for far right lunatics) and scanning the articles out loud, weaving the mundane into the dream that he was in. Where, in A Spaniard In The Works, you'd find the meaning YOU were looking for in clever, spiky nonsense, here we'd find universal truth, depth and solace in the despair of the mundane - urging us to wonder what was behind it all. What does it mean? It's all very Geoff Wode.
He doesn't tell us what he's seen, but he's pulling the curtain back and wants to turn us on to what he's found....and then we come up. Hard.
The 24 orchestral bars that mirror the experience of a forced change in state of perception is Stockhausen doing 'She Loves You'. It does to discordant chaos what Lennon does to mundanity in the verse - reordering it, delivering it from above in a way that encourages your brain to make new sense of it and in the process creates one of the all time great, un-hummable bridges in pop.
Someone much smarter than me once said that if the bridge isn't the best part of the song, then it shouldn't be in it (Google it, I'm working hard enough). This is the hook, and unless you're falling down the stairs whilst playing the mouth organ, you can't even sing it. Clever boys.
Eventually, we arrive with John at his destination - Up. And we see everything with sunlight, innocence and a breezy chirpiness that only Paul would be allowed, or even able, to bring to a work like this. John hands over the baton of consciousness to Paul. And with his hand around our shoulder we're back in a state of pure simplicity - lazy adolescent mornings, running for the bus, the only care being the state of your barnet. Having a smoke. All metaphor, for whatever you want to see. I read their muse today, oh boy.
Then we go again, via landmarks to a physical home, in Lancashire. A new flush of revelation, then a crashing come-down and...aaaaah.
"Pathetic" - G. Martin.
All this was somehow condensed into 5 minutes. 7 years squashed into a moment. It's their oeuvre in microcosm. A Song in the Career. People have tried, oh how people have tried.
'A Day In The Life' was the compelling argument that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band needed to render it's masterpiece status and longevity unquestionable.
"It's not really a concept album though, is it?"
"Whatever, it's got 'A Day In The Life' on it."
Best Beatle albums are interchangeable dependent on generation. ‘Best song’ is rarely argued as anything other than this, or at a push, one of another two 1967 Lennon compositions. It gives the album a spiritual heavyweight status that George's lead-weight 'Within You/Without You' could only dream of.
I often ponder the statement that during their recording career, not only were 'The Beatles the biggest band in the world, but they were also the best'. Think about it - how often does this happen? The 'best' is subjective, of course. How do you measure?
Let's start by measuring it materially:
They sold more albums and singles than anyone else. In fact, they sold more than Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones combined. Still do.
They were in the charts longer and more frequently than anyone else. Albums have spent 1500 weeks in the charts to date, singles nearly 500.
They sold more tickets whilst touring than nearly anyone else.
They were the most famous and influential - one TV appearance in 1964 broke viewing records that still have't been beaten, and with only $50,000 spent on nationwide promotion by Capital.
More output than anyone else: 27 Number One singles (US), 13 albums, 3 films, 4 world tours, endless appearances in...7 years. Astonishing.
The '1' compilation album, full of songs that everyone already owned, released in 2000, was the biggest selling album globally that DECADE. Mental.
Reissues of Sgt Pepper, The Beatles and Abbey Road topped charts globally 50 years after original release
(This is harder to substantiate, but fuck it - I'm up to my armpits now)
Love Me Do - I Want to Hold Your Hand - A Hard Day's Night - Eleanor Rigby - Tomorrow Never Knows - Strawberry Fields Forever - A Day In The Life. Beginning to end in 4 years 7 months and 26 days.
To do so much, to such a high standard in such a short space of time. Never. Letting. Up. Is unmatched. By refusing to bow to enormous pressure to sell more, be better, they did it. Confounding contemporaries, industry experts, classical music critics and social commentators. And everyone since, including me, and if you’re reading this - you too.
"For me the Beatles are proof of the existence of God. It’s so good and so far beyond everyone else that it’s not them." - Rick Rubin
Not bad for four shit-kickers from Liverpool.
"Somebody spoke, and I went into a dream." - Aaaaanon
Whilst we're all here, shall we try to resolve a question of Beatle trivia minutiae? Of course, else what’s the point?
Who sang the 'Aaaah's'?
If you'd have asked me before I began compiling this piece, I'd have bet my cats (I've gone off them) that it was John. It's a crucial part of the song, it's in his range, and the last part has his 'acid' tonality. A YouTube commenter said: "It's John - who else could sound sarcastic singing a single vowel?" I liked that.
Having studied an isolation hundreds of times, it sounds like Paul doing a quite astonishing ‘John’. Colour me shocked. At 23 seconds it sounds as if the line has merged seamlessly into John. And that's where I'll leave you:
This complete work marks the culmination of a decade of brotherly kinship and competition for the Lennon/McCartney partnership. That the Summer of Love brought their peak, crowning them all conquering heroes, they were one enough to lay ego bare, needing each other more than ever and for the last time.
That this work is the perfect chordal merging of their disparate and unifying talent, two perspectives made one, two songs born together & in embrace is a fitting epitaph for a song, an album, and era that is personified by the symbiosis of the two central protagonists. It's probably Paul, it is likely John, and that we can't tell is its magic.
A Day in the Life.
PS - Ringo played some good drums
What did you make of 'A Day in the Life'? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
See you in the comments.