Books: A Day In the Life

So I’m at a get-together the other day, and someone mentions The Beatles, and someone else asks, “When did ‘The Beatles’ really start to exist? Is it when Ringo joined the group? When John, Paul, and George got together? When John and Paul met?”

And I said, “Really, The Beatles, as an entity, consisted of five people, and would be ‘The Beatles’ in name alone without any one of them. Those five people were John, Paul, George, Ringo, and George Martin, who produced most of their albums, as well as scoring the orchestral backups and often playing instruments on individual songs. Martin enters the equation in 1962, and The Beatles’ first recording session with him was in November of that year. One month later the “Love Me Do” single was released. So, in my opinion, The Beatles, as we now know them, began in late 1962.”

Whoa! Check out the big brain on Baldwin!

It helped, I suppose, that I’d just finished reading the book A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles the day prior to this conversation. Truth be told, a month ago I knew pretty much nothing about The Beatles. I was born a year after McCartney announced the dissolution of the group, and although I owned the White Album while attending college (as required by law), never really listened to it much.

In fact, it was the commission of a mortifying Beatles-related faux pas on my part that inspired me to read the book in the first place. I casually mentioned that I thought “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was pretty catchy and received a fusillade of derision, with comments ranging from “you know, that’s pretty much universally acknowledged as the worst Beatles song” to “I really like McCartney, but that one makes me want to beat him with a tire iron.”

Humiliated, I resolved to listen to hundreds of hours of The Beatles compositions until I, too,developed a highly refined appreciation of their discography and legacy. Or, read a book about them. One of the two.

Fortunately, in opting for the latter option, I picked a book that served as a passable substitute for the former. Author Mark Hertsgaard bills A Day In the Life as the only book that focuses foremost on the music, rather than the celebrity, of the Fab Four. He does this by alternating between chapters devoted to specific albums and chapters covering some other aspect of Beatology. For example, chapter 13 covers the Rubber Soul album, chapter 14 discusses the role George Martin played behind the scenes, chapter 15 looks at the 1966 release Revolver, 16 investigates their drug use, and so on.

Though the topics are arranged semi-chronologically (their experimentations with mind-altering drugs really did began between their Rubber Soul and Revolve LPs, for instance), each chapter is largely self-contained. Thus, the book reads like a collection of essays rather than as a single narrative, a format I preferred. It’s unlikely I could have pulled off that “let me tell you a little something about George Martin” stunt if all of the information pertinent to my argument has been strewn over 400 pages instead of confined to chapter 14.

Hertsgaard sometimes gets a little carried away in his enthusiasm for the band–reading some of his fervent descriptions of their early pop singles and then listening to the songs in questions is like a summer of overhyped blockbuster movies that fail to meet you wildly unrealistic expectations. And his “album-chapters” occasionally got a little too in-depth for my liking, sometimes going so far as to rhapsodize about a single note or passage in a song. And yet the non-album chapters were uniformly riveting. In fact, A Day In The Life was a compulsive read for me. When the fractures between The Beatles began to appear, I was less sad that the band was going to break up than I was that the book was going to end.

In conclusion: YOU SHUT UP OB-LA-DI OB-LA-DA IS A GREAT SONG!!

* * *

37 comments.

  1. … but at least I now recognize that A Day in the Life, Norwegian Wood, and Come Together are on a whole different plane of greatness.

  2. When I was about two or three, my mother would put that song on the stereo and dance around the living room with me.

  3. I’ve owned that book for years, Matt… Also of note (stopped reading your post — sorry :) ) is that it came out prior to the big “Beatles Anthology” hub-bub of the 1990’s. Mark was getting the first listen to the tapes that would later end up on 3 dual-disc releases (anthologies 1 thru 3).

