Updated: Jun 9, 2021
Quite how the Beatles found the time to do anything productive during the ‘mania’ years of their career is a wonder. Despite the untold number of distractions that kept them from quiet time with their guitars, between 1961 and 1966, the band released one hundred and twenty songs.
From this number they’d deliver eleven number one hits across fourteen singles (including My Bonnie) and seven albums. They’d star in two feature films and perform eight hundred and forty shows across thirty four tours, including Christmas residencies and showcases. If that wasn’t enough, during this period John Lennon also had two books of verse published. Add to that the constant demands on their time from press conferences, radio and newspaper interviews, TV appearances and the myriad other taps on shoulders that white hot fame brought and suddenly the opening line seems like an enormous understatement.
When asked about the their schedule, Starr once claimed that the Beatles did around ‘five things every day’, ranging from going to a recording session, to an interview, to a business meeting, to a TV appearance, onto a gig and then finally a nightclub until the early hours, only to do it all again the next day. That was just their domestic schedule, without any of the additional demands of touring. It was punishing. ‘What’s to rehearse? Smiling, that’s all we rehearse’, fired Lennon, in one of an endless round of press junkets to promote a North American tour.
The Beatles hadn’t stopped, perhaps couldn’t, since they’d sprung into life during their first Hamburg residency. They lived in each other’s pockets until there was too much money in there to fit. To remedy this, they all bought houses in stockbroker country - Lennon and Starr in an exclusive estate in Weybridge, Surrey, and Harrison just down the road in Esher. All except McCartney, who crashed with his actress girlfriend, Jane Asher, at her parents’ West End Wimpole Street abode until he needed space in his bed to fit his adventures, eventually buying the house he still occasionally lives in, not far from Abbey Road’s EMI studios, Cavendish Avenue.
Then, in 1967, the moment the future that could only exist with a nod to the past arrived: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.
For long periods since its release, Pepper has been regarded as the barometer of the Beatles’ achievements. Revered as the work with which to judge and contextualise their progress; the high water mark of their career and the pinnacle of 1960’s popular culture. Experienced now, it’s best served as an anomaly in their ouvre, plucked out in isolation when one needs a bit of colour to wash away the monochrome spikiness of Revolver, or the bleak jumble-sale aggression of the The Beatles. As was intended by the band, Pepper exists out of time, in an alternate universe, conceived and recorded by anyone other than the Beatles, likely for their own sanity as much as the creative freedom the third person concept allowed.
It’s a piece of work that has to be taken in context, and with a pinch of salt, for it to make much sense by modern standards. Within its track listing is a temporarily intoxicating mix of surrealist hijinks and postmodern nostalgia for a time that none of the players knew outside of their imagination. Impossible to be dispassionate about, one has to be in some way partisan to Pepper, one way or another, for some corners comprise of nonsense and others transcendent, high art.
Yet there is a unifying spirit that exists amongst the grooves of the album that brings fans and naysayers together in a way that little else in the Beatles’ catalogue can. The spirit of adventure, the progress made in such short steps and the ambition of the project are enough to warrant its reputation. Even if it increasingly fails to quite live up to its billing as the ‘decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation’ (Kenneth Tynan, renowned London Times theatre critic) as the years roll by. However, it remains the Beatles album the common man and woman brings to mind most freely.
There to be listened at rather than to, the Pepper experience now is rather akin to reading a Jane Austen novel dressed in a codpiece. One is always aware that it was about a time that no longer exists, if it ever really did. It therefore doesn’t quite resonate in the timeless way the rest of the Beatles’ best work does. Instead, it exists on its own on an island that requires a suspension of disbelief and a sturdy set of oars to access. It’s often best observed from the shore, across the water from time to time, to remind ourselves that it exists, which we do because we know A Day In The Life lives there.
‘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?’’ - Paul McCartney, during the band's 1967 studio hiatus
What were they up to? Did they know, as is the perceived wisdom, or was this all one happy accident?
A Day In The Life is the five minutes and thirty two seconds on which the Beatles’ legend hangs. Push it one way and it’s mostly cheeky-chappy insolence, clever winks and pop hooks. Push it the other and we can hear Revolution #9 and the heartbeat of Yoko’s soon to be miscarried foetus.
The album closer sees the moment where the Beatles managed to rise above trend and artifice and simultaneously create a new idiom, a new way to communicate to a new type of person, which for a while, only they were able to do.
This passage of music, and the collection it belongs to, instantly immortalises the band, forever forging synonymity with the year of its creation. Yet, it neither reflects them before or after. It acts as a fleeting sojourn to the world of the Yellow Submarine animation, remembered through a benign nightmare.
Just five years and seven (7) albums into their recording career, the Beatles had given their inexhaustible public several distinct incarnations of their musical personae. In a fistful of years they’d evolved with a rapidity that mortal bands could only dream of (even over a two decade life cycle), all seemingly to arrive at this point. Here, they were making Avante-Garde art for the masses, whether they intended to or not. Channeling Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, their filter only permitted them to produce pop songs. Even Beatles mock-fodder Revolution #9 is jam packed full of scattergun melody and memorable soundscapes, serving to pull you in; like a hand from a strange man into the woods on a full moon.
As weird as they wanted to be, the music that was inspiring them only translated into very accessible experimentation by the time it ran through their fingers. Take a moment to listen to the contemporary Musique Concrete by Stockhausen, who McCartney would be only too keen to tell you he was ‘really into’ at the time and then compare it to the Avante-Garde inspired orchestral passages in A Day In The Life. When it comes from the Beatles, it comes from a pop pallet.
