In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of all the horrors, we’re picking our favorite songs about death.
In the interview for my first real job in journalism—a general-assignment beat for the features section of my college newspaper—I was asked to name the greatest pop song ever written. Imbued with the type of forthrightness and unearned confidence available only to the stupid and young, I didn’t skip a beat. ‘“A Day In The Life,” by The Beatles,” I responded, before prattling on about the song’s multi-movement structure and the importance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, opinions that likely leaned on opinions formed out of old Chuck Klosterman columns and Rolling Stone record guides.
Sitting at that conference table, I couldn’t have been wrong, because I was 21 and in love with rock ’n’ roll (or the very small slice of rock that had shown itself to me at 21). Eight years later, however, I disagree with my former self, for the following reasons:
- “A Day In The Life” can’t be the best pop song of all time, because it isn’t even The Beatles’ best song. That’s probably “Eight Days A Week” or “A Hard Day’s Night” or “Yesterday” or “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey.” (Just kidding on the last one; I meant to type “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road.”)
- More accurately, “A Day In The Life” is “the most mind-blowing Beatles song to hear on a sunny summer afternoon on your uncle’s boat, at a time when your conception of ‘mind-blowing Beatles song’ ends at ‘Paperback Writer.’” (“Paperback Writer”—with its scuzzy guitar hook, infinite chorus, and the sing-song “Frère Jacques” verse harmonies—being another contender for best Beatles song that’s not “A Day In The Life.”)
- And for the purposes of this Hear This theme, “A Day In The Life” isn’t even the best Beatles song about death. That’s “Eleanor Rigby,” an emotional gut-punch of a tune whose chamber-pop arrangement fooled countless bands in the 2000s to hire a cello player. (They didn’t need it; none of them wrote “Eleanor Rigby.”)
Thoughts of mortality are confined to the few first lines of the song’s A-section, but the specter of death that hangs around the whole of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, from its funereal cover to the “clues” about Paul McCartney’s “demise” hidden in the record sleeve. Conspiracy theorists eventually made their way to the end of the record to “A Day In The Life,” holding up the first verse of the song as proof that McCartney fell victim to a fatal car crash before he could lend John Lennon the song’s doubly suggestive refrain: “I’d love to turn you on.”
But to me, where the song really reaches out to touch the inevitable—and where it bowled me over the first time I heard it, the time I called it the greatest pop song of all time, and the few times I’ve listened to it for this piece—is in the symphonic swell that serves as segue between the movements. Like the “whole life passing before your eyes” sensation reported by survivors of near-death experiences, these psychedelic glissandos seemingly pack decades of information into a few swirling measures of “A Day In The Life.” The second time the strings (and percussion and the brass and the woodwinds) come in, they race toward a finale as definitive as any granted to an LP. There’s a rush, a break, and then then cooling, calm release of an E-major chord struck simultaneously on three pianos and a harmonium.
In an outtake from The Beatles Anthology, engineer George Martin recalls the members of the band seeking out “a big orchestral orgasm” to bridge the gaps of “A Day In The Life.” The sustained E-major is Sgt. Pepper’s not-so-petite mort. So, perhaps I misspoke when I called “A Day In The Life” the best pop song ever written. Maybe I meant to say it’s “the ultimate pop song”—by which I mean I wouldn’t mind my own mort sounding like those signature glissandos.