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“An Analysis of ‘A Day in the Life’ by the Beatles”

  • “In 1967, rock ‘n’ roll was flourishing, the hippie movement was happening and pop sensations (such as the Beatles) had gone from being perceived as heartthrobs to experimental artists.”

– UCR

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Now, it almost seems funny to me, a Beatles fan, that Ultimate Classic Rock would phrase it as “pop sensations… such as the Beatles,” when to me it’s obvious that the Beatles were not part of a “herd,” as it makes it sound, but rather operating on a completely singular plane of musical ingenuity, creativity, vanguard development and genius. The Beatles are a band which has been covered by black artists many times over, from Wilson Pickett famously taking on “Hey Jude” (to pretty decent results, really), to Jimi Hendrix’ blues-rock rip-through of “Day Tripper” which popped up on BBC Sessions, to Stevie Wonder dipping his hand into “We Can Work it out” and then just in my own experience, seeing “Let it Be” performed in a black church. The achievements of say, The Beach Boys, The Monkees and The Who, while perhaps notable on many levels, are utterly dwarfed by such credibility in the industry, without any question.

It’s been widely publicized that out of all Beach Boys members, only Brian Wilson ventured away from conventional pop, in general m.o., and pursued unusual sounds and instrumental mechanisms, like the cello which lays part of the sonic groundwork for “Good Vibrations,” Wilson’s creation. By contrast, the Beatles harbored three members which each in some way oversaw pop’s ability to progress and gain eccentric techniques — George Harrison with his sitar mastery (first observed on “Love You to,” Revolver), John Lennon with his sampled voice-over musique concrete techniques (like the end of “A Day in the Life”) and Paul McCartney with his extended song structures, most ably exemplified by 1968 single “Hey Jude.”

One thing that seems inevitable, though, and arguably even unexplainable, among many classic bands like Wolf Parade and The New Pornographers each of which have multiple songwriters, are the eerie similarities the two scribes’ approaches and characteristics can take on to each other. In the case of the Beatles, I think, the progeny of Lennon and McCartney can often seem if not interchangeable then certainly worthily harvested within the same brand, if you will. A prime example would be “Nowhere Man,” which has that quintessential, poppy McCartney immediacy and approachability, but it in fact a Lennon tune.

Then, in the case of “A Day in the Life,” the album closeur on the band’s magnum opus Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the song was actually given life by the two musicians equally, as Wikipedia reports: “the verses were written mainly by John Lennon, with Paul McCartney primarily contributing the song’s middle section.” This makes sense, since on what’s basically McCartney’s album, “Good Morning Good Morning” features a similar sort of everyman’s workaday narrative to “A Day in the Life”’s “Woke up / Got out of bed… I noticed I was late” middle part, which as we learn is the work of McCartney. The uniform and common DNA of McCartney’s scene here, I think, serves to reiterate that commonness itself can be a problem, and that in examining the world sometimes it can be hard to improve things if the things we thought were going to make us happy, a steady livelihood and a well supported household, only bring thoughts of the mundane and lifeless. Indeed, the “dream” into which McCartney’s character floats while at work is provided as a relief from this pressing, confined reality of the workday, not as a hindrance to the workday’s ability to enrich both the worker and the world around him, which of course the ideal dream of society would have as being the case. Elsewhere on the album, “She’s Leaving Home” serves to further darken the conception of the conventional situation, wherein a runaway girl leads a life that’s superior to that of staying at home and living with her parents.

Repeatedly, normalcy is maligned, and the supernatural is championed, a motif coming to a curious head when on “Within You Without You,” perhaps my favorite track on the album, just letting your guard down and being a loving human is painted as a “supernatural” feat.

Wikipedia reports that many of the lyrics to “A Day in the Life” were “inspired by contemporary newspaper articles, including a report on the death of Guinness heir Tara Browne.” This would apparently be the segment containing “He blew his mind out in a car / He didn’t notice that the lights had changed”. In real life, British fortunate son Tara Browne was killed in a car wreck after inheriting ownership of Guinness, indeed, but it was a death by accident from another driver, not a suicide, as the song portrays. Still, from Wikipedia, we can surmise that Lennon was exposed to some story of a suicide, and melded the two accounts together into one fictitious whole, as a way of generating richer rock imagery, which you could say it did, indeed.

The “Though the news was rather sad / Well I just had to laugh” pair of lyrics, you could say, provide quite the puzzling predicament indeed for the listener. In fact, they basically prove that the Beatles were edgy and daring, even in their pop format. “A Day in the Life” is a dark escapade taking on the task of infusing meaning, infusing the supernatural and an element of distinction, into the everyday life of a white-collar worker in Britain who feels no happiness, feels no meaning and feels no joy. Similar to “A Day in the Life,” then, “Nowhere Man,” another Lennon number, likewise tackles a subject who seems to have to vitality for life, no emotional mobility or no true meaning gracing his everyday existence, so that, though functional, he’s rendered helpless by a modicum of life which, again, is supposed to be so prosperous and harvesting of “happiness.” Herein lies, I guess, a real tragedy, and one which ironically the Beatles examined from the outside looking in, as artistic eccentrics and professional musical pioneers. But anyway, just as this confined realm of modern success in life can bring the utter annihilation of happiness, apparently, so can observing what should be someone’s “misfortune” within such an arena bring the end of sanity, the laughing at someone’s tragic death, along with the creeping idea that perhaps death is preferable to life as a white upwardly mobile. “A Day in the Life” laments and reverberates soundly with all of these caustic everyday realities and that is much of why it’s still so popular and authoritative to this day, a track which many fans point to as their absolute favorite by the band.

 

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