Another reprint from the archive:
The Beatles (Lennon & McCartney): A Day in the Life
I’m going out on a limb here, but it’s a stout limb, and I feel quite secure. A Day In The Life is the 20th century’s greatest work of popular art. Over fifty years after its recording, it remains sui generis, belonging with no other type of popular music one can imagine – certainly not “Rock” by any sensible definition, much less “Pop”, or “Folk”, though it has elements of each. It doesn’t even seem proper to refer to it as a “song”, the word seeming too diminutive for something so monumental. Parts of it more closely resemble the sound experiments of the 20th century classical avant-garde, but it doesn’t belong in that category either, being intelligible and inherently tonal. To hear it for the first time is to look at a painting composed of colours that no one has ever used before, and can’t even be properly named. There’s so much to think about when listening critically to this amazing…song.
First, though, let’s get something straight. A Day in the Life has passed into popular consciousness as Lennon’s work (which does much to underpin the ludicrous myth that John was the real musical talent in the Beatles). It seems like almost everybody says so, even Paul has said so, but there was one person who always quite emphatically disagreed – John himself. Lennon was always admirably scrupulous in insisting that the piece was a joint effort, with Paul’s contributions being crucial. These are quotes from various interviews John gave over the years to Rolling Stone, Playboy and the like:
“Paul and I were definitely working together, especially on ‘A Day in the Life’ that was a real … The way we wrote a lot of the time: you’d write the good bit, the part that was easy, like ‘I read the news today’ or whatever it was, then when you got stuck or whenever it got hard, instead of carrying on, you just drop it; then we would meet each other, and I would sing half, and he would be inspired to write the next bit and vice versa… So we were doing it in his room with the piano. He said ‘Should we do this?’ ‘Yeah, let’s do that.”
“A Day In The Life – that was something. I dug it. It was a good piece of work between Paul and me. I had the ‘I read the news today’ bit, and it turned Paul on. Now and then we really turn each other on with a bit of song, and he just said ‘yeah’ – bang, bang, like that. It just sort of happened beautifully.”
“Paul’s contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song ‘I’d love to turn you on.’ I had the bulk of the song and the words, but he contributed this little lick floating around in his head that he couldn’t use for anything. I thought it was a damn good piece of work.”
When asked, George Martin was often cagey about whose idea it was, but in some interviews he confirms that the mind-blowing orchestral crescendos that are so crucial to the piece were also McCartney’s; it may be that John had the concept, “a sound like the end of the world”, but Paul was the one who put that idea into music, and you can find a film of Paul conducting the orchestra at the recording session. His inspiration was the work of atonal 20th century composers like Schoenberg, and the radical electronic experiments of Stockhausen, to which he’d been listening closely at the time. As Paul told Playboy in 1984:
The orchestra crescendo was based on some of the ideas I’d been getting from Stockhausen and people like that, which is more abstract. So we told the orchestra members to just start on their lowest note and end on their highest note and go in their own time–which orchestras are frightened to do. That’s not the tradition. But we got ’em to do it.
The entire middle section, of course, was also Paul’s, and I’ve always thought the importance of that part of the piece is under-appreciated. That’s also Paul on piano throughout.
So John arrived with an acoustic number, and Paul gifted him the critical line “I’d love to turn you on”, the middle eight, the piano accompaniment, and the out-of-this-world orchestration that lent it unprecedented gravitas. A Day in the Life would also suffer greatly in the absence of Paul’s typically eloquent bass line. Puts me in mind of an article I found on the BBC Website, by New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik:
The Beatles’ music endures above all because we sense in it the power of the collaboration of opposites. John had reach. He instinctively understood that what separates an artist from an entertainer is that an artist seeks to astonish, even shock, his audience. Paul had grasp, above all of the materials of music, and knew intuitively that astonishing art that fails to entertain is mere avant-gardism… in those seven years when John’s reach met Paul’s grasp, we all climbed Everest.
You might say that John could point to distant stars that Paul might otherwise have ignored, but only Paul could reach up and grab them.
I wish people would understand this.
That said, let no one doubt that the little acoustic number John brought in to Studio Two was one for the ages, at once spooky, melancholy and compelling. There used to be a video posted on YouTube of George Martin playing take one on the original master tape, and it gave him the same goose bumps decades later as it did in 1967. You can still find an early take:
That sad little “oh boy”, the dull affect, the alienation, this sort of thing could have come from no other songwriter. The lyrics were inspired by a newspaper story about the automotive death of Guinness heir Tara Browne, and John used this as an opening tableaux, the “lucky man” who “blew his mind out in a car”. His dry description of the event is one of the most chilling things ever heard in recorded music. Here is a mind numbed by media saturation, taking note of even the starkest tragedies with interest, but not emotion, seeming half asleep, off in some dreamland, bemused perhaps, but too flat to feel anything, really. He’s just telling you what he saw. It’s hard to express in clumsy words how extraordinary this is, how moving. Well I just had to laugh…I saw the photograph… like a voice from beyond the grave. The voice of someone who sees things clearly, but doesn’t much care any more.
