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Excerpt from essay about the first take of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life"

Monday 6/7/21

But then we have the Beatles' first takes that they didn’t intend for anyone to hear. These were a trove to me, more exciting—because I was experiencing a journey which was also its own form of arrival—than official canon. Call it a variant on George Harrison's concept of arriving sans what one typically equates with traveling.


I may prefer the first take of “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" to its counterpart that slots in the two-hole on Rubber Soul. The piece has the perfect feel to complement the record’s--and their sessions--unprecedented blend of English folk and American soul, a cross of Sam Cooke demoing a ballad in a low-key arrangement and Nick Drake tipsily serenading a faded love affair.


An initial attempt at “Can’t Buy Me Love” is a country and western hoedown via the north of England from a temporarily-conflicted beat combo who were always going to find their own voice, with the adopting and shedding of this demotic American musical argot being but a part of that process. Graft, jettison, grow.


The first take of “Strawberry Fields Forever” has long been my favorite Beatles song, performance, and vocal. The finished, official version was a mélange of gossamer ballad—tipped on its metaphysical side—and assailing/storm-the-castle heavy metal with all of the attendant weaponry, Ringo Starr’s Wagnerian, Deep Purple-esque drums shaking the battlements.


But “Strawberry Fields Forever” never felt complete, which isn’t a knock on the final track that, with “Penny Lane,” forms rock and roll’s greatest gauntlet-thrower of a 45. One picks what version they prefer, scattered between bootlegs, YouTube, and assorted official releases, as if it were a season of the year, coming around when it came around, but always underscored by flux—for it is flux that is ultimately responsible for the irreducible identity of all of the seasons, though each registers in its particular way. "Strawberry Fields Forever" is commonly esteemed as a masterpiece of internal cosmos, but it's also a vanguard work of the seasons, a song I think of as having skin on both sides of the harvest.

Nothing, though, pricked my imagination like the idea of the first take of “A Day in the Life.” The song struck me as too large, too overleaping for a first take, as if it skipped the process of its own birth, being that damn transcendent. Which would make it Biblical, or supernatural, and that is exactly how the closing number on Sgt. Pepper sounds. Within the patchy concept of the album—the make-believe notion you’re hearing a band on the revival circuit crank out yet another show—“A Day in the Life” functions as encore to end the world. Or illuminate the world. Which may be the same thing, given how truth can both crush, and liberate. What it does to you, and to me, says a lot about who we both are.


I watched a documentary on the making of Sgt. Pepper, which featured a few seconds of John Lennon singing the start of the first take, as a much-older George Martin talks over what he was listening to, albeit provided his narration for our benefit. Martin can barely contain himself about the quality of Lennon’s voice. He was there, he heard it all, but you know he’s still hearing it like one does when they first come to the Beatles and a door is reduced to atoms within the space of a chorus.


We all have a different chorus, or whatever the song portion might be. For me, it was the opening of “She Loves You,” precisely as George Harrison’s guitar takes us into the first verse, which somehow comes after the first chorus. A reordering of a form of a universe, or the conception of one. But a door to what? Well, it’s a door that registers as everything—every conception of boundary and border there has been, in terms of how you’ve known what you’ve known. Or thought you did.


That snippet of vocal was Frankensteined into a composite of outtakes and overdubs for a version of “A Day in the Life” on the second Anthology album, but I can barely relay how much I needed to hear what organically followed, bemoaning my lot that it was withheld. Why was it withheld? Did it peter out into nothingness? Did Lennon sing a few hushed lines in a voice that featured rock and roll’s quintessential singer at his performative height, only for the track to break down? Did he cock-up his guitar part?


The full first take did not exist on the bootleg market, or anywhere on the internet. Lennon would typically count-in the Beatles songs that he sang with profanity. The man had some twisted ways of saying, “one-two-three-four” which would inspire the mob—not that the mob needs much inspiration—to cancel and end your ass in our world. But the beginning of that first take of “A Day in the Life,” as I knew it even in piecemeal form, had a different christening, a rhythmic intonation of the words, “Sugar Plum Fairy, Sugar Plum Fairy.”


What does one expect out of silence? What can you expect to emerge? The auditory slate is blank, anything may come, but we’re still surprised when we hear this reference to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the basis, of course, for Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s two-act ballet, The Nutcracker, which is more likely the source Lennon would have known, though I suppose he might have read the Hoffmann.


