I was at a dinner party and somebody asked me to request my favourite Beatles song. Everybody was doing it, in the slightly drunken region between dessert and people deciding it was time to go home. It took no time for me to be certain in my response: ‘A Day in the Life.’
Within thirty seconds of the song starting, I realised two things. First, it was inappropriate for the setting, possibly dampening the up-beat party mode (following ‘Can’t Buy me Love’) and exacerbating the communal sense that perhaps it was time to finish the party and get some sleep. Second, I wanted to climb over the couch and pull the speaker cord from the laptop, apologising to all around because the song that was playing was not the song I was thinking of.
It was not because I suddenly realised that this is not my favourite Beatles song. It is. But it is for reasons that are difficult to argue for in today’s culture of absorbing music in singular units. Listening to ‘A Day in the Life’ as part of a party playlist, appearing randomly after whatever happened to be before it, is an entirely different experience from listening to the track as a wonderful conclusion to the Beatles’ masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The track is the same. But the sensation is not. If you listen to the album in its entirety, uninterrupted, then the final track comes as a poignant, potent culmination. Random squawks and sounds and bashes and chords throughout the album are revisited in the penultimate ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)’ and hint at a climax. The textures, themes, tones, thoughts and feelings that are introduced, enhanced and developed throughout the album are then brought together subtly with the applause, silence and simple chords of the opening of ‘A Day in the Life.’ The listener is induced to reflect, ponder and feel, over the next few minutes of calm and chaos, in some beautiful simplicity.
I know this is all a load of pretentious bollocks. Or could be conceived as such. Or at least just a load of self-important irrelevant ramble about my own personal response. But my underlying point is this: an album is not a collection of songs. It is an individual entity. It allows the artist room to move, to bounce concepts or feelings off of one another, to exaggerate some things and underplay others, without having to try and reduce every emotion or exclamation they want to express into one song. A single song, most of the time, needs to be a coherent, complete entity in itself. With a few successful exceptions, it is difficult to have one song that portrays both love and hatred, or quantum theory and creationism, or the idea of moving to Arkansas and that of repairing a broken chair, with equally impacting emotion and conviction. But within an album an artist can present and contrast such ideas together without dampening the impact of any particular one.
If listened to in its entirety, Sgt. Pepper’s is one of the greatest albums of all time, and arguably the Beatles’ best. But there are few titles on it that rate among the best Beatles songs. ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is a regular in any list of best Beatles tracks, ‘With a Little Help from my Friends’ is boppy enough to be remembered or recognised, and ‘A Day in the Life’ has its advocates among critics and well-informed fans. But this album is by no means a collection of the Beatles’ most popular or ‘best’ songs. It functions as a whole. And listening to it, or listening to its final track in isolation, makes you acutely aware of the difference between what albums used to be and what they are now.