Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Day in the Life

The Beatles weren't just a pop band, they were the voice of a generation, raised to a level of reverence through the genius of their music and the innovations they sparked around them – like King Midas, everything they touched did turn to gold. Historically, there are two theories: the great man and the great time. Some, like our founding fathers, and The Beatles, hit up both at the same time. Keep in mind that With the Beatles was released the same day as JFK was shot, a day that sparked a nation of mourning. Teens, though, can only mourn for so long, and rightfully so; The Beatles stepped in in the mid-60s, to allow kids to dance once again.

While Revolver(1966) is contemporarily thought of as their magnum opus, most would agree that, due to its deep cultural significance, Sgt. Pepper is the band's most important LP. I would add the American issue of Magical Mystery Tour to the mix, much of the B-Side coming directly out of the Sgt. Pepper sessions, and the MMT tracks, written simultaneously.

The group's groundbreaking experiments with tape loops and samples, which they'd borrowed from the avant-garde, still take one breath away. The abrupt change, for instance, halfway through "I Am The Walrus" (at 2 minutes), and "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!," a jamboree of found sound and tape manipulation, with the lyrics lifted word for word from a Victorian circus poster, are nothing short of avant-garde genius.

George Harrison noted "I don't think we can ever be accused of underestimating the intelligence of our fans." Amazingly, only 3 years prior they'd were releasing brilliant, but lyrically banal tracks like "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You," but now they were leading their millions of followers, like Pied Pipers, down a psychedelic rabbit hole that couldn't have been imagined when they were shaking their mop tops and soaking up the relentless screams of their teenage fan-base. What started out in 1962 with the simplicity of their first single, "Love Me Do," had somehow, 50 years ago, led to the complexity of Pepper's closing track, "A Day In The Life" – which drawslofty comparisons to T.S Elliot’s "The Waste Land" (1922).

“I was writing 'A Day in the Life' with the Daily Mail propped in front of me on the piano," John is quoted. "I had it open at their News in Brief, or Far and Near, whatever they call it. I 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.” Lennon was at home when he read about Tara Browne, a 21-year-old Irish native, heir to the Guinness fortune and London socialite who died in a car crash in December 1966. The news that day was about the coroner’s verdict into the death of Browne, whom Lennon knew. 

As it is with Beatles eyewitness accounts, Paul contradicts the story, at least to a degree. "The verse about the politician blowing his mind out in a car we wrote together," McCartney said. "It has been attributed to Tara Browne, the Guinness heir, which I don’t believe is the case, certainly as we were writing it, I was not attributing it to Tara in my head. In John's head it might have been. In my head I was imagining a politician bombed out on drugs who'd stopped at some traffic lights and didn't notice that the lights had changed. The 'blew his mind' was purely a drugs reference, nothing to do with a car crash."

The third verse and middle section of  "A Day in the Life" includes references to Lennon's work in Richard Lester's How I Won the War and McCartney's memories of school days, respectively, although the song returns to its newspaper inspirations in its final verse. 

On page seven of Jan. 17's Daily Mail, Lennon found an item also in the Far and Near column about a survey of potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire. The news brief claimed that the holes amounted to "one twenty-sixth of a hole per person." Here was William Burroughs cut and splice writing technique with a twist. "It was Terry who said 'fill' the Albert Hall. And that was it," Lennon said. "Perhaps I was looking for that word all the time, but couldn't put my tongue on it. Other people don't necessarily give you a word or a line, they just throw in the word you're looking for anyway." With the help of some imagination, courtesy of Lennon and McCartney, heaps of studio echo and a 40-piece orchestra orchestrated by George Martin, the day's black-and-white news became one of the Beatles’ most psychedelic achievements.

In a time of increasing violence, terror and chaos we'd do well to remember The Beatles' central message of love and peace, an antidote to the war and hatred existing in the '60s that's still relevant, perhaps even more than ever, here and now, half-a-century on.

Like Beethoven and Shakespeare, The Beatles are forever, and people will still be picking over the magnitude of "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" Time Immemorial.