  4. It’s not widely available, but “Paperback Writer” by Mark Shipper is a great send-up of the celebrity of the Beatles. It was published in paperback only in 1978 and AFAIK never reprinted, but it’s the funniest rock ‘n roll book I’ve ever read. Yeah, I know that there aren’t many funny rock ‘n roll books, but still…

  5. Gosh, people can be pompous.

    My brother came home for winter vacation from college at the end of 1968. I had just turned 10 years old, and he had recently bought the White Album. He sat me down at the kitchen table and sang the entire double album to me (although I imagine he passed over “Revolution 9″). I remember when he got to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” I completely got the whole weird, gender-bending nature of it–an understanding that completely escaped me when I listened to it as an adult. Out of the ears of babes, I guess.

    Anyway, the notion that it’s “universally acknowledged” as the worst Beatles’ song is so much hogwash. Who are these people universally acknowledging it? In 40 years of listening to that album, I’ve never heard a soul say anything of the sort. So you just go ahead and enjoy it, and to hell with the rest of the world.

    (Personally, I’ve always hated “The Long and Winding Road,” which I find sappy and boring and ruined by those maudlin strings, but that is just one woman’s opinion.)

  6. It depresses me that the summer blockbuster analogy is so terribly appropriate that I didn’t have any trouble getting what you meant.

    And I’ll second ‘Long and Winding Road’ as being annoying.

    Then again, my dad would always wake me up with that damned “Good Morning” song blaring on the stereo back in high school…

  7. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” the worst Beatles song? Not in any universe where “Rocky Racoon” exists. (Or is that such an easy target that it’s too obvious?)

  8. What about Pete Best? Do you consider him a Beatle?

  9. “Revolution in the Head” by Ian MacDonald is the only Beatles book I own and ever recommend to anyone interested in the songs. The book is essentially a dictionary of each and every Beatles track in chronological order describing anything worthwhile such as concept, recording, chord structure etc. – all intertwined within one of the best social commentaries on sixties culture, music and politics. It’s on a shelf in my kitchen and any time a Beatles song comes along it’s ultimately pulled down and opened up and it never fails to educate. MacDonald’s own tragic life makes the book even more profound.

    I personally find it hard to fault “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” despite it being publically derided by Lennon (even though if you listen carefully to the background at the beginning of some of the verses you can hear him enthusiastically prompting the words) – again, MacDonald’s description of this song is pretty insightful. If anything, the song shows their range and ability to incorporate different musical styles. And anyway – show me one kid under 12 that doesn’t absolutely love this song for its sing-alongability. If I had to pick a stinker it’d definitely be Ringo’s “Don’t Pass Me By”. Simply grating.

    Finally, one other great resource for Beatles songs is Alan W. Pollack’s Notes On.. found at http://soundscapes.info/. A lot more music theory involved here and a bit over my head – but some great nuggets of info all the same.

  10. And “Nowhere Man” is a song about existentialism. The only one ever written. Did you know that?

  11. To all the McCartney-haters, I always like to say: You wish you could be as good as Paul on his worst day. I mean, seriously.

  12. My vote for worst song is “What A Shame Mary Jane Had A Pain at the Party.” Yoko caterwalling at her best. The EP has great cover artwork though.

    http://www.jpgr.co.uk/r8028.html (Probably NSFW)

  13. My favorite is “Lucy in Disguise (with Almonds)”. It’s way deep.

  14. Hi all. Love the blog. Currently sat in work in Liverpool city center. Just a stones throw from Mathew Street and the Cavern club (not the original of course, that was demolished and then rebuilt). Always weird when people halfway round the World are taking about something which is all around you everyday. Even more so as during 2008 Liverpool is the European city of culture. BTW they are currently building a hotel with a Beatles theme at the moment. It does look rather plush at the moment.

  15. I like “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” as well. But I think its fair to say that it wasn’t what people were expecting from the Beatles or the White Album.

