The Beatles' "A Day In The Life"

The last song on Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the doozy, bringing the album – and the tension between John Lennon's and Paul McCartney's writing styles and ways of seeing the world – to a climax. In Lennon's stanzas, there's a striking discrepancy between his passionless delivery and the weighty subject matter. The melody seems contemplative and anti-dramatic despite the intensity of the images. Almost every line or verse casts an ironic light on the previous one or even negates it. A mood of ambiguity prevails and nothing is what it seems to be.

On the literal level, according to various Lennon interviews, the portions of the song that he wrote were inspired by news articles about the death of a socialite, potholes in the town of Blackburn, and the film How I Won the War, in which Lennon acted. What makes the song interesting, though, is not this literal level; it is how the song treats this material, how its lyric and mood tie together seemingly random bits of experience and information, much as dreams (according to Freud) transform the dross of daily experience into a kaleidoscopic tapestry that appears to hold meaning, even importance – but then again may not.

The rhyme and metric schemes in these portions of the song may seem haphazard but are in fact cleverly constructed. In each of Lennon's stanzas, the last lines rhyme, or nearly rhyme, but most of the other lines do not. There's a fascinating near-symmetry in the number of "beats" per line (that is, in the number of accented syllables):

4-5-4-3-3  
4-5-4-3-5
4-5-4-3-3-3
4-5-4-3-5-3

The overall form of Lennon's stanzas blends rhyming verse, blank verse, and elements of free verse, suggesting a songwriter at odds with himself, wanting to write a conventional song but also yearning to dispense with formalities and offer the listener an artifice-free peek into his mind. This mind looks at the world through a series of filters: a newspaper, a photograph, a film, and finally, again, a newspaper. The singer's interpretations of these renderings of the world-out-there, and his reactions to them, are puzzling.

"I read the news today. Oh, boy," Lennon sighs, as if simultaneously overwhelmed by and resigned to whatever is happening out in the world. We sense he must have come across a rather disheartening news item, but he goes on, "about a lucky man who made the grade." Ah, we think: so that "oh boy" was not a sigh of resignation after all. He's about to tell us an uplifting story. But then Lennon continues, each line, in terms of emotional effect, contradicting the previous:

And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh.

Already, we are lost in a world of emotional ambiguity. "A lucky man" has "made the grade," and this is sad? And though it is sad, the singer/narrator has to laugh? What is going on? The singer attempts an explanation in the next lines:

I saw the photograph.
He blew his mind out...

Not "he blew his brains out," the usual expression, but "he blew his mind out" – perhaps a reference to drugs? But immediately after planting this innuendo, Lennon switches track once again and affirms that he is talking about death after all:

… in a car.
He didn't notice that the lights had changed.

Perhaps the accident victim, who may or may not have been a member of the House of Lords ("nobody was really sure") had dropped acid, therefore didn't notice that the light changed, and died in the consequent automobile collision. Perhaps, but nothing is clear.

Lennon later tried to clarify his intent. In the 1968 classic, The Beatles, Hunter Davies quotes him saying that although he was thinking about a real car crash when he wrote A Day In The Life, the victim in that real-world crash did not "blow his mind out." The crash involved Guinness heir Tara Browne, who was not using drugs at the time.

Paul McCartney offers an explanation that contradicts Lennon's. In his authorized biography, Many Years From Now, McCartney is quoted as saying that he co-wrote these lines and that they were "purely a drugs reference, nothing to do with a car crash." In McCartney's version, the newspaper story concerns a stoned politician already stopped at a light, who doesn't notice when the light changes and therefore fails to accelerate. While this account seems far-fetched, particularly in the light of Lennon's comment, it does have the merit of adding yet another layer to the ambiguity of the lyrics.

"I saw a film today, oh boy." The same pattern: the first line sets up a tone of sadness and resignation, which is contradicted by the next line, "the English army had just won the war." The mood suggested by this line is again contradicted by the following: "the crowd of people turned away." Why would a crowd (presumably English) "turn away" from such good news? And again, the singer finds himself alone:

But I just had to look,
Having read the book.

