Book Excerpt: What Goes On

A Day in the Life


Recorded January 19 and 20, and February 3, 10, and 22, 1967, for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

—Lennon and McCartney complement each other as they goad themselves into new depths of angst amidst a banality shattered by a new use of symphony orchestra that catches the ear of classical composers, just as the day’s leading poets find respect for these self-taught one-time mop tops.

For the finale, the reprise to the Pepper theme song segues directly into Lennon’s forbidding acoustic guitar introduction for “A Day in the Life.” After waving goodbye to the fictional audience, the curtain descends on the album’s illusory world, and a new narrator greets us from a private, hyperrealistic realm: alone with ominous piano, bass, and despondent maracas, Lennon recounts his daily ritual of reading the newspaper, whose stories provoke anguished, existential sighs: “oh boy.” The first two verses relate a fatal car crash, with the detail hovering around the unrecognizability of the victim: “Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords.” The British think of their House of Lords as one antique remnant of the British Empire: if you’re loaded and born into a family with a title, you serve in that uppermost chamber as a matter of birth, not aptitude; in power circles, it’s the ultimate “men’s club.” In the House of Lords, you can be “famous” without quite being familiar, renowned yet anonymous.

In the third verse, Lennon reads about a movie he’s seen (it’s actually How I Won the War, in which Lennon stars), in which the English army has just won the war, and the violence makes a crowd of people turn their heads away. Pop audiences don’t want to know how wars are won any more than how sausages are made. But Lennon’s narrator can’t turn away from the gore; he simply has to look, “having read the book”; he feels a moral responsibility to the material. At the end of this verse, he ascends into guileless falsetto for the song’s lingering rejoinder, “I’d love to turn you on.” At the time, this was an explicit drug reference, a pickup line people might use at parties to share premium weed or acid. But in the context of the song, the line works poetically on different levels: it’s the narrator wishing for a more enlightened world, one where violence and carnage doesn’t intrude, where the poetry of everyday life can elevate monotonous routine and innocence answers evil.

The second time he lands on this line, a huge orchestra swoops into the mix for a transition that mixes escalating fear with a fearsome resolve: in an avant-garde move, musicians were told to play whatever notes they wished in a generally rising motion and land together on a target, and once they hit their peak, the noise suddenly drops away and an alarm clock goes off (left, at 2:18). A new character enters (in the voice of Paul McCartney), and the listener wonders whether the preceding section has been a dream, or nightmare, that this new singer awakens from. McCartney’s character has a completely different outlook than Lennon’s: he wakes up late, falls out of bed, dashes to catch his bus, and lights up a smoke (marijuana?) as he heads off to work. McCartney’s busybody replaces Lennon’s oversensitive narrator—he’s a bureaucrat, say, who doesn’t pay any mind to the world around him, let alone read the paper. He remains sublimely checked out of reality, until a drag on his smoke sends him off into a dream, and the orchestra re-enters with Lennon singing “Aaaaah.” After a brass flourish, we land back in Lennon’s world for the final verse. Does McCartney parachute down into Lennon’s song, or does Lennon’s narrative simply let McCartney’s sideshow in from some trap door? This song-within-a-song structure remains striking for how elegantly it suits the larger idea: that simple engagement with the contemporary world involves suffering, and staying “sane” relies on tuning everything out.

This last verse turns the most commonplace detail into the song’s most disturbing image: someone like a Kafkaesque clerk has counted how many potholes speckle the streets of Blackburn, Lancashire, and as a deliberate anticlimax to Lennon’s and McCartney’s triptych, it emphasizes how wayward and meaningless modern bureaucracy has become, and how many empty souls populate the world (echoing the obliviousness of “Nowhere Man,” and “all the lonely people” from “Eleanor Rigby”). By the last time John sings “I’d love to turn you on,” the track has built up a scaffolding of philosophical dread, and as the orchestra re-enters for its final horrific ascent, the soundscape turns frantic, brutal, unyielding. By the time they reach their top pitches, a rush of anxiety and paranoia has built up that can’t be assuaged. After a moment’s suspenseful pause (at 4:20), a gigantic E-major chord played on multiple keyboards (4:21) brings the track to a crushing close, like a huge, heavy door slamming shut on some cultural dystopia. Engineer Geoff Emerick artificially extended the piano’s decay across forty seconds of unbearable tension, even more unsettling than either orchestral climax in that it nullifies all possibility of resolution, or escape. Both those orchestral peaks cry out for release, and this declamatory yet hollow chord reverberates just long enough to deny it.

As a finale, “A Day in the Life” casts a gigantic shadow over the album it closes. It’s impossible to listen all the way through without the illusory promise of its opening moments dropping away for its dreadful, inelegant close. This single track lifts Pepper out of the pop context and gives it a weight and self-consciousness it wouldn’t otherwise have: fame and fortune and pop fantasy all have their pleasures, the Beatles seem to be saying, but after the show’s over we all return to modern life, which is brutal, full of random savagery, answered by neglect and worse: mundane tasks—the counting of potholes. When Bob Dylan eulogizes Lennon in “Roll On John” (which ends Tempest, 2012), it’s “A Day in the Life” that provides the first quoted Beatle lines. When Pepper gets referred to as a masterpiece, “A Day in the Life” is the main reason why: it elevates everything it follows, and works as a diagram of Lennon’s and McCartney’s opposing concerns like a negative image of “We Can Work It Out.” The subtext to that song was “No we can’t, really.” This song recontextualizes that theme in artistic terms (two songwriters, stitching different worldviews together) and goads the listener to listen beyond the color, texture, and promise of hallucination to the other side of fantasy, the daily prompts for escape. Folded into the structure of this dual narrative lies the suggestion that Lennon dreams McCartney and McCartney dreams Lennon, an astral metaphor for the songwriting partnership as it begins to crack open. It also echoes the cover’s visual collage with an audio montage. Reality intrudes on fantasy, and while Pepper stands as a psychedelic carousel, its greatness stems from how Lennon and McCartney use their own sparring partnership to stitch a masterpiece about the limits of entertainment. From this point on, their utopian promise for a world rejuvenated by music becomes inexorably shaded by a dark undertow.