Tag Archive: A Day In the Life

Not Rock

Led Zeppelin have been known for a long time as the fathers of heavy metal. They make modern metal warlords tremble like scared-crapless foot soldiers with height, width and hardness of their rock and roll. Yet, much of what they recorded wasn’t hard at all; quite the opposite actually.

Put down the pitchforks and torches for a second and listen. Hardness does not necessarily equal goodness. Sometimes it does; don’t get me wrong. But a measure of how hard, fast, or METAAAAL!!! something is doesn’t always reflect how good it is. In fact, sometimes hardness and intensity are used to cover up unfathomable ineptitude.

Anal Cunt – yeah, it’s gross; that’s the point

Case in point: the band Anal Cunt. This is probably the loudest, screamiest, growliest, most intense band in existence. Their ferocity and 1,000-magnum force is probably only seconded by that of Dethklok, who don’t even really exist. BUT, Anal Cunt is a terrible, terrible band. Just terrible. Their lyrics are overwhelmingly negative, are overflowing with profanity, insult and offend every people group on earth (including themselves), and lampoon every lifestyle choice in the most vicious and hate-filled way imaginable. Their music, while hard beyond belief, is quite literally an assault on the sense of hearing. Dissonant, unmelodic and lacking in any of the beauty and grace of music (and often lacking rhythm and chord changes), an A.C. record is not pleasant to listen to at all. They were allowed to continue go on making music for one reason. Everything they did, from the bad music to the offensive lyrics, was satirical. They did it all on purpose to be funny and hold up a mirror to society, like a good comedian. In a way that 99% of everyone who heard their music completely missed, they pointed a finger at the music industry and said, “see what you’ve become?”

So, Anal Cunt = hard, and Anal Cunt = bad. In contrast, there is the song “Stairway to Heaven.” This song is practically rock and roll holy writ. If you speak ill of it, you not only run the risk of drawing the ire of millions of rock believers, but you also need to watch the skies: you might find yourself dodging lightning bolts. Some folks take this song more seriously that Muslims take the Koran. “Stairway to Heaven” is the quintessential rock song, and for good reason. But here’s the juice: it’s not a rock song.

Sorry for the delay; I was watching for lightning bolts.

The song is 8 minutes long, and in the first 6 or so, there’s almost no hardness at all. It’s more like an old English folk ballad, if you ask me. Now, in those last 2 minutes, it reaches heights of rock stardom not previously dreamed of. The whole thing coalesces to crescendo the first 6 minutes was preparing you for. And the shift in the volume knob is not strange or startling. All 8 minutes of it are a million times better than the best A.C. song ever. Hardness and the lack thereof don’t matter anymore.

The Sandbox, by Edward Albee

In college, I took a drama course called “Directing” that taught us the elements of what goes into directing a play. The final project was a performance of a 10 to 15 minute scene of our choosing for which we would have complete creative control. We would determine the cutting of the script, recruit the actors, and set the rehearsal schedule. I did the entirety of The Sandbox, a short play by Edward Albee. It’s supposed to be a comment on the way we treat our elders, especially as they transition through the end-of-life stage. I took it in a slightly different direction, and emphasized what it said about death and dying. I had a live solo guitar performer in it (my friend and rock blood brother Mike) playing a kind of soundtrack to the scene. He ended with “Stairway to Heaven,” one of the most recognizable guitar riffs ever. After the performance, the instructor came up to me with a knowing smirk on her face. “Really, Neal? ‘Stairway to Heaven?’ Couldn’t resist, huh?” I just shrugged and smiled. She laughed.

Led Zeppelin hit resoundingly something music in general couldn’t fully be called before it: EPIC. The Beatles touched on it a few years back with “A Day In the Life,” as did Bowie with “The Width of a Circle” and Pink Floyd with “Atom Heart Mother.” But here with “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin reveals the master formula, adding a spice all those other songs were missing. Here, they perfect the art.

It gets even better. “Stairway to Heaven” is right in the middle of a veritable avalanche of epicness. Starting with “Black Dog” right up until “When the Levee Breaks” (with a slight pause near the end on “Going to California,” an inward breath amidst a loud shout), we are taught the definition of rock and roll. Elvis and Buddy Holly made us know it in our heads, and the Rolling Stones taught it to our crotches, but not until Led Zeppelin and IV did we truly know it in our hearts.

The first track of Sgt. Pepper is bookended by a reprise near the end of the record, and this makes a nice circle. The reprise is harder and faster than the original; while the rest of the record sounds new and groundbreaking, this is straight-up rock and roll. When I talk about an album having definition, purpose and unity, this pair of songs is precisely what I mean. Sgt. Pepper doesn’t just meet all those conditions; it helps to define those parameters in the first place. Without this album, they don’t really exist. The fact that it begins and ends with a matching pair of songs is the entire thing in miniature.

Okay, I lied; it doesn’t quite end there. It caps off with what is my favorite song on the record, “A Day In the Life.” After the madcap journey of Sgt. Pepper is complete, we’re left with one last image, and “A Day In the Life” contemplates nothing less that the cycle of life and death. A news story tells of a man dying in an automobile accident (Tara Browne, an actual acquaintance of John), but John also peppers this account with references to his own life, particularly his role in the movie How I Won the War. The first section ends with the line, “I’d love to turn you on,” invoking the phrase popularized by LSD guru Timothy Leary, “tune in, turn on, drop out.” Paul later confirmed in an interview that this was, in fact, a reference to drugs.

On to the second section: an orchestral swell, and the song shifts emotional colors. Paul’s voice tells a rather ordinary story of a student getting out of bed, running to the bus, and then smoking in the school hallway. After the serious account of someone’s death, life goes on. We’re really only very small, and life flows on within us and without us. Sound familiar?

I’ll admit that the third section is a mystery to me. It’s based on another news story about the potholes in a British town, and I can’t figure out what it has to do with the rest of the song. If you can, good for you.

About forty seconds after “A Day In the Life” fades out, there is a quiet, high-pitched tone. It’s almost imperceptible to humans, but dogs would find it very annoying. John apparently liked the idea of more than just humans reacting to his music. The final moment of the album is another innovation that has lasted even to this day. The first secret song ever is a collection of voices and nonsense. It’s located on the absolute inner ring of the vinyl. When the needle reaches that point, it repeats in an endless loop until the needle is picked up. There is normally silence in this part, but not on Sgt. Pepper.

When I played the album for Ruthanne, her face during this secret song was priceless. She was confused, discombobulated, and a little disturbed.

The influence and impact of Sgt. Pepper can’t be overstated. Were it to never exist, popular music would look incredibly different. Nearly every artist has been influenced by it in some way, even if they don’t realize it. I can see shades and shadows of it in almost every album that comes after it. But all of that only matters because of one thing: it’s good. If Sgt. Pepper weren’t excellent in the formalist sense, it certainly wouldn’t have the amazing trickle-down effect that it does. Because of this, Sgt. Pepper can be enjoyed on two levels: its game-changing effect on every future aspect of the popular music industry, and its own multifaceted merits.