Starr spoke of his own boredom during these sessions, waiting to be summoned to lay down a drum part, playing cards with roadie/major domo Mal Evans. We’re at a far remove—with an exception or two—from the plug in, turn up the amps, and burn band that used to belt out take after take in the studio as recently as four years prior.
One of those exceptions takes the form of the reprise of the title track, what is intended as a closer to the concept of this pretend band playing their pretend concert. The version that starts the record features Paul McCartney on lead guitar, playing stinging, Otis Rush-type fills. McCartney was a master of the sting. He generates the tone naturally—his guitar work on George Harrison’s “Taxman” from Revolver anticipates the Sgt. Pepper six-string handbook.
For the reprise, Harrison is back at his lead guitarist post, while John Lennon plays rhythm like a man trying to vibrate the paint off the walls of the Star Club in Hamburg. It’s simple chording and chunka-a-chunka rhythm, but Lennon’s strafing—though nonetheless celebratory, annunciatory, fanfare-like—guitar is Pepper’s sonic name badge as much as any other of its vast litany of sounds. The Beatles do much, for instance, with a Leslie speaker, but this rhythm remains the stuff of the innermost circle of the various concentric circles that comprise the album.
The guitar would not be out of place on the Star Club tapes, and Lennon isn’t really playing anything that different than what he did on “Matchbox” in December 1962, only he’s exchanged cooling road tar for a bucket of flowers. Or dumped the flowers atop the road—call it as you see fit. The Beatles flat out go for it, ultimate rock band style, even here, amidst the sorcery, because that’s ultimately who they are more than anything. They retain, treasure, and share the spirit of the sock hop and the dodgy bar with the sticky floor where people just want to get away for a couple hours and hear some bangin’ tunes.
I would imagine this felt good and freeing, to cut loose once again. To be a group, not studio artists, though obviously there is overlap. Musicians remain musicians, no matter what they’re doing or what’s in their hands. When the Beatles first tried their collective hands at “A Day in the Life,” they didn’t know how it’d feature on the album. The song stems from the start of the sessions. But it’s fitting that this titanic creation of studio magic began with the same rock and roll feel as the reprise of the record’s title track, which in turn flows into it on the final album. The feel being the song, a down-tempo number that helps pace an in-concert set. In the pre-fame era, McCartney could cool matters down with a torch-y ballad, after a Lennon raver. The trip from “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)” to “Red Sails in the Sunset,” wasn’t as circuitous as it may have seemed, going by the face of the map. A variant of the idea plays out on Sgt. Pepper, only now the slower song is cast as an encore—an encore not just to a gig, but an installment of life. One that is bookended on the other side, by the first take of the Beatles’—or pretty much anyone’s—greatest song. “A Day in the Life” both starts a process, and finishes an album.
After news of the voluminous box set was released, I scanned the tracklisting for take one of “A Day in the Life.” One could call it my wildest Beatles dream. With a time machine, I’d sally back to Hamburg, or one of the shows from 1963 when the band was becoming massive in England but still had a bit to go before the conquering of America in February 1964. But I wanted to experience this first take of all first takes more than anything.
And there it was, like a grail delivered outside of one’s door. I was astounded that few people seemed to care, instead focusing on the new mix of the original record by Giles Martin, George’s son. Beatles people, after all, will dissect all forms of Fab Four-related minutiae, but this the first take of “A Day in the Life” was no matter of the miniscule; there wasn’t much that remained that could be bigger than this, to borrow a phrase from the band’s manager—who would die shortly after the release of Pepper—Brian Epstein, whenever another unprecedented triumph had been achieved.
Even during the heady era of Pepper, it’s important to remember that Lennon and McCartney retained some of the vestiges of their Quarrymen days when they’d sit in a bedroom, sharing new material. Only now, the bedroom is the EMI studio—Studio Two, to accurately put ourselves in this picture.
