Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Day in the Life at 50: Magnificent Desolation



Paul McCartney had it right. At the recording session to dub the orchestral portions of “A Day in the Life,” the closing song for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” he attempted to calm down a nervous session member.


“I think that, at first, people are a bit suspicious,” he says on the session tape, “like, what are you up to?”


“A Day in the Life” has been compared to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and the comparison is absolutely valid. The song brings an end to “Pepper,” which is turning 50 this month. To celebrate, a brand new stereo mix of the album arrives in stores along with studio outtakes to show how the Beatles arrived at the sound of their most famous album.


The new mix, which sounds a lot like the old mono mix, is well done. Some songs, like “Good Morning Good Morning” benefit from the new listen. Numbers like “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” offer new revelations, since much of “Pepper” is stuffed with sound effects, strange licks and the “clues” that used to drive the Beatle fanbase into drug-induced dot connecting.


“A Day in the Life” brings the curtain down on the album – sometimes referred to as the first concept album. Except by John Lennon:


“Sgt. Pepper” is called the first concept album, but it doesn’t go anywhere. ... All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with the idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band, but it works ’cause we said it worked, and that’s how the album appeared. But it was not as put together as it sounds, except for Sgt. Pepper introducing Billy Shears and the so-called reprise. Every other song could have been on any other album.”

I think there may not be an absolute concept to “Pepper,” but there are certain themes that recur – and they all get an airing in “A Day in the Life.”


Lennon sat down at his piano with a copy of The Daily Mail of Jan. 7, 1967, looking for inspiration. John and Paul had just finished several weeks of recording both sides of their next single – “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane.” Both songs dealt with their childhoods in Liverpool. Perhaps mortality was on his mind.


Lennon was beginning to struggle with what he perceived as the stultifying nature of his married life as a father. He was experimenting with LSD and moving into the middle part of his twenties. He was beginning to brood on the idea that he needed escape, rescue. The song that came out of those forebodings touches on age, mortality and the terrifying banality of modern life, gleaned from the pages of a newspaper.


According to John, he was starved for a song to present in the studio and stumbled in the pages upon the news of 21-year-old Guinness heir Tara Browne’s death in a December 1966 car crash.

Browne was a friend. He had been driving his Lotus with his fashion model girlfriend at speeds above 100 mph when he failed to see a traffic signal. He died of the resulting crash a day later. (It should be mentioned that when McCartney recounts this, he says he was thinking of a politician taking drugs in a car stopped at a signal. I think Lennon’s memory is probably the more sure one.)


The story of a friend of roughly the same age in this kind of misadventure had to be sobering. Yet the voice – acoustic and narrative – that Lennon employs is detached. As producer George Martin later said, even in the first take of the song, Lennon’s voice sends shivers up the spine. There is a dreamy quality to it, nightmarish even. When he counts in the first studio take, he does it with the words, “sugarplum fairy, sugarplum fairy.” In the Nutcracker, this fairy is “the universal signifier of everything sweet and delectable and lovely.”


The song's DNA is the news of the day – what at times seems a parade of car crashes, murders, fires, rapes, robberies and scandals that are world-ending tragedies for those involved, and the backdrop for the rest of humanity. At least, the ones who hear about them.


John’s imagination, and Paul’s inspiration, transforms this into a tableau of modern life – A man, possibly on drugs, has a fatal accident because he doesn’t notice a traffic light. But the sight of it causes the singer to laugh. In the modern world, even the tragic is funny, detached from humanity.  A crowd forms for the inevitable cleanup. They feel they should know the victim. “Say, isn’t that…?” But life goes on, a subject the Beatles would revisit again in a more whimsical way.


When I later heard a 1968 speech by Robert F. Kennedy, saying the nation’s $800 billion gross national product also included “ambulances to clear our highways of carnage,” I was reminded of “A Day In the Life.” In the modern world, tragedies are as ubiquitous as the pebbles of broken glass on a roadway that one crushes on the way to somewhere else, or, on the way to another accident that may await you. Better hurry…


The song then shifts to a war film on television – the horrific as entertainment. Others might turn away, but the singer watches. He knows the story.


John Lennon had just finished filming “How I Won the War” the previous fall, his sole big screen acting gig apart from The Beatles. His performance as Private Gripweed in this sort of British Catch-22 might have been on his mind. However, several songs on “Pepper” might be counted as Empire Nostalgia – from the Pepper uniforms themselves to the lyrics of “Mr. Kite!” stolen from a Victorian poster. Rule Britannia has given way to Cool Britannia, but the forms of the past are still present. There’s always a war somewhere.


