Analysis of "A Day in the Life"
by Karigan Wright
The Beatles were something else.
With the support of fans around the globe and the praise of music critics everywhere, the Beatles released around 236 songs in their 10 years of being active. Out of all their work, one song stands out more than any other. Still exalted by critics and fans today, “A Day in The Life,” is arguably the most hauntingly beautiful and chaotic tune they ever recorded. While the boys were always rather poignant when it came to writing lyrics, this song reaches a depth that no other track in their discography ever reached that creates its own experience in and of itself.
This five-minute thirty-seven-second long piece has a multitude of interesting elements worthy of breaking down and analyzing. From the stark observance of the real world in the first section to the completely contrasting nostalgic and dreamlike second section to the outro that on its own is an iconic work of art, “A Day in The Life” is a song made for dissecting.
It’s essential to break down and analyze the lyrics in order to experience the piece how it was intended to be experienced. Get ready Beatles fans, this is a complex song. Let’s break it up in lyrical stanzas:
I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn’t notice that the lights changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
But nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords
The first line should be taken literally, as in Lennon actually read the news and saw the horrific reality of life and how it can quickly come to an end. As explained by Paul McCartney in an interview with Barry Miles for his book, Many Years From Now, Lennon wrote the following lines in reference to Tara Browne, a friend of the Beatles, who died when he ran a red light and crashed his car in 1966. While Lennon envisioned this when writing the lyrics (but claims he didn’t recreate the accident in his lyrics), McCartney had a completely different interpretation. He attributed the song to “a politician bombed out on drugs who’d stopped at some traffic lights and he didn’t notice that lights had changed. The ‘blew his mind’ was purely a drug reference, nothing to do with a crash”. Furthermore, the line “But nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords,” implies the ‘lucky man’ was possibly a noble or honorable man, as a member of the Parliament, however, he is not recognizable enough by the general public that is drawn to the accident.
I saw a film today, oh, boy
The English Army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book
I’d love to turn you on
The film referenced in this stanza is perhaps referencing the 1967 Action Comedy, “How I Won the War,” featuring Lennon. The story revolves around, quite simply, the English Army that had just won World War II. The film is based on the book, thus “having read the book,” suspected to be referencing this fact. As far as the controversial line “I’d love to turn you on,” goes, it is falsely believed to be of a sexual nature, when it’s actually a drug reference, not surprising coming from this well-known psychedelic group. (Fun fact: “A Day in The Life” was banned by the BBC as a result of the provocative line.)
[Alarm clock rings]
Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up I noticed I was late
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
And somebody spoke, and I went into a dream
The alarm clock is a stark contrast from the previous portion of the song, McCartney now telling a completely different story of life. McCartney wrote this stanza, which was originally meant to be an independent piece altogether. He tells the story of an ordinary life, one that is so dull and boring that it sends him spiraling into a dream of escape. McCartney used his own life as inspiration, as explained by Dave Rybaczewski in his analysis of “A Day in The Life,” McCartney specifically explained, “It was about me remembering what it was like to run up the road to catch the bus to school, having a smoke and going to school”. He quite simply explains his morning routine, getting ready, drinking coffee, making the bus, and relaxing with a smoke. The line “And somebody spoke, and I went into a dream” pushes us back into Lennon’s story.
I read the news today, oh boy
4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall
I’d love to turn you on
Here, we return to Lennon reading the news. Just after he read about the death of Tara Browne, he read a story referencing the 4,000 potholes on the street in Blackburn that needed to be filled. However, it’s suspected that there’s no connection between the number of holes and filling the Albert Hall, a concert hall in London. Cut back to the provocative line we’re already familiar with.
It would be insulting to discuss “A Day in The Life” and not mention the absolutely chaotic instrumental outro, featuring a symphony orchestra. Before the outro was added, the piece was considered to be rather boring by George Martin, a record producer who closely worked with the group, and was commonly referred to as the “Fifth Beatle”. Martin then went to Lennon, to ask him what he wanted to do with the empty 24 bars to which Lennon said, “I want it to be like a musical orgasm. What I’d like to hear is a tremendous build-up, from nothing up to something absolutely like the end of the world. I’d like it to be from extreme quietness to extreme loudness, not only in volume but also for the sound to expand as well. I’d like to use a symphony orchestra for it”. The Beatles did just that. The last minute and 47 seconds of the piece builds abruptly and intensely in a tumultuous crescendo, devising an enclosed space that feels like the apocalypse. Each section of the orchestra plays their own dissonant and obstreperous parts, simultaneously building a deep and noticeable crescendo until the resolution of a single accented note. The piece ends with another section of disarray, a semi-robotic voice repeating the same jumbled line, “I never could see any other way,” over and over again until it fades out. When the song finally ends, the listener is left in a state of complete oblivion.
“A Day in The Life” is featured on what is considered by thousands to be the best album of all time, that is, The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. As a devoted admirer of moments of music spiritualism, “A Day in The Life” to me is an unparalleled rare look into what is one of the most exceptional pieces in music history. One of my favorite songs of all time, this piece of art is always there when all I want to do is lay on my back with my eyes closed, letting the Beatles take me to musical nirvana.