No matter how complex a song becomes—and “A Day in the Life” was as complicated a rock song/studio production had been up until that point—it begins as a song, if that makes sense. A work that one can play straight through, in some form or other—on the piano, the guitar, or with a band. The band need not know the song or know it well—they can comp along, feel out the chord changes, fumble to find the railing that will eventually be gripped as the collective climbs up and up and up.
That first take of “A Day in the Life” was, for me, the tall tale made true, as if that guy back in the record store had walked in one day with a brace of tapes featuring soundboards of Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on co-lead guitar with the Yardbirds somewhere in the deep folds of the American Southwest in 1966.
One is tempted to make some glib remark along the lines of “from tiny acorns, grow mighty oaks”—the motto of Lennon’s Quarry Bank high school was “strong before our birth”—but the first take of “A Day in the Life” tells a portion of the Beatles’ tale—and grants insight into their core identity—as well as anything in the proper discography or official story. More so, I would say.
What we experience is confidence and a very Beatlesesque form of faith. Sgt. Pepper itself is rock’s most competitive record. The Beach Boys and the Beatles were busy throwing haymakers at each other, and both bands found themselves locked in a succession of competitive scrums with the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and certainly Bob Dylan. I’ll see you Rubber Soul and raise you Blonde on Blonde. The mid-1960s was not a time nor place for safe spaces if you were a talented rock and roll musician. Rubber Soul was a challenge that helped bring about Pet Sounds as a response from Brian Wilson’s guys, and now it was the Beatles turn to answer, to up the masterpiece game.
The journey to Sgt. Pepper starts with the “Penny Lane/”Strawberry Fields Forever” single and its gestation—so back in the second half of 1966—but it cranks into proper gear on January 19, 1967, as the first take of “A Day in the Life” is committed to tape with the title of “In the Life Of…”
In the life of whom? The ellipse represents the morphing Every Person as put forward by these particular men. The Beatles excelled at moving from the personal to the universal, and back again. If there is a crucial strength that they possessed more than any other rock and roll act, it would be this one. Much of their power—and staying power—stems from it. To listen to the Beatles is to feel connected to art and entertainment that doubles as friend and mirror. We see an awful lot when they turn on the light.
The title, though, is unwieldy, but it’s also a placeholder. A placeholder requires self-belief. You’ve something strong, but not strong enough, not as strong as what you know you will produce in the end.
These Beatles are plunging into another world. They’re not stressed or fretting that they’re failing to go in “clean,” with everything planned and laid out, as a film director like Alfred Hitchcock insisted upon. They are open to creating on the fly, making important, creative decisions in real-time, creating out of doubt, a fortuitous found-sound, luck, suggestion, a Ringo Starr malapropism, and creating when pressure is applied. The pressure of the expectations of the world at large expecting something BIG. What other rock and roll acts were up to. Pressure from the record company who was allowing them unprecedented studio access and time—basically letting them use the facilities however they saw fit, whenever they saw fit, for as long as they saw fit. And pressure from themselves to continue the streak of masterpieces. But not just masterpieces—masterpieces that differed drastically from the last. The pressure to invent without ends or limits. To routinely “make it new,” but with there being nothing routine about what was made. And then to get started again—pronto. That’s the Beatles way.
In-between art—which is how we can view the first take of “A Day in the Life”—isn’t studied and esteemed like end-product art. The quality of transition—the perpetual flux we see in all parts of the “Strawberry Fields Forever” undertaking and official single—obscures what we’re willing to look at as an artistic work. To vet, weigh. We don’t rubber-stamp it as aesthetically viable—or open for consideration as such—as we do with a finished product.
But what is finished? And who is to say? A record label? A publisher? Amazon? Can something not have its moment and be definitively finished in that moment even as it might play a role in leading to something else?
