The Top 20 Beatles Songs, #1: “A Day In The Life”

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“Woke up, got out of bed…”

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“A Day in the Life”

Album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Composer: Lennon/McCartney

For those of you expecting “The End,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “The Long and Winding Road,” or “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road,” we sincerely apologize. “A Day in the Life” closes out our Beatles countdown, and for good reason. In Mikal Gilmore’s “Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock and Roll,” he calls it “the loveliest-sounding song about alienation that pop had ever yielded.” Indeed, it seems the saddest songs are often the sweetest.

With an arrangement and story that follow the Beatles’ habit of conflating the ups and downs of the everyman with the unique, intimate moments we all meet, “A Day In the Life” simultaneously ties up loose ends and asks unanswered questions. Like any good rock song, it makes us laugh and cry, forget and remember.

The lyrics read variously like the works of an unexcitable journalist, a simple folk singer, and a transcendental philosopher. John explained the inspiration for three of the song’s four verses: “I was writing “A Day in the Life” with the Daily Mail propped in front of me on the piano.” The most notable of his borrowed headlines plays out in the first verse, which references the accidental death of Guinness heir, Tara Browne. While Lennon confirmed using Browne’s wreck as a model, Paul insists that some lines, including “he blew his mind out” and “I’d love to turn you on,” were “purely a drugs reference.”

Meanwhile, Paul had been sitting on a little piano ditty for quite some time and used it to fill in the third verse. His seemingly petty reflection on daily routines contrasts sharply with John’s devastating daily news, but the general melancholic mood pervades the track. Through all its detached nostalgia, “A Day in the Life” seems to echo Thoreau’s maxim, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Producer George Martin is largely responsible for the dissonant orchestral crescendos that punctuate the verses. In discombobulating listeners, these interludes help separate Paul’s poppy piano piece from Lennon’s more mellow work. Further contributing to this technically simple song’s illusion of disarray are Ringo’s cymbals, which musicologist Alan Pollack says “challenge your sense of meter.” Though some looped chattering lingers at the very end of the track, the song is known to end with an over-amplified piano chord, played in unison by at least three of the Beatles (production assistant Mal Evans may have taken George’s spot).

Gilmore describes the essential conclusion of the song: “As that chord lingered and then faded, it bound up an entire culture in its mysteries, its implications, its sense of power and hope.” A fitting end to Sgt. Pepper, a fitting end to our countdown, and what Gilmore called “the last gesture of genuine unity that we would ever hear from the Beatles,” “A Day in the Life” casually captivates us, perhaps confuses us, but then leaves us with a definitive, if unsettled, bang.

10 COMMENTS

  1. A good list, but there’s a few surprising omissions:

    “I Saw Her Standing There,” one of the best garage-band rock ‘n’ roll songs;

    “In My Life,” one of the top Lennon-McCartney lyrics;

    “Eleanor Rigby,” ditto;

    “Revolution,” (single version), with its distorted guitars, the hardest-rocking song the Beatles recorded.

    To accommodate these songs, I would cut from your list “I Am the Walrus,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Blackbird,” and “Two of Us.”

  2. Hard to pick the best of the best! Note, there are four “verses” in a Day in the Life. But Paul’s “Woke up, fell out of bed” is not one of them.

    The four are:

    1. I read the news today
    2. He blew his mind out
    3. I saw a film today
    and the repeat of
    4. I read the news today, about the holes in Blackburn.

    The one you call number 3, Paul’s bit, is not a verse, but a break or bridge, and should not to be numbered with John’s other four verses.

  3. Just simply too difficult a task. Most of the lists are heavy on Late Beatles, ignoring the fact that so many of the early songs were groundbreaking at the time. And, what really is the criteria? Are we talking about the musically best songs, or the most influential, or the most popular? Are we talking about SONGS or RECORDINGS? Some not so great songs are GREAT recordings. And, while I agree that Paul is often unfairly sidelined, what about Harrison? So, of course, as anything of this nature, it just comes down to “my favorite ten Beatles songs”… and here they are:
    1. I Am the Walrus
    2. We Can Work It Out
    3. Two of Us
    4. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
    5. Strawberry Fields
    6. And Your Bird Can Sing
    7. It’s Only Love
    8. Norwegian Wood
    9. I Need You
    10. Blackbird

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