Paul adored it immediately, and as he always did with John’s songs, he composed a bass counterpoint that serves as a superb melodic enhancement, his line ending with the notes E-D-C-D-G, the G in the next lowest octave. You hear this at the end of John singing “I saw the photograph”. Stick a pin in that.
John had a second verse but no middle. Paul offered up a song snippet he’d had bouncing around in his head for some time, but how to transition from John’s part to Paul’s? Initially they had no idea, but knew it would have to be something grand and visionary, so they recorded an empty space, twenty-four bars long, that contained nothing except the voice of their faithful roadie Mal Evans counting out the bars, punctuated with an alarm clock. They repeated this, sans alarm clock, at the end. Imagine, making a blank recording in the certainty that you’ll figure out what needs to go there later. Look, it has to be beyond anything ever heard on a popular record, so give us a minute, we’ll come back to that after we finish this other bit.
When it came time to fill those gaps with Paul’s orchestral orgasms, they held a midnight recording session at Abbey Road, and to get the symphony players into the spirit of things, Paul handed out clown noses, party hats, fake gorilla paws and other paraphernalia for them all to wear. It was vital to take them outside of themselves, disorient them, and persuade their sub-conscious minds that this was different, this was not their day job, and they weren’t to do anything conventional this night. Paul says he gave them instructions that weren’t so much a score as a recipe, just start yourself off at the lowest note, proceed over 24 bars to your highest, and for God’s sake don’t play in unison. Forty-two classically trained musicians somehow managed to do just that, and in post-production they were quadruple-tracked so that what we hear is a 168 piece orchestra emitting what sounds, as ordered, like a great engine spooling up to the full power it needs to destroy the entire world.
Then the alarm clock rings, and Paul’s middle section begins. The insistent banging of a note on the piano sets the tone. While John’s vocal had been enhanced by an other-worldly studio echo, Paul’s is now natural and straightforward. While the rhythm of John’s piece had been lazy and enervated, Paul’s is now hopping along at twice the pace. The fitful night is over. It’s time to get up and get to living another day – another awful, repetitive day.
As originally conceived, Paul’s bit was probably a jaunty sort of “C’mon Get Up, Get Happy!” sort of number, but not any more. Change the arrangement, alter the mood, and sandwich it between sonic cataclysms, and it becomes a horrible wake-up call to a desperate and dreary reality. Gulping down the coffee, realizing you’re already late, then rushing to the bus (listen to John add heavy breathing at this juncture), this is the source of the alienation and apathy we heard in the first verse. If before was a dream, this is a waking nightmare.
Having caught the bus, our narrator falls into a weary waking reverie, and then John’s voice begins a primal wail, and as the orchestra returns and grows inexorably in power, the vocal runs across the stereo image, one speaker to the other, as if trying to flee from the crushing weight of the sound behind it – but it’s no good. With five definitive notes, the blow is dealt, and there they are again: E-D-C-D-G, rendered this time with overwhelming force. This is Paul’s special genius on subtle display. He’s using the same five notes from the concluding phrase of his prior bass line to create a sense of unity, knitting the disparate segments of the song together in a way hardly anyone notices, but most everyone feels at some level.
Back comes John with the final verse, the tempo now matching Paul’s, and we hear of another news story, this one also real, about bureaucrats who somehow thought it was worth their while to calculate how many pot-holes infested the roads in Blackburn, Lancashire. Again, it’s hard to express in words how perfectly this suits the mood of the piece, how the bit about finally knowing how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall so fully exemplifies the incessant media noise that has thoroughly desensitized the singer. It’s information devoid of knowledge. It clogs the mind with its uselessness.
Again, now, with the sound of the world ending. Most haunting perhaps is hearing Mal Evans as he’s counting bars, just barely discernible in the mix, “…seventeen…eighteen…nineteen…”, like he’s marking the last few seconds until we must conclude, inevitably, with annihilation. It builds to an unbearable pitch, then ends with utter finality. In the studio, five different players at three separate pianos strike the same E-major chord in unison, and the engineer turns up the gain on the microphones, placed inside the grand pianos right next to the strings, at the same rate as the strings themselves vibrate ever more faintly towards silence, the note seeming to last forever. There’s no electronic trickery going on here. It’s just the sound of the strings fading down to nothing over 42 seconds. At the end the recorders were turned up to the point that you can hear someone in the studio – according to legend, Ringo – shift slightly on a piano stool.
If you’re ever seeking an aural representation of the aftermath of the Big Bang, look no further. Except, the Big Bang was a moment of creation. This is the way the world ends, not just with a bang, or only a whimper either, but both, one after the other.