  16. I think the disparity between the book’s description of the early recordings and Matthew’s reaction to them is a function of age. I still remember the first time I heard a Beatle’s song. It was on the car radio as I was riding with my Uncle and some cousins to a used book store. The song was “She Loves You” and in the context of the 50’s and 60’s pop music I knew at age 10 it was startlingly unlike anything I’d ever heard. That sound, combined with what I already knew of the weird way adults were reacting to their appearance and the hysteria they were inducing in teenage girls, imprinted me as a Beatle’s fanatic instantly. Matthew didn’t have this experience because he grew up around the music that resulted from what the Beatle’s did and it didn’t have the same impact in that context.

    ps – the faux pas was committed by the idiot who was parroting something he read somewhere about “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”. As for the worst Beatle’s song ever, I’d like to suggest (sorry Ringo) “I Wanna Be Your Man” (I find a certain goofy charm in “Don’t Pass Me By”.)

  17. “What’s the New Mary Jane” is the name of the song, as I recollect. It is pretty dire. “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)” is another turkey. Finally, “Revolution 9″ completes unholy trio.

    “The Long And Winding Road” had the misfortune of being remixed by Phil Spector over a year after it was initially recorded. He took out all the original instrumentation (except Ringo) and added the orchestra.

  18. @ “Fr. MacKenzie”: I see what you did there. Nice!

    I second the endorsement of Revolution in the Head. It is not the only Beatles book I own, but it is the only one I’ve read from cover to cover three times. As the good Father has suggested, this book is also best kept handy for when a Beatles song comes on and you here something a little different for the very first time. Consulting the chronological song by song essays almost always provides a tasty nugget that enhances one’s enjoyment of the song. One of the things I most enjoyed about it was the ability of the book to impress upon the reader the fact that the recording techniques and musical ideas used by the Beatles (including George Martin) in these songs – many of them now commonplace and almost cliched – were pioneered and invented on Beatles records.

    As far as the rest of it, including the relative merits of O Bla Di O Bla Da like the man said, it’s only rock ‘n roll and good music is whatever gets your rocks off, quite apart from any notion of technical merit. Period, full stop. That being said, I will still argue with people ’til I am blue in the face that they ought to give themselves over to something other than Britney Spears’ latest release.

    A Day in the Life (the song) is just genius, IMHO. As for any other clunkers in the Beatles’ catalogue, considering the extremely short period during their vast body of work was written and recorded, and considering all of the other demands on their time in that time period, they might be easily excused for the occasional dud. It also bears keeping in mind that they accomplished all of this well before they turned 30. Ask the next vocal know-it-all Paul hater to list his accomplishments in the same time period, and watch him (or her) make like Pac-Man meets Blinky.

  19. Oops. Should be “hear” something different. My bad.

    Also, Paul hates The Long and Winding Road too, at least the version with the strings in it. Phil Spector put those in without Paul’s approval or knowledge. He may not be guilty of *ahem* certain other things, but he’s guilty of that.

  20. To all the McCartney-haters, I always like to say: You wish you could be as good as Paul on his worst day. I mean, seriously

    Hmmm. I’ve re-read the comments, and I’m not seeing the McCartney haters. But I will admit that I would actually prefer NOT to be as good as Paul on the day when, say, he wrote “Silly Love Songs.” But YMMV.

  21. I’m 29. When I was a kid, I liked “Yellow Submarine”. I don’t think I’ve really ever liked the Beatles beyond that, though I don’t specifically dislike their work. Except Abbey Road. I hate that whole album.

    Ahhh, the sweet freedom of not having been alive in the 60s. I don’t have to like boring music :)

  22. Karen’s comment on ‘Silly Love Songs’ allows me to regurgitate the bit of almost completely useless Beatle’s trivia that I know. Sometime during the break up of the Beatles, John complained that all Paul wanted to do was to write silly love songs. So a couple of years later Paul wrote ‘Silly Love Songs’ which was the No 1 selling song of that year. Of course, as with any number 1 song, anyone who listened to pop music that year or the next heard the song so many time that it now triggers the gag reflex in them.

