The Beatles

A Day in the Life

Song Review by

"A Day in the Life" was one of the most complex and ambitious Lennon-McCartney songs performed by the Beatles, providing an incendiary climax for their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. It was also the most outstanding instance in which two discrete song fragments -- one primarily by John Lennon, the other by Paul McCartney -- were combined into one to build a whole greater than the sum of the parts. "A Day in the Life" is an unexpectedly mordant coda to an album noted for epitomizing the Summer of Love. The main verses of the song are Lennon's work, a rather gloomy first-person narrative of going through the motions and observing, in a detached manner, the cruelties and absurdities of the everyday world. As the Beatles often did, the specific lyrical references are drawn from bits of news and personal experience. The death in a car crash was that of socialite and Beatles acquaintance Tara Browne (not of Paul McCartney, as would often be speculated a few years later during the "Paul Is Dead" rumors); the film about the English army winning the war was How I Won the War, in which John Lennon had acted. The dramatic tension is aided by Ringo Starr's crafty, thundering drum accents, but had it remained unembellished, Lennon's piece of the song would have been little more than a pensive, almost folky rumination. After the initial verses and Lennon's celebrated invitation to turn the listener on, however, the song mutates into something quite different, a dissonant orchestral crescendo that is simultaneously nightmarish and exhilarating. As is heard in several of Lennon's songs in 1966 and 1967, he seems largely uninterested in the outside world, and more intrigued by withdrawing into himself and the mind, whether with the aid of psychedelic chemicals or otherwise. The orchestral section suddenly ends just as it seems it can't wind itself into any higher a key, immediately followed by a basic, jaunty McCartney tune about waking up and going to work. By itself, this McCartney tune certainly wouldn't have been much. What made it effective was its juxtaposition next to Lennon's dreamier sections. The implication seemed to be that Lennon's was the dream world, and McCartney's a literal rude awakening to reality, ending when the narrator of McCartney's bit slides back into a dream. Lennon then takes over again, with haunting wordless vocals of Olympian import, ending with a brief brass fanfare before the last verse. In contrast to the opening verses, though, this final run-through is perky, with a far livelier, almost rushed rhythm, as if it was a compromise between the earlier moods of the song. Again this turns into a frightening orchestral crescendo, its dissonance unified by nothing more than a rising key, ending with what might be the most famous finale in all of rock: a momentous, echoing piano chord, sustained for almost a full minute (actually played simultaneously on three separate pianos by three Beatles and roadie Mal Evans).

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 1967 Apple Records / Capitol 5:39
1967-1970 1973 Apple Records 5:07
No Image 1984 MGM
Imagine: John Lennon [Original Soundtrack] 1988 Capitol 5:05
Not Guilty 1989 Barclay 0:00
No Image 1989 Swingin' Pig 5:09
No Image 1993 Big Music 4:23
No Image 1994 Big Music 4:52
The Ultimate Box Set 1995 Capitol 5:33
Anthology 2 1996 Capitol / EMI Records / Apple 5:04
LOVE 2006 Capitol / EMI Records / Apple 5:08
The Beatles: Stereo Box Set 2009 Capitol 5:39
The Beatles USB 2009 Capitol / EMI 5:39
1962-1970 2010 EMI / Parlophone 5:07