I heard the song today, oh boy. A Day in the Life, perhaps the most epic of all Lennon-McCartney compositions, has been deemed worthy of Grammy consideration this year by the members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
The 150 recording-industry bigwigs like Jeff Beck's instrumental rendering of the song. As well they should: His live version, from the elite British guitarist's 2008 album, Performing This Week ... Live At Ronnie Scotts, is elegantly powered, retaining the song's memorable melodies with lyrical string-bending. There are no vocals in Beck's version, but, then, so many of us know the words already to one of the most beautifully mind-blasting rock recordings of all time.
The song has been Grammy-nominated twice before. It lost out in 1968 to Ode to Billie Joe in the song-arrangement category; and it lost again in 2000 for Beck's studio version on George Martin's In My Life disc. But its nomination this year for best rock instrumental performance marks a rebirth of A Day in the Life as a live piece. No longer is the heaviest track on the staggering Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band album (Grammy winner, 1968) untouchable onstage.
Paul McCartney, who wrote the bouncing middle 24 bars - "Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head" - began performing A Day in the Life live for the first time in 2008. On his most recent tour, Neil Young loved turning people on with his own grungy take on the Fab Four classic. (Check out YouTube for his version, with McCartney, at London's Hyde Park last year.) And former Yardbirds guitarist Beck spotlighted his interpretation upon his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
The Beatles never performed A Day in the Life in concert. By the time they wrote the two-part song, inspired by Lennon's daily newspaper reading, the group was too far into mustaches and psychedelic lifestyles to bother with touring. But even if they had still been performing live, bringing an orchestra into Shea Stadium and presenting their masterpiece to tens of thousands of gob-smacked screamers would have been unthinkable.
So it became a piece of art rather than a rock standard. "It's definitely one of their crowning achievements," says Ron Sexsmith, a Juno-winning Toronto singer-songwriter with his own gift for words and melodies. "If it didn't have McCartney's section of the song, it would still be a great song. But only one person on this planet could have written Lennon's part. There's so much character, the way Lennon sings, the humour in it, with a kind of sadness at the same time."
Sexsmith performed the song live in his early days - "I remember having this feeling of accomplishment, just getting through this thing" - but understands why so few others tried. "Some people hold it kind of sacred," he explains. "There's a sense of 'Don't mess with that song, or at least don't record it.'"
One act that did record the song was Lighthouse, an orchestral rock unit that, before its Sunny Days as a Canadian hit-maker, had jazz-fusion leanings. An ambitious, whimsical version of A Day in the Life appeared on Lighthouse's 1969 album, Suite Feeling. "We picked the song because of the contrast we saw," keyboardist Paul Hoffert recalled this week.
"There was the Helter-Skelter Vietnam era, which was the confused and violent age we lived in, compared with the mundane newspaper-like list of entries that A Day in the Life had," says Hoffert. Lighthouse is still active, but doesn't include the McCartney-Lennon piece in its current set list. "It's very complex by today's standards," Hoffert notes. "I don't think we would do it."
On his twice Grammy-nominated version of A Day in the Life, guitarist Beck streamlines the composition to its essentials, while keeping its spiral-
ing emotional effect. The multiple-crescendo summer-of-love-song with the crashing, endless final E-major chord still reverberates, bigger than ever, Grammy win or not.