  23. Seems to me you asked a different question than was asked.

  24. “ob-la-di ob-la-da” Is one of my favorite Beatles songs, which I have labeled in my head as a quintessentially Paul, song. I have them all divided up that way.. I successfully avoided listening to any Beatles albums, until 2000, when I met my wife. She has an enormous Beatles collection.

    Now, even though I think that they are slightly overrated I love the last three albums….last four. Sgt. Pepper up to “Let it Be” After listening to them I can’t listen to anything that came out after 1971 without hearing some, Beatles influence.

  25. +1 on Alan W. Pollack’s Notes On.. Very interesting analysis of how subtle and sophisticated most of the Beatles song structures were compared to most standard pop and blues tunes.

    Like Matt who goes from reading the description of a song to listening the song itself, I recently read “White Bicycles” by Joe Boyd, (who produced Pink Floyd’s first sessions, Nick Drake, and was pretty much the musical Zelig of mid-60’s cool happenings), and as I read the book, when some intriguing performer or performance was mentioned I’d do a quick YouTube search. Nine times out of ten, there was a clip – Dylan at Newport, Fairport Convention with Sandy Denny, People stoned at the UFO Club, obscure European jazzers. It’s pretty amazing the resource library that has been constructed of our pop cultural heritage just by people uploading cool clips to YouTube.

    And, yes there are a few less-than-stellar Beatles songs, but you can’t dis them for batting 995.

  26. I believe Pete Best was in their previous incarnation, “The Silverwings,” so I’d say he was a Silverwing but not a Beatle, so to speak.

  27. Check out Revolution In The Head.

    The most amazing breakdown of Beatles songs and work in History. The book is stunning and amazing.

  28. I’ve never heard of any incarnations of The Beatles being known as “The Silverwings”. I have heard of them as “Long John and The Silver Beatles” as well as just “The Silver Beatles”

  29. “Author Mark Hertsgaard bills A Day In the Life as the only book that focuses foremost on the music, rather than the celebrity, of the Fab Four”

    I assume that doesn’t count Mark Lewisohn’s essential book “The Complete Beatles Recordings”, which describes what happened at every single Beatles recording session. It’s exhaustive, in more than one meaning of the word.

  30. Add me to the chorus of people who assert that “Long and Winding Road” is several orders of magnitude worse than “Ob La Di.” When it comes up in the great iTunes Beatles melange, we skip it.

  31. Both Pete Best and Stuart Suttcliffe were in The Beatles and The Silver Beatles. They changed the name back and forth quite a few times during the Hamburg days.

    Also. Worst Beatles song is kind of like world’s tallest midget.

  32. The actual title of the White Album is *The Beatles.* “The White Album” is just what everyone calls it.

    Matthew (the commenter, not the Yeti): As a 26-year-old and I appreciate the sweet freedom of living in an age of CD’s and other digital data-storage formats so I don’t have to listen to boring music (or, worse, awful music) and can listen to the music from the Sixties instead.

  33. The actual title of the White Album is *The Beatles.* “The White Album” is just what everyone calls it.

    Um…duh?

  34. That was “The Silver Beetles”. The second “e” didn’t become an “a” until it was just “The Beatles”.

  35. I nominate “Dr Robert” as a very bad Beatles song. But I agree that “Long and Winding Road” is probably the most annoying though.

  36. Oh, and I want to second the vote for I Wanna Be Your Man as the worst Beatles song ever. It’s so tedious I’d actually forgotten about it until someone mentioned it above. Or do I have this wrong? Are we just looking for spectacularly bad songs? I always rank those higher than songs that are just boring, repetitive, and redundant.

  37. Also one of my favorites. Although, I was born two days after Lennon’s death. . .

    I like Blackbird a lot too.

    That’s the thing that’s nice about the Beatles. Everyone who likes music, likes a song or two. Everyone who has strong feelings about music hates a song or two as well. Plenty of discussion.