Pepper’s closing movement has a curious mix of the Avante-Garde sensibility of the previous year’s Tomorrow Never Knows and Pepper’s own When I’m 64. If ’64 was McCartney’s take on ‘50s British domestic values viewed through a purple haze, then A Day In The Life was John’s acid-detached response. Lennon held little romance for snug domesticity until he found a version of it for himself in the last few years of his life (if you believe the PR). Chemically and emotionally detached from his first wife and son, and not yet attached to Yoko, Lennon was lost in a perpetual hallucinogenic ego death-state during 1967. In his self imposed Surrey isolation, he thought about love and, having little comprehension of it, practically reinvented it as LOVE for the consumer generation.
Love was being intellectualised in idealised corners of San Fransisco by elite ‘turned on’ factions of a new society and it was this new interpretation of it (universal, non-descript) that permeates his psychedelic era writing.
For Lennon to write about nostalgia, Love and domestic values, he had to first look inside rather than out. Having limited first hand experience of domestic security, he had to examine a more universal kind, and the result is disturbing and surprising in equal measure: psychedelic Nationalism. In A Day In The Life he has to imagine something he held romantic idealisation for at the same time he was pulling away from it, which was the home they all shared: Britain. All the recognisable monuments to British life were present: newspapers, cups of tea, class politics, the new free youth movement, schadenfreude at the elite having it all and fucking it up, the military, smoking on the bus, hearts beating out of chests, reference to the Northern working class experience and, of course, the Albert Hall; a nod to Empire lost.
Lennon’s filter was his gift. He and it was never further removed from reality than during 1967. However, if you’re unfortunate enough to suffer from ADHD, you’ll know to take amphetamine (i.e. Ritalin) to ‘normalise’, however counterintuitive that may sound. Lennon had been given to pseudo-psychedelic experience since childhood, making him at times question his sanity during adolescence. He eventually reconciled himself to it, ‘I can’t be mad because nobody’s put me away; therefore I’m a genius…if there’s such a thing…I am one. And if there isn’t, I don’t care’, but it wasn’t until he was under the influence of the dreaded lysergic that he finally felt sane.
Whilst contemporaries like Peter Green and Syd Barrett imbibed, they didn’t have Lennon’s constitution for consumption. It took a fraction of the ‘1000 trips’ Lennon claimed to have experienced for the former’s egos to disappear and never come back. Instead of being lost, John was home. Whilst others tried to fly off the top storey of car parks or sit around imagining tangerine trees, Lennon was in Weybridge, sat at his piano reading the Daily Mail, the publication that was then in between bouts of support for far right lunatics, and scanning articles waiting for something to happen, through his pharmaceutical filter, weaving the mundane into profundity.
In Lennon’s book of surrealist verse, A Spaniard in the Works, the reader would find the meaning they were after in his clever, loaded nonsense. Here, in A Day In The Life, we find, amongst oblique references to daily life, universal truth, depth and solace, the despair of the mundane. We’re urged to wonder what was behind it all. What does it all mean? It’s all very Geoff Wode2. Lennon doesn’t tell us what he’s seen, but is deftly crooking the curtain back to draw us into what he’s observed. So, we join him.
The 24 orchestral bars that mirror the experience of a forced change in the 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 the brain to make new sense of the familiar. It also creates one of the great un-hummable bridges in pop. This cacophony is, bizarrely, the hook, and unless one’s falling down the stairs whilst playing the mouth organ, it’s impossible to sing. Clever boys.
The symbiosis of the Lennon/McCartney writing partnership hits its zenith here. The Ying/Yang chemistry and the jigsaw piece writing style juxtaposes and melds here in a way that surmises their whole relationship. In an expedient but accidental but handing over of the baton, McCartney receives onership. From dark surrealism to overt sunlit uplands, we join Paul. With his hand on our shoulder we’re back in a state of pure simplicity. Lazy adolescent mornings spent running for buses, combing hair and having a smoke. All metaphor and literality, it combines in a flash of revelation before a crashing come down.
A Day In The Life is seven years squashed into a moment. Their ouvre in microcosm. A song in the career.
Who sang the 'aaah's'?
It’s worth taking a moment to ponder a small matter of triviality - who sang the ‘aaah’s?’ The general consensus has long been that it was Lennon. A crucial part of the song, where the spirit’s set free, all physical limitation suspended, enlightenment reached. Regardless, it has Lennon’s acid tonality. On the subject, a Youtube comment that has never left this writer’s mind said ‘It’s John - who else could sound sarcastic singing a single vowel?’ However, having studied the vocal lines in isolation hundreds of times, it sounds rather like McCartney doing a remarkable Lennon impersonation.
At 23 seconds it sounds as if the line has merged seamlessly into Lennon, and that’s where I’ll leave you:
This complete work, that has no precedent in form or function in mainstream culture, marks the culmination of a decade of brotherly kinship and competition for the Lennon/McCartney partnership. That the Summer of Love brought about their peak corning them all conquering heroes, they were one enough to lay ego bare, needing each other and recognising it enough, more than ever and for the last time at this level.
That this work is the perfect chordal merging of their disparate and unifying talent, two perspectives made one; two songs born together and 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 who sings the ‘aaah’s’, it’s likely John. That we can’t tell is its magic.