What did it represent to him? Descent, clearly, into a magical world. It’s a world that shares a plane of consciousness with the waking, dawning dream space of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” where the genius—or the would-be genius who is unsure what he officially, taxonomically is—contemplates identity, which for him is at a formidable remove from the world, and the way of being in the world, that most people know. He’s simultaneously settled in himself—or getting there—and unsure how to fit in elsewhere. Lennon uses the metaphor of a tree that may be high or low. Who’s to know? Trees of the internal variety are not the trees of the forest where the picnic was had last weekend. Conscious and dreaming at once, this is a state less between other states so much as perched above them, trying analyze and process.


The count-in alone conveys the sensation of transport. You will be moved from one place to another, but via an internal laddering.


In Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues,” the singer hops aboard a Greyhound bus, bound for points unknown—so long as they are somewhat else. In a word, “away.”

We already know, before Lennon’s vocal formally starts on this first take of “A Day in the Life,” that our progression will be inwards, but the nature of the lyric—with its account of a news report about a man who died in a traffic accident—will also have basis in not just the observable world of the protagonist’s perceptions, but the observable, experiental world that everyone, in theory, is equally free to hear and see. The pitter-patter and brushwork of daily human existence.


The listener of the Pepper version of “A Day in the Life” knows that the singer of the first and third sections is an active observer—a seeker, soaker, sponge, rather than idle scroller, as is, say, the consumer of Twitter posts in our age. With the first section, he’s a reader of newspapers with an eye for details—perhaps grim detail above all—that suggest stories beyond the official presentation of stories. In the third, he’s turned to mulling what he’s read, daydreaming, fantasizing, giving his imagine free reign, projecting ideas and concerns into the slots in which they might fit, theorizing about how many holes it could take to fill a place like the Royal Albert Hall.


Realism shifts to magical realism, but the identity of each is further asserted by the contrast with—and the link to—the other. A first take of a song is an opening point in a progression of a kind of developing, auditory consciousness. There are first takes of a different sort within “A Day in the Life” itself. Which is really what the song is about—how those takes are viewed, and what one does with them in following. What one pulls from the sea of images. What one learns. What one imagines. How the two are blended. When it would also be so easy to miss what is fair play by dint of being in plain view.


Holes filling a hall is a doozy of an image, and an instructive one. It’s like the negative space in a drawing, there in one real way, absent in another. But the drawing is not the drawing without the negative space, and the drawing can be more negative space than not. So can a day. So can a life. In this manner, a day is not a day without its suffused quality of night—the darkness not visible until it is.


In “A Day in the Life,” that overlaid portion of night has the form of the comparatively bouncy middle section, written and sung by Paul McCartney, with the singer falling asleep on a double-decker bus we can confidently assume has the Penny Lane stop as its terminus, given the internal, liminal, psyche-situated geography of Pepperland and the double A-sided single that preceded it with its expressed intentions to take us both down and out the far side of the roundabout once more.


The sections are demarcated with the atonal, orgiastic—and orgastic—crescendo of the orchestra following Lennon’s wish-upon-a-star, lysergicly-enhanced—or self-empowering—declaration of, “I’d love to turn you on.” A half dozen syllables and notes, and because of their setting, plus the fatalistic delivery—one that emerges from a human enmeshed in the day in, day out wonder we too often fail to recognize as such—the line socks us more than any in rock and roll. More than “one for the money, two for the show.” More than “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” More than the pithily expressed idea of what the very spirit of teendom smells like, more than the extolling of good vibrations or the lament of the satisfaction one cannot get.


It’s the ultimate rock and roll line, in context, because it extends far beyond the expected purlieu of rock and roll’s outermost gate. It feels like the locus of every day every human has ever had, and as if that day, in all of its multiplicities and particulars, could be shared between all of us and understood, different—though also oddly, even bewitchingly, the same—as those days are.


The voice (which hits me at once as both absolute, bang-on, note-perfect John Lennon, and this weird, shimmering, post-John Lennon/pre-Every Person voice), the idea, is a wallop to the soul; the way to follow it is with the wordless orchestral voice, a stand-in for the end of voices. Until, that is, a human speaks again, with a story to tell.


The effect is akin to the end of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: the final sentence of the book builds back into the first. Such are all of the days in the life, of human life, in the grand scheme of that life. The Beatles were just way, way more economical in delivering the message.