A Day In The Life (1967)

The Beatles

Written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
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“Brian had a nervous collapse. What broke his heart was Sgt. Pepper.”
–Van Dyke Parks on Brian Wilson’s reaction to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album

When the transition occurs between The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (the reprise song) and “A Day In The Life,” we are totally unprepared, the shift so unpredictable, so abrupt yet so smooth, even now it surprises, disrupts and flummoxes the senses. The two songs together may well represent the highest tide in popular music in the last 100 years, rivaled only by Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue.”

Listen to the two songs segue to close the classic album

A day in the life beatles
By its conclusion, the Beatles had taken listeners on a diamond-dripping, psychedelic trek until it lurches into the standard rocker as the album comes to its conceptual crescendo. George Harrison was at his best in the reprise with a funk groove unusual for him, one for which the drumming set the tone and tempo.

Harrison’s precision work is backed by an angry, insistent rhythm guitar slashed by John Lennon. There is screaming, shouting, a rooster crowing, crowd noises and the classic Beatles count-in heard first on “I Saw Her Standing There” from their debut album in 1963. (It is one of the greatest cultural mind-blowers to consider that the trajectory from the peerless pop soufflés of the Beatles in ’63 to “A Day In The Life” took less than five years.)

The quiet, folky guitar that introduces “A Day In The Life” alerts us that something important is about to be said, a cue that held great potency in 1967, a time when Folk music was still an influential force in music. Listen up, the strumming said.

I read the news today oh boy
about a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn’t notice that the lights had changed

Thereafter two songs unfold played as one. The more “serious” parts are composed and sung by Lennon; the daily routine narrative sung and composed by McCartney.

The theme, actually a dissonance, is eternal: news of the day – some grim, some pedestrian – is presented against the backdrop of an Everyman’s preparation for, and commutation to, work (actually it’s based on McCartney recalling going off to secondary school). The mix of the tragic, the simplistic and the daily cycle give the song its lyrical punch and poignancy. It is constructed in such a way that reflects everyone’s experience – half awake, half dreaming, assaulted by media, imposed on by an acquaintance’s car accident, bored to tears about a news story about potholes. And who hasn’t woke up, got out of bed and dragged a comb across their head, forced out into a slightly surreal, generously tedious world?

Fragments shored against ruins rain down. He didn’t notice that the lights had changed; the English Army had just won the war; now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall…

Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

Interior of the Albert Hall

Interestingly, the signature alarm clock going off was initially put in to cue the band to re-enter the song on a certain beat. The track, however, was recorded in such a way that the alarm clock couldn’t be edited out, so stay it did, adding a bit of fitting novelty to the daily routine of the character waking up to face his day.

Made my way upstairs
and had a smoke
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream

The legendary marijuana references are easy to spot; the work was initially banned by BBC radio as it was in a handful of authoritarian east Asian countries.

Almost a half-century on, the pair of songs is still startlingly avant-garde. The word may be overused, but “masterpiece” springs to mind. All in less than 7 minutes.

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mangoids
  • During the recording of the orchestral parts of “A Day In The Life” a handful of other Rock celebrities were on hand, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Donovan and Mike Nesmith.
  • The 40-piece orchestra’s parts were overdubbed four times.

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