Where are we? We were just watching a movie, which fascinates the narrator not because of its triumphant report about the world-out-there (which strangely alienates the rest of the audience) but because of the book on which it is based. Where is reality in all this?

"I'd love to turn you on," chants Lennon, as if to say: I may not know where reality is, but I know there's something entrancing, confusing, and dangerous about the drug-saturated world in which I dwell.

An enormous orchestral glissando commences, utterly contrasting with the matter-of-fact tone of everything that has preceded. In terms of the music itself, this crescendo constitutes an atonal segment, like something you might hear in a symphonic work by Penderecki. All sense of a home key is lost and randomness momentarily prevails over order.

Most Beatles fans know how this came about. Each player was instructed to start on the lowest note his instrument could play and to end on the highest, all playing together at their own rates within a specified overall time frame. Paul McCartney supposedly "conducted," though it's hard to know what that word could mean in this context. George Martin, The Beatles' producer, attributed the idea for this section to John Lennon. After Lennon's death, he re-attributed it to McCartney. (Yet more ambiguity!)

At the end of this crescendo, an alarm bell rings and we find ourselves waking up from a dream. Suddenly, a strict and narrow order prevails over chaos. Another singer/narrator, limiting his melody to just a few notes, reports on quotidian events as he lived them, not seen through the "filter" of a newspaper or a movie.  The only filter is the compression filter on McCartney's voice.

"Woke up, got out of bed / Dragged a comb across my head." Almost all the lines rhyme. McCartney sings about the most banal of realities. We are no longer in a realm of car accidents, death, and war. This second narrator goes downstairs, has a cup of coffee, runs to the bus, goes upstairs, and has a smoke. Someone speaks – the words either do not matter, or are not clear – and he floats off into a dream.

Lennon and McCartney famously inspired and competed with each other, and their contributions to A Day In The Life are no exception. McCartney answers Lennon's metrical play with his own. Like Lennon, he offers a varying metric, albeit a more straightforward one, with almost every line having a different number of beats, in the pattern 1-2-3-4-4, 1-2-3-4-4, with one beat in the line "Woke up," two in "And grabbed my hat," and so forth. If we accept the "coat" / "smoke" / "spoke" slant rhymes, the rhyme pattern in these verses is a-b-b-a-(a)-c. In terms of both meter and rhyme scheme, the "real" world of McCartney's stanzas is more logical, less complex and meandering, than the "filtered" world of Lennon's.

Another orchestral passage, with an overdubbed voice chanting a melody that seems more lyrical and dreamy than any other element in the song – again, like a comment on the prosaic dreariness of the preceding section – and we're back in the "filtered" world of Lennon and his newspaper.

Now he's reading about "holes" that "they" have to count in a town in the county of Lancashire, England. We have no idea what kind of holes he's talking about – potholes? woodpecker holes? – until Lennon explains that "now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall."

We know what fills the Albert Hall: people. So holes are people. Which means, people are empty. The idea that people are empty, or even absent, perhaps refers back to the allusions to death in the first part of the song.

A final orchestral crescendo and a thundering piano and harmonium chord that seems to last forever. And then it's over. Or is it? The song resonates in the mind even after it fades away. None of its implicit paradoxes is resolved. 

In A Day In The Life, words and music comment upon themselves and each other, forming a solipsistic and dreamlike world that nonetheless seems to acknowledge the importance, or at least the existence, of the real world "out there." During the same period, when they were recording Sgt. Pepper's, Lennon and McCartney treated a similar concept in two separate songs that addressed different ways of remembering: Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. The former looks at the past through a lens so distorting that nothing can be pinned down precisely. The latter applies a sharp focus to a variety of disparate elements of that same environment, the Liverpool of Lennon's and McCartney's childhoods. 

Here they have compressed a similar contrast into one tight lyrical performance. In what is perhaps their greatest masterpiece, John Lennon and Paul McCartney have brilliantly employed irony, ambiguity, and dramatic juxtapositions to create a reflection on the human condition that is no less compelling than disturbing. 

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