Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Day in the Life

By Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership had transformed drastically from the early days of writing face-to-face in sessions of intense collaboration.  Can't you just picture the pair in that whacked row of Twickenham apartments from Help!, fussing things through?  By 1967, it was far more common for one of them to write a song and then convene so the other could edit, criticize, and embellish the raw material provided.

In the case of Sgt. Pepper’s monumental closing track, "A Day in the Life," the collaboration came through fusing disparate, individual songs into a greater whole. As Lennon told Playboy shortly before his death in 1980, "I was reading the paper one day and noticed two stories. One was about the Guinness heir who killed himself in a car. That was the main headline story. He died in London in a car crash. On the next page was a story about four thousand potholes in the streets of Blackburn, Lancashire, that needed to be filled.

"Paul's contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song, 'I'd love to turn you on,' that h'’d had floating around in his head and couldn’t use," Lennon continued. McCartney was responsible, of course, for the middle bridge, the "fell out of bed" part that focuses Lennon's dreamy acoustic ramblings.

It's common to critique Lennon's retelling of the car accident (which claimed the life of young socialite Tara Browne, contradictory to Lennon's version) as mere reportage, though a closer reading reveals a subtly smooth take on the situation, as the narrator cycles through envy, sorrow, and mirth in an attempt to come to terms with a senseless tragedy.  The third verse may be a reference to the frustration of youth about war (the deepest reading), or merely an allusion to Lennon’s film How I Won the War.  I've always been intrigued by John's pronunciation of the word "saw" as "soar," which certainly aids its rhyme with "war."  Intentional or mispronunciation, here is the ongoing proof of genius.

McCartney's middle section displays his effortless knack for melodies and lyrics that resonate with us all.  It reminds me of Elvis Costello's "Welcome to the Working Week" in its realism.  From "Norwegian Wood" to "Penny Lane," realism was a sociological bent in which Lennon and McCartney excelled.  Still, the beautiful orchestration that follows “And somebody spoke and I went into a dream” suggests a longing to shed life's daily drudgery.  (What indeed did he smoke on the bus?)

The final verse about the deteriorating road conditions in Lancashire allows Lennon to make small talk about the kind of mind-numbing minutiae that dominates most conversations. After making his little joke about the Albert Hall, Lennon returns to that mesmerizing 60s refrain: "I’d love to turn you on." McCartney in Beatles In Their Own Words, revealed that this line had a bit more on its mind: "This was the only one on the album written as a deliberate provocation to people," he said, most pointed alluding to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and LSD (Lucy Sky Diamonds). "But what we really wanted was to turn you on to the truth rather than just bloody pot."

Folks are quick to point out the failure of the Club Band concept just three tracks into the LP.  Instead, should the listener focus on the mundane daily lives of circus performers, runaways, meter maids and workaday folk, the concept is actualilzed.  In the closing moments of "A Day In The Life," the Beatles' magnum opus, the crazed orchestral crescendo reveals the meaning of life could we ever corral or contain it. With the final piano chord, 53 seconds long, the Beatles shattered the smothering drear of everyday, Penny Lane life.

David Crosby was at Abbey Road when The Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper. In an interview with Filter magazine, he said: "I was, as near as I know, the first human being besides them and George Martin and the engineers to hear 'A Day In The Life.' I was high as a kite - so high I was hunting geese with a rake. They sat me down; they had huge speakers like coffins with wheels on that they rolled up on either side of the stool. By the time it got the end of that piano chord, man my brains were on the floor."

According to Barry Miles, the recording of the Sgt. Pepper inner groove was the result of 9 hours of the Beatles screwing around in the studio in an LSD haze:  "On 21 April everyone in the studio recorded the run-on spiral for the album, about two seconds’ worth of sound. It was a triple session – three three-hour sessions – which ended around 4am. The Beatles stood around two microphones muttering, singing snatches of songs and yelling for what seemed like hours, with the rest of us standing round them, joining in. Mal carried in cases of Coke and bottles of Scotch. Ringo was out of it. 'I'm so stoned,' he said, 'I think I’m going to fall over!' As he slowly toppled, Mal caught him and popped him neatly in a chair without a murmur. In the control room no one seemed to notice. A loop was made from the tape of the muttering and was mixed, but not without some altercation between John and the tape operator."

More important than the inner grove, though (and, btw, there is no "inner" grove - just one grove on an LP) is the incredible orchestration that ends the Beatles opus. Lennon wanted "A Day In The Life" to conclude with "a sound building up from nothing to the end of the world," and Martin simulated the apocalypse by instructing each instrument in the orchestra to start on the lowest note then ascend for 24 bars (at which point Lennon, McCartney, Starr and road manager Mal Evans each played an E chord on four pianos). "You’ve got to make your own way up there, as slidey as possible so that the clarinets slurp, trombones gliss, violins slide without fingering any notes," Martin told Mark Lewisohn of his instructions. "And whatever you do, don’t listen to the fellow next to you, because I don’t want you to be doing the same thing. Of course they all looked at me as though I was mad." All in all, it is one of the most famous song sections in music, and for me, particularly as a teacher of English, that "end of the world" reminds me of James Joyce's miraculous Thunderword from Finnegan's Wake; indeed it is that monumental: "Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk." It is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden.