I read the news today, oh, boy
4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
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Blackburn, Lancashire, is a former mill town in northern England as old as 1086. The origins of the name can be found in both the textile work done there and the smoke rising from the mills themselves. Legend has it that when King James I stayed in Blackburn in 1617, he enjoyed the hospitality so much he drew his sword to knight the beef they were eating for supper. Not much else can be discovered about the boring hamlet, which may be precisely why Lennon chose to immortalize a brief mention of the town in his masterpiece, "A Day in the Life" – a song drenched with warnings about mundane existence.
Road resurfacing to fix the holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. Note the cobblestones.
Photo: Tom Howard, Geograph Project, CC 2.0
Words cannot describe the importance and brilliance of "A Day in the Life." It is the quintessential Beatles song – and arguably the most important composition in the history of popular music. Some of you may be rolling your eyes; however, if you'll give me an opportunity to explain, I think I'll make believers out of you yet.
Much has been said over the past fifty years of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team. Too much, in fact. Their partnership has been blown way out of proportion. Truthfully, each wrote their own songs and only occasionally enlisted the other's help for a chord here or a lyric there. The two bards kept to themselves… except on "A Day in the Life." It remains the single most collaborative song in the entire Beatles catalog. In an interview with Rolling Stone
, Lennon spoke about working with McCartney:
"Paul and I were definitely working together on 'A Day In The Life,' that was a real ... The way we wrote a lot of the time: you'd write the good bit, the part that was easy, like 'I read the news today' or whatever it was, then when you got stuck or whenever it got hard, instead of carrying on, you just drop it; then we would meet each other, and I would sing half, and he would be inspired to write the next bit and vice versa."
Additionally, it's the closing track on the most important album of all time: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,
which was not only the first concept album, but also the first album as an art form. The Beatles invented the rock album. Prior to 1967, record labels released collections of singles thrown together in one place. There was no rhyme or reason. SPLHCB
was much different. It tells a story of a fictitious band (since the Fab Four were sick of touring and performing, to quote Lennon, 'soft music for soft people,' nearing the end of 1966) and many of the tracks contain vibrant imagery to describe life in the northern English towns in which the band members grew up.
King George's Hall, Blackburn
Their biggest influence was The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds
, particularly the way Brian Wilson utilized vocal harmonies and unconventional instrumentation. The album culminates to the final track, which was recorded with three grand pianos, massive amounts of overdubs, and special effects (spliced tape that was often flipped around backward). Listeners were taken on a journey from innocence to impurity, from slumber to a great awakening. Before June 1967, contemporary society didn't get it. After listening to SPLHCB
, if they paid attention to the subtext, they just might.
Lennon's famous line, "I'd love to turn you on," has been misinterpreted as a drug reference at a time when Timothy Leary – famed LSD developer, user, and promoter – peddled his "Tune in, Turn on, and Drop out," philosophy. However, Lennon's desire to turn on his audience had less to do with using drugs to get high and more (much, much more) to do with realizing universal truths. He hoped to help Beatle fans enrich their spiritual lives. The Los Angeles Times
quotes McCartney stating, "What we want is to turn you onto truth rather than to pot."
The lyrics begin with a narrator reading a local newspaper and commenting about what's been reported: a car crash, a film review, potholes in the streets (of Blackburn, Lancashire), and other observations of daily life. The song's somewhat slow and ambling tempo suggests the narrator is unimpressed with what he's reading; he's become desensitized with the news and life in general. Suddenly, George Martin's (genius) orchestra rises up, signaling a shift in tone and we enter McCartney's 'dream' sequence, about an average man going about his average day: Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head...
Blackburn clock tower, c 1906
So who's actually dreaming and who's awake, Lennon or McCartney? The bookended orchestra hits are meant to confuse the audience. The Beatles want their fans asking hard questions and seeking obscure answers. Which is the dream? Which is reality? Does it even matter? No. Frankly, it doesn't.
The point of the song is that humanity is fast asleep. Our entire world, our entire lives, are being acted out in slow-motion and, according to the Beatles, it's time to get up and start being aware. They wanted to slap us in the face and scream, "There's more to life than this! What you think is important, isn't. What you don't spend time thinking about, is."
The final crescendo leads to the album's last chord. The entire section symbolizes an alarm clock. By the time the composition finishes, the listeners are meant to be one step closer to enlightenment. When the album began, we knew nothing. With the album over, we've been baptized in existential philosophy.
"A Day in the Life" is the culmination of a theme and message that started with the Lonely Hearts Club Band warming up. The first sounds heard by the listener are the cacophonous orchestra. They're not together; they're not in harmony. However, the last sounds heard are the very dramatic and long-sustained E-chord resolution. The noise of the album's introduction congeals into the conclusion's perfect harmony. Lennon and McCartney hope to show us the way to that harmony in our own lives.Justin Novelli
December 8, 2015
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