{The 20th Century Sublime: Volume 2} “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles (1967)

There is no greater Beatles song in my opinion than the final track from 1967’s mindblowing Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. A Day in the Life has a track length of 5:35, but within those three-hundred and thirty-five seconds is contained popular music’s transition from modernism into postmodernism. The album’s guiding conceit, where the Beatles disavowed their superstar personalities and pretended to be some ragtag collective helming a psychedelic variety show, owes less to Edwardian-era costumes and more to Lewis Carrol-like shifts in identity: “I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”

The LSD-fueled A Day in the Life presented reality as more of an idea than a tangible object: the fragmented hallucinatory lyrics presenting the parallel universe of everyday life, the dreamy slippery pastiches of varying weight and kind, the apocalyptic crescendos threatening to shatter the limits of mundane perception. The album’s release marked the last gasp of the decade’s utopian vision before America was irrevocably shattered. Sgt. Pepper arrived in the nick of time before things slid into the jaws of hell the following year with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Orangeburg, the Kerner Commission, the Manson murders, the Tet Offensive, and the Chicago Democratic Convention.

The proposition of hiding behind a fictional band gave the Beatles the freedom to experiment musically and Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is historically notable for A) Helping to usher in the album era B) Being one of the first art rock LP’s that attempted to bridge the gap between high art and popular music C) Being one of the first concept records that advanced the use of extended form in popular music D) Approaching the studio as an instrument, applying orchestral overdubs, sound effects and textures, and other methods of tape manipulation to the original recordings E) And capturing “more vividly than almost anything contemporaneous, its own time and place” and “provid[ing] a historical snapshot of England during the run-up to the Summer of Love.”

Rolling Stone magazine’s Langdon Winner said it best: “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. In every city in Europe and America the radio stations played [it] … and everyone listened … it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”