It’s received wisdom that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which arrived 50 years ago in the long record-breaking summer heat of 1967, is one of rock’s greatest albums. Inspired by Brian Wilson’s obsessive labor on the Beach Boys’ epic Pet Sounds, the Sgt. Pepper studio sessions were weeks of ideas tried, ideas rejected, and things tried anew. Undeniably, Sgt. Pepper is an experimental classic, a triumph of influence. But I don’t consider it even the best Beatles album; that’s Rubber Soul or Revolver. On the Sgt. Pepper album, however, is “A Day in the Life,” which is my idea of a perfect song. It is the epitome of The Beatles’ master building, of fitting stone upon stone, each section troweled together with such ingenuity and care that upon completion the whole thing feels seamless, a structure not built at all, but a whole that simply was.
“A Day in the Life” isn’t a song to sing, as are “Eleanor Rigby” (ideal for both car and karaoke), “Hey Jude” (written to soothe John Lennon’s young son, no lullaby works better at children’s bedtime), or “In My Life” (a perennial at weddings and funerals and, I can’t help mentioning, rock’s analog to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116). Nor is “A Day in the Life” guided by melody like so many Beatles creations. It’s an elaborate production, filled with sophisticated George Martin and Geoff Emerick musical trickery (distortion, echo, dubbing, reverb). An orchestra plays, and then one singer’s voice gives way to another’s—John’s worldly reflections transitioning to Paul’s sketch of domestic memoir, and then back again—before orchestral cataclysm and a final resting place.