Friday, January 18, 2013

A Day in the Life

I love the iPod random play function or “shuffle.” It’s like listening to the radio … no idea what song is coming next … without any of those annoying advertisements. I was at the club, climbing a steep hill on the treadmill, and enjoying the random tune selection from a playlist I created for a couple of high school reunions. I call the list “60’s Music.” It is actually songs from about 1955 to 1973. That’s the music that the graduates of high school in the sixties would be familiar with and that would remind them of good times.

Included in that time frame is the entire catalog of the Beatles, including the Sgt. Peppers album, which, itself, includes “A Day in the Life.” I remember when I was stationed in Norfolk back in the late sixties and early seventies, I would listen the “The History of Rock and Roll,” a radio documentary originally syndicated in 1960. One of the lengthiest documentaries of any medium (36 hours in the 1969 version, 52 hours each for the 1978 and 1981 versions), The History of Rock & Roll is a definitive history of the Rock and Roll genre, stretching from the early 1950s to its day. The "rockumentary," as producers Bill Drake and Gene Chenault called it, featured hundreds of interviews and comments from numerous rock artists and people involved with rock and roll. 

(I think I have most if not all of that rockumentary on reel-to-reel tape. I recorded it off the radio. I'd better dig into my vault.)

It concluded with a “chart sweep,” which eventually listed what was considered at that point the top rock and roll songs of all time. “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys was number two, and the top rock and roll song of all time was … of course … “A Day in the Life.”

This was the final track on the Beatles most influential album. (Although I suppose that is a bit arguable. Certainly the Beatles are rock and roll’s most influential artists … the possible argument is which album.)

As I sweated and listened today, my pleasant surprise was the random selection of Day in the Life. Right away I thought, “I’ve got to write about this song.”

The song is listed as being written by Lennon and McCartney, although we know that many individually written songs still got the joint authorship label. “Day in the Life” was a very unusual collaboration. The first two verses, and the last, were written, words and music, by John Lennon. However, the middle section is the work of Paul McCartney. Part of the genius of the song is how these two disparate parts are combined into a single song via a strange and movie sound track-ish orchestral bridge.

History tells us the song’s structure was primarily the work of Paul and that he wrote the “Love to turn you on” phrase. Especially when you listen with earphones, you note the prominence of the bass lines and how they really provide the overall song structure. This seems good evidence to me of Paul’s hand in the overall song development.

As Timothy Leary was suggesting at the time to tune in, turn on, and drop out, this song offers the listening public to be turned on. This and other drug reference suspicions led to the song being banned on some radio stations.

I’m certain the song was often listened to in the heightened sense of a good “turn on.” It has always been one of the most interesting songs to me personally. I’ve dug into its form and structure as I’ve tried to analyze and make sense of the music and lyrics.

It is well known that John was inspired by reading of the death of a friend, Guinness heir Tara Browne, who died when he smashed his Lotus into a parked van. John recounted later how he read the account in the local newspaper, the Daily Mail. He also wrote about a rather pedestrian story with the typical newspaper twist where the Blackburn Roads Surveyor had counted 4000 holes in the roads of Blackburn and commented that the volume of material needed to fill them in was enough to fill the Albert Hall ... something the Beatles had done on occasion with music fans. Paul’s section was more of a childhood memory about waking to a rather typical and boring day.

Let’s start at the beginning … a simple chord progression … G … Bm … Em add the 7th on John’s guitar; then a transition to C major chord on the piano played by Paul.

The simple I:G modulating to Em and then the IV: C to basically a V:D progression hidden in an Am9 is the heart of John’s work.

The opening verse demonstrates John’s interest in newspapers and the second verse is somewhat autobiographical recalling a movie that John appeared in … and from which he adopted his later trademark round wire-rimmed glasses. Some have studied these lyrics and found all kinds of psychological and sociological references, but I just see the simple story being told … just a day in John’s life.

“Having read the book” becomes “I’d love to turn you on” reinforced by a pounding E chord. Then, seemingly out of the blue, the rush of an orchestra starts climbing from a low E in a glissando sweep up several octaves ending by returning to the pounding E chord. This bridge lasts a total of 24 measures, and it is my understanding that Paul directed the orchestra sweep with the musicians all playing at their personal discretion. This was the sound of a 40-piece orchestra. Paul had requested a 90 piece musical ensemble, and the engineers overdubbed to increase the depth of the sound.

The building tension of the rising orchestra figure is suddenly interrupted and "A Day in the Life" enters a new song section. The peppy, steady, new rhythmic feel is provided primarily by the piano and drums. An alarm clock sound effect is heard, and Paul McCartney sings about waking up and hurrying to the bus.

This interlude is done in the key of E including D and B. Paul’s verses end with a chorale “ah” which transitions to a orchestral slide that brings us back around to the key of G as John finishes the song with another story from the news. This transition represents the dream from Paul’s lyrics, and is the most “trippy” orchestral sequence of the three in the song.

The horns rather than the strings dominate the orchestra this time, and the volume keeps increasing drowning out the chorale “ahs” until the break back to G. (The remix by George Martin for the “Love” album has the strings more prominent than in the original.)

Following John’s last verse, a repeat of the original orchestral rise occurs. The repetition of the bridge is virtually a carbon copy of the first transition, but its destination is very different. The crescendo concludes with the balance of one measure's worth of dramatic silence followed by the final E-Major chord.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Mal Evans (friend, road manager, assistant, gofer ...) shared three different pianos, with George Martin on the harmonium, and all played an E-major chord simultaneously. The final chord was made to ring out for over forty seconds by increasing the recording sound level as the vibration faded out. Towards the end of the chord the recording level was so high that listeners can hear the sounds of the studio, including rustling papers and a squeaking chair. This final chord stretches out for what seems an impossible interval. Time seems to just stop as you listen to the continuing ring of the powerful chord … then the final silence??

No, there is more sonic high jinx from the Fab Four. If you think about it, the end of the album was really the reprise of the introductory album namesake song, and “A Day in the Life” is more of an encore. So, no surprise that, after the final end of the extended E-Major chord, there are more sonic artifacts. There is a dog’s whistle, beyond the range of human hearing and then a final phrase recorded in the last groove of the vinyl, designed to repeat over and over if the turntable was a manual version.

This is one point where an iPod shuffle fails. You have to set up iTunes very carefully to hear the final part of the original album. Maybe a downloaded digital copy is not meant to have this final joke. The anticlimactic coda is intended only for those listening to the original vinyl format on a pure, manual turntable.

Younger readers may have to ask their elders just what means this word called “vinyl” or “turntable.”

I remember listening to that final phrase at the end of the album in a trailer in Libby, Montana, in 1967. We all sat around, shocked by what we had just heard, and no one would get up and reset the turntable arm for several minutes. My friend, Ron Fleming, had just bought the album and we heard it together for the first time in our little home in Libby. Gary Hornseth was there, and I think some other band members. We were all awe struck.

We were then, as I still am, awe struck.


  1. Great album, great song, very nice examination, Mickey

    1. I think you were there on that day too, Jim. Every event in my life seems to have a theme song. This would be Libby's ... actually a "theme album."