A Day In The Life: A Quintessential Song of Psychedelic Music
What is psychedelic music?
We all know psychedelics as a class of drugs, one that classifies hallucinogenic drugs (like LSD) that alter one’s state of consciousness. But how does this tie in with music? Like the name suggests, it is a genre that replicates the effects of hallucinogenic drugs and alters the state of mind. Originating in the 1960’s, it was heavily influenced by artists like The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd.
There is no song that better represents this genre than The Beatles’ A Day In The Life. The experience is so memorable that I still remember the first time I listened to it; and that first time, I stopped the song halfway, terrified of what would come next. I made the mistake of letting the serenity of the introductory verses lure and mislead me into thinking it was a sweet song. Despite not listening to it for another month, this is my favorite song of all time, as no matter how many times I listen to it, I’m still amazed as to how creative it is in producing psychedelic effects. In this work, we will examine A Day In The Life, and what particularly makes this so quintessential of psychedelic pop.
The track starts off with a simple acoustic guitar chord progression: G to B minor to E minor to E to C. These chords are strummed at a moderate tempo as the upbeat chords of a piano overlaps the guitar. Then, the serene vocals of John Lennon croons as he describes what he did that day, placing the cherry on top of this serene and cute atmosphere, slowly luring the listener in. Blue skies, and a sunny day.
The introductory verses of this song consist of Lennon describing what he did that day. He first starts singing about reading the news and watching a film, but the listener knows something is off. Inspired by the death of Tara Browne, Lennon starts singing about his death and how he laughed at the photo of the car wreck. Yet, Lennon delivers these lines in a dream-like state, juxtaposing with the guitar and piano in the background.
Having read the book
I’d love to turn you on…
These lines mark a turning point in the song. Lennon diverges from the dream-like and high-pitched vocals that he delivers prior, and starts singing out of key. Then, he delivers the last three words in a chilling, slow trill. His vocals fade as they are replaced by the trills of an orchestra, as the 40 musicians slowly crescendos into a messy, entangled, and horrifying E major chromatic scale. Everyone plays at their own tempo, and the overlap of screeches and sounds only continues to increase in pitch. This was when I realized this song was not like any other; it is truly unpredictable, as two very incompatible sections of the song had transitioned from the other. My heart pounds each time I listen to the orchestra, and I can’t ever sit still.
Suddenly, the orchestra comes to a halt. The tempo is now faster as the upbeat piano resumes, followed by the sound of an alarm clock ringing. The day begins.
Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
The clock is a very compelling symbol. Most individuals start their day to the sound of an alarm clock, and it’s creative in the way that it represents the start of the day. Then, Paul McCartney starts describing an average English man late for work.
And looking up, I noticed I was late
*pant* *pant* *pant*
Found my coat, and grabbed my hat
Made the bus, in seconds flat
Two small details of this verse that can easily get past the listener are the drums and the panting. The drums are perfect because they’re overly simple: it serves as the metronome. With the simple drum clap representing each beat with little additional rhythms being performed, it sounds tedious and routine. Thus, the drums parallel the average day as what it is: tedious and routine. Another great and subtle detail is the panting in the middle of Paul’s verse. It contributes to the rush and adrenaline of being late, which is relatable to many. Personally, it reminds me of the many times I made it to class as the bell just misses me by seconds.
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream
These lines transition into the next section, which consists of John harmonizing as an orchestra crescendos over his voice, hence representing the dream and altered state of consciousness that Paul describes after having smoked. The piece switches back to its original tempo as John delivers one final verse as he describes reading the news once more about a rather random article he picked.
I’d love to turn you on
As the final line of this piece, he delivers it in a slow trill once more, as he is once again overlapped by the E major chromatic scale of an orchestra. Once the orchestra hits the ceiling and suddenly comes to a halt, the famous last piano chord provides an epic end to both the track and the album. It took 3 pianos to play this one E major chord, and the chord rang for a total of 42 seconds.
In all, this track is a stepping stone during the 60’s and psychedelic pop era. As the culmination of The Beatles’ discography, A Day In The Life took risks that no other band dared to take. This piece is not like general psychedelic pieces that are meant to be ‘trippy’; it’s the juxtaposition between the piano and guitar with the orchestra and the vocals that draws the subtle line between serenity and chaos. From the Pixies to Nirvana to King Crimson to The Beach Boys, the bands that The Beatles influenced would compose the decades that follow, thus making The Beatles’ psychedelic work like A Day In The Life so influential in music.