On an album like Sgt Pepper’s it almost seems unfair to say that one track stands out. But it’s hard to ignore the sheer scope of the album’s closing track, A Day in the Life, a track Rolling Stone said “made rock’s possibilities seem infinite.”
It’s hard to pick a track from the Beatles catalogue that better reflects the two unique songwriting talents at the heart of the group. Paul’s upbeat bridge a great foil to John’s prosaic verse. This was the two in absolute sync, separate identities fused into one song worthy of them both.
It’s not just the songwriting that shines in the track. There was much inventiveness and whimsy in the decision to include a high-frequency dog whistle on the track.
And by encoding a musical loop into the ‘inner groove’ of the record, the band acknowledged the experience of their listeners, who were tripping out even as the record was playing out.
The original four-part harmony recorded as the song’s ending was felt to not have enough impact, so they brought three grand pianos and a harmonium into the studio, and played the final E-major chord with 10 hands.
They sustained the chord by upping the recording volume as it faded out, so much so that you can hear the ambient sounds of the studio in the background. This was a band challenging themselves in the studio, and challenging their audience.
A lasting impression
When Lennon’s hand-written lyrics for A Day in the Life came up for auction 43 years after they’d been penned, they sold for $1.2 million.
Hardly surprising considering this was the final statement on the most ambitious album by the world’s greatest band at the height of their powers.
The cover version played by Jeff Beck in the video in this post is an apt tribute to this epic song. Stripped of its lyrical power, you’re left to marvel at the dual intertwined melodies.
As part of a new project for 2013 I’m calling 52SOUNDS, each week I’ll pick an album to explore in depth in a series of posts here. I’m looking to get even closer to the music I love, discover great albums that have passed me by, and to find out why some albums have become such defining cultural moments.
And because I believe music is an inherently social experience, I’ll be reaching out to my friends to have them nominate albums they love, so that I can explore those in conversation with them, tapping into their passion for their favourite records.
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles (1967)
Rolling Stone called 1967’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band "the most important rock & roll album ever made" so it seems like the perfect place to kick off 52SOUNDS.
It’s an album I remember listening to 20 years ago on vinyl in my older brother’s bedroom, fascinated at how the opening title track segued seamlessly into With a Little Help from my Friends, and wondering who this enigmatic singer Billy Shears was.
If I was confused, then I wasn’t the only one. Sgt Pepper’s was the sound of the Beatles consciously trying to escape what they had become. Camouflaged behind the garish garb of the Lonely Hearts Club Band and joined by a collage cast of their creative peers, they had license to play the kind of free-wheeling concert they had hinted at on 1966’s Revolver.
No more soft music
The band were exhausted from relentless touring and were finding it increasingly difficult to arrange their ever-more expansive musical leanings into stadium-sized romps for frothing, Beatlemaniac teens.
Where John’s assessment at the time was characteristically blunt - “We’re fed up with making soft music for soft people, and we’re fed up with playing for them too” – Paul’s later reflection took on a more lyrical hue: “We were not boys, we were men… artists rather than performers.” Either way, though still together, the idea of the Fab Four was no more.
Guaranteed to raise a smile
Disillusioned with and yet unencumbered by their own brand, sonically grown-up, and tuned into a different zeitgeist to their fans, the stage was set for the Beatles to give their command performance, 40 minutes of the “world’s biggest rock band at the very height of its influence and ambition.”
Do you have a favourite track from the album? Let me know what it is in the comments.