Every music lover will be able to recall the moment they heard the song that changed their life. For David Crosby of Crosby, Stills & Nash, that moment came on a cold day in 1967, a time when The Beatles were putting the finishing touches to their pioneering concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.
On release, the LP melted the spongey minds of countless young people with its incorporation of experimental, musique concrète production techniques and avant-garde songwriting. Crosby was one of the first to hear what is arguably the greatest track from that phenomenal album, ‘A Day In The LIfe’, a song so intoxicating that even the most cold-hearted reviewers were forced to concede its cerebral brilliance.
‘A Day In The Life’ acts as the mind-bending closing track to Sgt. Pepper’s. It is an absolutely fearless piece of songwriting, an utterly transcendent piece of work that you would be forgiven for thinking fell from some orbiting space rock. Even John Lennon, who was notoriously critical of his own songwriting, knew that he and Paul McCartney were on to something. ‘”A Day in the Life’ – that was something. I dug it,” Lennon once recalled. “It was a good piece of work between Paul and me. I had the ‘I read the news today’ bit, and it turned Paul on. Now and then we really turn each other on with a bit of song, and he just said ‘yeah’ – bang, bang, like that. It just sort of happened beautifully.”
Half the joy of ‘A Day in the Life’ lies in its lyrics, and the other half lies in its production. Lennon’s Dadaist approach imbues his lyrics with a fractured, highly surreal quality, typified in that mysterious verse: “He blew his mind out in a car/ He didn’t notice that the lights had changed/ A crowd of people stood and stared/They’d seen his face before/ Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords.” Lennon’s words capture both the mundane and the fantastic, blending those two opposites into what comes to feel like a diaristic observation of the eccentricities of everyday life.
For David Crosby, the thing that stood out – more than the evocative lyrics – was the sheer otherworldly nature of The Beatles’ production style. Speaking in a recent interview, Crosby described the day he heard ‘A Day in the Life’ for the first time: “The best thing that ever happened to me was visiting The Beatles when they were making Sgt. Pepper,” he began. “I came in and I was very high. They sat me down on a stool in the middle of the studio and rolled up two six-foot-tall speakers on either side of me. Then, laughing, they climbed the stairs back to the control room and left me there. And then they played ‘A Day in the Life.’ At the end of that last chord, my brains just ran out my nose onto the floor in a puddle. I didn’t know what to do, I was just stupefied.”
That final, enormous E Major is one of the most famous chords in popular music. It was recorded as a replacement for the vocal section that had originally sat in its place but which was felt to be unsuitable. On February 22nd, 1967 – each seated at separate grand pianos – Lennon, McCartney, Starr and Mal Evans all played a resonant E Major chord at the same time, with George Martin doing the same on harmonium. Behind the glass, the studio engineers pushed the recording level as high as possible and kept the tape running as the chord dissipated, allowing the reverberations to gradually decay. What the listener is left with is a 40-second drone that slowly dissolves into the walls of Abbey Road studios. The sound is so complex and so full of overtones (naturally occurring harmonies) that the brain is at a loss to work out how to disentangle the web of sound that it has been confronted with. No wonder Crosby was left speechless.