A minor social media skirmish erupted recently when the fan site Beatles Earth posed a question on Twitter. Who is singing the dreamy mid-song “Ahh” part on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band song A Day in the Life, it was asked. The passage in dispute kicks in at the 2:49 mark, right after Paul McCartney sings “I went into a dream.”
Was it John Lennon who sings the long, wordless moan that follows? Was it McCartney? Was it both of them? According to Beatles Earth, the debate over this has been raging ever since the majestic A Day in the Life closed Sgt. Pepper with an E-major crescendo in 1967.
In reaction to the resurrected debate, a few well-known musicians tweeted their surprise that the question was any question at all.
“Is it not John?” asked singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith.
“It’s John,” CSNY’s David Crosby said, “no question.”
“There’s no debate,” Juno-winner Hawksley Workman agreed.
But there is a debate. Even though the late Abbey Road recording engineer Geoff Emerick (who recorded the song) wrote in his book that it was Lennon’s voice, a faction of Beatles nerds say Emerick’s memory was faulty and that the “Ahh” singer was Paul.
One of them is Jerry Hammack, a Canadian-American musician and studio engineer who authored The Beatles Recording Reference Manuals (1961-1970), a five-book magical mystery tour into the minutia of the band’s studio history. “I’ve determined that the ‘Ahh’ vocal is sung by Paul,” he told The Globe last week. “The tonality of the voice and his phrasing embellishments at the end of the passage are pure McCartney.”
There is indeed a flutter to the vocals at the 3:00 minute mark that does seem more Paul than John. McCartney-believers also point out that the “Ahh” vocals in A Day in The Life sound similar to the “Ahh” lead-in to Paul’s Lovely Rita, also from Sgt. Pepper.
Lennon is no longer alive and never said goo goo g’joob on the “Ahh” subject when he was around. Besides, he was a notoriously unreliable narrator, singing “I am the walrus” in 1967, only to reverse himself on Glass Onion a year later: “Here’s another clue for you all, the walrus was Paul.”
As for McCartney, he was once posed the question on Reddit. Unfortunately, his answer was inconclusive: “I seem to think we all sang it,” he wrote. “But I was definitely in there.”
When it came to writing A Day in the Life, both Lennon and McCartney were definitely in there. The zonked gloom and newspaper-reading sighs were from Lennon. McCartney’s the guy who spryly jumps out of bed, drags a comb across his head and races to catch the bus in “seconds flat.”
An orchestral freak-out connects their unrelated parts. “It was a damn good piece of work,” Lennon told Playboy magazine in 1980, and there is no questioning his opinion on that.
Piers Hemmingsen, who authored The Beatles in Canada: The Origins of Beatlemania!, remembers listening to Sgt. Pepper with high-end Koss headphones as a teenager. “The experience was life-changing,” he told The Globe. “It was that album that took you somewhere for 39 minutes.”
Hemmingsen’s neighbours had the headphones. In their house as a babysitter, he was engrossed in the music instead. “If that baby was crying, I didn’t hear it,” he recalled.
One man’s headphones are another man’s blinders – we only hear what we’re open to. “I always thought the ‘Ahhs’ were Lennon’s,” Hemmingsen says, “but after you’re told it’s Paul, you start to think, ‘Well, maybe it is.’”
Polling Beatles aficionados on the question, the only thing that became clear was that nothing is clear.
“I think the confusion is because the opening ‘Ahh’ sounds very John, but the rest sounds Paul,” says Toronto entertainer and animator Jerry Levitan, who recently collaborated with Sean Ono Lennon on a series of animated shorts connected to a 50th-anniversary reissue of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.
Sportscaster Paul Romanuk, who hosts the podcast The Walrus was Paul, is, no surprise, pro-McCartney. “Paul McCartney has way more of an ability to be comfortable in that high register, which is where that ‘Ahh’ part is,” Romanuk points out. “John Lennon never demonstrated that he could stay in that high register.”
But, then, there are ways to manipulate vocal pitches by altering tape speeds during the recording process.
Andrew Burashko, whose Toronto-based Art of Time Ensemble has presented elegant live performances of Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road, always assumed the “Ahh” was from Lennon, but later switched to the McCartney camp. Now that the question has popped up again, he’s back to being a Lennon loyalist after listening to the track’s isolated vocals.
“I’ve had their voices in my ear since I was seven years old, and they are so distinctly different,” Burashko says. “Hearing the vocal on its own, it just doesn’t sound like Paul.”
Former Barenaked Ladies singer-songwriter Steven Page, who participated in Burashko’s Sgt. Pepper staging, always associated the vocals with Lennon. “That nasal quality seemed like it could only be him, and I even argued with friends about it, smugly assuming I could only be right.”
But, after hearing the isolated vocals recently, Page believes it was Paul who went into the dream. “There’s not much I hate more than being wrong about Beatles trivia but I have to admit that I stand corrected.”
And on it goes. We may never get the definitive answer on this question and others when it comes to the Beatles, the act we only thought we knew for all these years. Mystery keeps their music a little more alive, which can only be a good thing, no debate there.
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