I think this says more about the places we’re less willing to go to in our thinking, than it does about the Beatles in this case. If the Beatles are players on a stage, human nature, and the cultural expectations of consumerism, leads us to conclude that that is when they are most in their moment, in the act, business, and art of their trade. So that when they are behind the curtain or in the wings, they’re just some guys sitting there, shooting the shit, buying another Bentley or whatever.
Didn’t work that way. Those Beatles in the wings were as much the Beatles who tread the boards for the world to see. That this is so makes them what they are as artists. The process of art-making can itself be art, especially when we have an in-flux treasure such as this one, which can also dig in and stand its own ground as sublime music. We talk about how the quality of a person is measured by what they do when no one is looking. The same might be said for the quality of an artist. And when we do get to look, we need to capitalize on the opportunity to understand. Plus, we acquire a whole other catalogue to go along with the catalogue we already knew, which we’re also thinking about differently, and experiencing in new ways.
Of all the vocals in all the world, I wouldn’t trade this Lennon vocal from the first take of “A Day in the Life” for anything. Not for any official material, nor the rarefied treats of bootlegs, not what I might source from my imagination—how Billie Holiday must have sounded like in an intimate club setting circa 1942, for instance.
Compare it to any of Lennon’s finest moments as a singer—“Twist and Shout,” the naked, wailing end of the bridge on “This Boy,” the bursting-into-falsetto passages on “I Should Have Known Better,” the relationships affirming/hope-issuing duet with McCartney on “Hey Jude,” the ragged, bold desperation of “Help!” or the soulful, mannish glide on the 1963 BBC cover of Arthur Alexander’s “Soldier of Love”—and this first take singing performance might as well come with a little crown and scepter. Victory, ladies and lads.
His voice has changed markedly, starting in 1965, becoming harder, pinched, nasally, but not unpleasantly so. The nasal quality comes out the most when he sings the loudest, which is not to say, emotes the most. For a man who was not particularly gentle—save what we’ll see later on in his life, and thanks to a large helping of revisionist history and the befogging glasses of nostalgia—no rock and roll vocalist was better at singing gently than John Lennon.
Listen to the botched, messy, first take of a tossed off number like 1965’s “Yes It Is,” an obvious rewrite of the superior “This Boy,” which itself has a cribbed vibe, a pastiche of the Miracles. Lennon forgets the words, or perhaps can’t be arsed to sing them properly (or is too high), so he vocalizes, and it sounds like he is emitting the secrets of humankind into your ear so that you can pass them on to someone else as he passed them to you. And it’s just throwaway singing, really. But Lennon’s throwaway singing.
His version of gentle isn’t so much soothing—though a track like “In My Life” offers an exception to the rule—as knowing. Wise. But wise with a twist, if not a shout—for Lennon’s finest vocals also resonate as though he’s down in the dirt with us, or we are with him, keeping in mind his first person is also not an autobiographical first person, which would serve to limit.
That voice is a one-person Greek chorus, but one that seems, somehow, to come from the protagonist, rather than an outside source or narrator. As such, an “I” and a “me,” in Lennon’s best songs and vocals feel direct and personal, but they also have third person status. It’s that kind of in-between voice we get with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but a voice that sounds entirely committed to both camps simultaneously.
This is why the Beatles’ music lasts as it does. A top sound isn’t enough. A tone, a knack for chords. Or rather I should say this is one reason why the Beatles’ music lasts. Every great work of art will have its reasons below the surface that aren’t readily called out. The more an artist has, the better their art can endure.
Lennon is a singer born of this strange alchemy. The spiirt of the alchemical is certainly in the air with the start of the Sgt. Pepper sessions and “A Day in the Life,” and Lennon will be the perfect singer of this song, with a perfect vocal from the very first take. The in-between, in-flux singer, commanding the initial attempt at the in-between, in-flux song of in-between, in-flux personness.
In other words: We have a day in the life of “A Day in the Life.” The song put into illustrative motion of its own message, from the drop, and the first dance of the sugar plum fairy. Damn, son.