The music up to this point has been John’s acoustic guitar, accompanied by Paul on piano and bass. The piano rings with something approaching grandeur, while the bass lopes along with a bit of menace in the background. This is the dark side of “Fanfare for the Common Man,” where the sinister heartbeat of the city is looking for another victim. Don’t look back.


What follows is the song’s most distinctive sound -a slowly escalating cacophony of noise – an orchestra rises for 24-bars from nothing to “the end of the world.” “A crazy big swing storm,” as McCartney termed it. 


The new stereo mix gives this sound a much more chaotic force, and one can pick out the swirling notes between trumpets and strings, as well as the clacking undergirding from the piano. Listening even now, one gets the feeling of acceleration, (like in a car crash?) as though time is speeding up to the direction of a murderous force, life spinning out of control until we arrive at…


A ringing clock. One of the happy miracles of the song was that the Beatles, when recording, weren’t sure how to fill that space. So they had roadie Mal Evans count off the bars, his voice in heavy echo. When it was time for the song to recommence, an alarm clock was triggered. The alarm is appropriate - It’s time to get up.


Paul’s voice appears, not with the sliding detachment of Lennon but with the sleepy sound of a casual commuter who wakes up late and must get to work. He runs for the bus, but even in the middle of meeting his obligations to work and the grind, he “went into a dream.” We might ask what was said to inspire the dream, but it probably doesn’t matter. As Lennon said in an earlier song, “I’ve got nothing to say, but it’s OK.”


McCartney said his lyrical contribution here was just a fragment, but the grafting works, bookended by the orchestral sections. The juxtaposition of a man dying a careless death in a racecar with a man watching a war movie, then with a man working in an office, is intentional. Much of the menace of modern life isn’t the car crashes. It’s the terror of the routine – seen in “a heap of broken images” : the sobering, drowsy ride to work, the eyes of your fellow toilers, the quick puff of a cigarette to deal with it all, the slow and steady knowledge that time is passing and your closest held dreams remain unfulfilled. This is existential detachment, the same as the narrator of "The Stranger." When you retreat into imagination, it is escape from the inevitable, the inexorable.


The orchestra resumes, only this time it soars into comment: There is something grand and glorious about all of this, a feeling that people are dimly conscious of, in the course of a single day, the music that runs out of our lives and into eternity. 


But that returns us to John’s detached narrator, who is back to reading the news. There are 4,000 holes in the roads of a particular stretch of highway. How ridiculous, one might think, that someone had to go and count all of them, and how typical. And to what end? Or is this another comment on life? What’s the point of counting the holes, or counting the days?


That is our problem – the holes. They swallow us. They consume us. There is a hole inside of us that we are unable to fill. We consume. We choke. The hole swallows our dreams, our time, our hopes.

Here we are, whipsawing between two extremes – the grand and the banal.


One can look at the moment of “Pepper” as the beginning of the Summer of Love. People make much of the bright tone of many of the songs, but ignore the menace within. "Getting Better," for instance, tells the story of a man who seems to teeter on the edge, who admits physically and emotionally abusing his woman but resolves to change his "scene." But it is one year before the chaos of 1968. It’s the time when that wonderfully political euphemism “unrest” was used to catalog the social upheavals of the era. The idea of barriers being crossed excited some, terrified others. Even a decade after the Beats, the best minds of the generation were seeking destruction, or in Bob Dylan's case, desolation. Two years later, Buzz Aldrin would be the second human being to step onto the lunar surface with the words, "Magnificent desolation." In every avenue, the world would never be the same again.

In fact, McCartney alluded to this in recounting his fear of trying LSD in 1967, the fear that the drug would change him so he could “never get back home.”

The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract

Both of John’s sections end with the phrase that begins the orchestral sections – “I’d love to turn you on.” I was surprised to learn this was Paul’s creation, which John was only too happy to credit. It also sounds menacing, even though that may be simply because of that voice Lennon uses.


It’s an obvious drug reference, but what is being said? What is being turned on? What are we being turned onto? John’s narrator may be saying that each day of our lives has moments of wonder, if we can but comprehend them. Perhaps he is saying, “Let me show you the true nature of things. Behold your life, in an instant! Does it amount to anything?” Whether that’s under a psychedelic drug haze or higher consciousness is up to the beholder.


There is plenty of wonder in the song, right up to the final build-up, and the final chord. But that wonder can come in moments we might otherwise look away from – sudden death, war, the trip to work, or even the traffic on our roads. That’s an idea that predates the sixties, all the way back to the beginnings of humanity. Finding the beauty in waste, squalor, even evil, “a handful of dust” – it’s well to ask what it makes us. Do we detach ourselves, or is there something in us that forces detachment? If we care too much, does it all consume us?


Whatever may happen, a splendid time is guaranteed for all. 


Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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