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Part grand survey, part listener's guide, this first serious biography of the Beatles and their music is one of the most illuminating and factually reliable accounts yet published of the personal and professional influences that shaped their unique sound.
Somewhere inside London's Abbey Road studios, hidden behind an unmarked, triple-locked, police-alarmed door, are some of the most valuable artifacts of twentieth-century music: the raw tapes of every recording session in the nearly eight-year studio career of the Beatles. One of the most remarkable facts about the Beatles is that they released only ten and a half hours of music during their years together--the contents of the group's twenty-two singles and fourteen albums. Yet the tapes inside the Abbey Road archives, it turns out, contain more than four hundred hours' worth of Beatles recordings.
The collection extends from June 6, 1962, the date of the audition that narrowly persuaded George Martin, a producer at EMI Records, to sign the Beatles, to January 4, 1970, when Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr (John Lennon was in Denmark on holiday) recorded the final overdubs for what amounted to the group's farewell album, Let It Be. In between are tapes of everything else, stored in red-and-white cardboard boxes the size of large telephone books. Pick a favorite Beatles song; the archives hold not only the master tape of that song as it is heard on the album but also the working tapes that trace the song's evolution from its first run-through to its polished final version. There are also lots of off-the-cuff jam sessions, arguments, horseplay and studio chat, as well as a few songs the general public has never heard.
In the course of the research for this book, I was fortunate enough to gain access to these archives on two occasions. While on assignment for The New Yorker, I spent the equivalent of six full days inside AbbeyRoad, listening to fifty hours of tapes of the Beatles and of the solo work of John Lennon. I sometimes felt during those days as though I had been allowed to watch Picasso sketch, and never more so than on the afternoon I listened to all seven takes of "A Day In The Life," the closing song on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
John Lennon recalled Sgt. Pepper as "a peak" in the Beatles' career, a time when "Paul and I were definitely working together, especially on 'A Day in the Life.' " Indeed, "A Day In The Life" may be the ultimate McCartney-Lennon collaboration, a classic example of how the songwriting style of each man perfectly complemented that of the other. Although John would later confess that he and Paul wrote many songs "eyeball to eyeball," especially in the early days, their usual practice by this time, January 1967, was for one of them to provide the missing middle or accents to a song that the other had already almost completed. In the case of "A Day In The Life," it was Paul who made John's composition whole. Lennon had the melody and story line--the man who "blew his mind out in a car," the English Army that "had just won the war," the "four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire"--but the song needed something more. Lennon didn't like laboring over songs, preferring instead the Zen purity of inspiration, so when he got stuck after completing the main verses he set the song aside. "I needed a middle-eight for it [the "middle eight" is the middle of a song where the tune changes before going back to the original verse], but that would have been forcing it," he later explained. "All the rest had come out smooth, flowing, no trouble, and to write a middle eight would have been to write a middle eight, but Paul already had one there."
Paul did indeed have the fragment "Woke up, fell out of bed..." lying around. The two partners agreed that its peppy portrait of the modern urban life--based on Paul's memories of rushing to school in the morning--made the ideal counterpoint to John's gently ominous, dreamlike commentary on the hollow absurdity of status, order, and worldly attachments. The initial idea for the song had come, as it so often did with Lennon, from an item in the mass media. "I was reading the paper one day and noticed two stories," he recalled. "One was about the Guinness heir who killed himself in a car. That was the main headline story. He died in London in a car crash. On the next page was a story about four thousand potholes in the streets of Blackburn, Lancashire, that needed to be filled. Paul's contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song, 'I'd love to turn you on,' that he'd had floating around in his head and couldn't use. I thought it was a damn good piece of work."
The Guinness heir, whom the Beatles had happened to know, was born to a life of fantastic privilege. By conventional standards he was "a lucky man who made the grade." He had everything money could buy, but found himself no more immune to death's arbitrary, dispassionate arrival than the lowliest proletarian. A momentary, all too human lapse--"he didn't notice that the lights had changed"--and he was gone. In the moment of death, all delusion is shattered, everyone is equal. Lennon clinches the point with the wistful, mocking epitaph "Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords." The gathered crowd knows they've "seen his face before" but they can't place it; in the broad scheme of things, he is barely a bit player. The wealth and position that seemed so important, to the heir and the larger society, is revealed as trivial and fleeting. Equally blinded by a different kind of triviality are the bureaucrats of the final verse, who insist on tabulating the precise number of holes in the roads of Blackburn, Lancashire, even "though the holes were rather small." No wonder the singer would "love to turn you on." To see his fellow human beings sleepwalking so numbly through the glorious richness that life offers is heartbreaking.
Musicologist Wilfrid Mellers has observed that "A Day In The Life" derives much of its power from the contrast between its relatively simple tune and the horrors described in its lyrics. But it is Lennon's voice as much as anything that puts the message across. In his 1992 behind-the-scenes documentary The Making of Sgt Pepper, George Martin played an early version of "A Day in the Life." Referring to John, Martin said, "even in this early take, he has a voice which sends shivers down the spine." Martin had just heard Lennon's entranced delivery of the opening lines--"I read the news today, oh boy / About a lucky man who made the grade"--and the deep gaze on his face and the slight glistening in his eyes suggested how moved he still was by the the death of his friend.