The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night

A Hard Day's Night

Having conquered the musical world with their singles, albums, tours, and cheeky grins, the Beatles turned their attention to the world of film. Their manager, Brian Epstein, had signed them to star in and provide the soundtrack for a new movie. The upstart Beatles, not willing to put their names and reputations behind anything they didn’t in some way control, chose Richard Lester as the director because they admired his short, surrealistic comedy films. The Beatles had seen the “rock and roll movies” that had been released and did not want to be associated with the kind of junk exploitation films that Elvis Presley was making.

Yet the Beatles were exploited when it came time to do the soundtrack. In America, the soundtrack album was released by United Artists and contained eight Beatles originals and a handful of instrumental tracks that were used as the soundtrack to the movie. Unfortunately, this meant that America was deprived of the best album of the early years of the Beatles.

U.S. EditionU.K. Edition
A Hard Day’s Night
Tell Me Why
I’ll Cry Instead
I Should Have Known Better (Instrumental)
I’m Happy Just To Dance With You
And I Love Her (Instrumental)
I Should Have Known Better
If I Fell
And I Love Her
Ringo’s Theme (This Boy) (Instrumental)
Can’t Buy Me Love
A Hard Day’s Night (Instrumental)
A Hard Day’s Night
I Should Have Known Better
If I Fell
I’m Happy Just To Dance With You
And I Love Her
Tell Me Why
Can’t Buy Me Love
Any Time At All*
I’ll Cry Instead
Things We Said Today*
When I Get Home*
You Can’t Do That**
I’ll Be Back***
*Released in America on the LP Something New
**Released in America on the LP The Beatles’ Second Album
***Released in America on the LP Beatles ’65

There’s no denying that even on the U.S. edition those original songs are top-notch, but the inclusion of what is, essentially, four doses of Grade Z Muzak is enough to kill any album. The U.K. edition of the album is nearly flawless, an all-original collection of thirteen sterling Lennon/McCartney songs. Ringo loses his turn at the spotlight, and George is given the lightweight but enjoyable “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You.” Otherwise, this album belongs to John and, to a lesser degree, Paul. It is the first Beatles masterpiece.

The single strange chord that starts the album kicks down the door in dramatic fashion and launches a song that nearly perfectly distills everything that was good about the early Beatles. It’s joyful, bouncy, full of exuberant harmonies, swapped lead vocals (Lennon on the verses, McCartney on the chorus), a crisp, exciting and very brief guitar solo, and Ringo hitting the percussion for all that he’s worth. There’s simply no way to listen to “A Hard Day’s Night” without feeling better. Even the ending, with the sudden introduction of a chiming guitar lick heard nowhere else in the song, shocks the listener. The Beatles had great songs before, but this was different, a huge evolutionary leap in songwriting and performing.

“I Should Have Known Better” once again features the harmonica that was so prevalent on the early Beatles singles like “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” and “From Me To You,” but here it was underpinned by a driving acoustic guitar with terse electric chords and lead lines weaving throughout, and Lennon’s masterful vocal riding the wave.

One of the things that makes Beatle albums so eminently listenable is that they contain a mix of slow, fast, and mid-tempo songs. “If I Fell” is one of the best of the early Beatles ballads, a song that is nearly breathtaking in it’s beauty. It’s also a sign of the rapid maturation of Lennon the songwriter. The man who just wanted to hold your hand a few months earlier now decries that naiveté, discovering that “love is more than just holding hands.” The vocal harmony of Lennon and McCartney is nothing less than astounding.

George Harrison gets his turn at the microphone on “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You.” It’s far and away Harrison’s best vocal performance to this point. He sounds confident and less like a Scouse teenager. The song, written by Lennon and McCartney, is a bit of a throwaway, but by this point even their throwaways were better than almost anything else being released. And whatever sins “Dance” has are more than forgiven by the Greek feel of McCartney’s gorgeous “And I Love Her,” a ballad for the ages.

“Tell Me Why” is another by-the-numbers rocker that is saved and raised to a level of greatness by Lennon’s lead vocal and the harmony vocals. A song that six months earlier probably would have been recorded very differently is now a textbook example of how to write a rocking pop song. The little guitar trills, the middle eight, the quick dash of falsetto vocal…all of these are elements the Beatles likely would not have used only a few months earlier, but their progress as songwriters was so swift that these songs almost sound as if they came from a different band than the one that recorded Please Please Me.

“Can’t Buy Me Love” steals from “She Loves You” the then-revolutionary trick of starting the song with the chorus and turns the trick into art. Has there ever been a song that reached out of the speakers and so hooked the listener with the opening line? Even “She Loves You” starts with Ringo’s brief drum roll, but “Can’t Buy Me Love” immediately immerses the listener in McCartney’s go-for-broke vocal. What often goes unnoticed is that it is the bass and drums that drive the song. True, there’s a hyperkinetic guitar solo and a steady acoustic-based rhythm, but the bass largely fills in for the lead guitar.

The second side of the LP has nothing as good as “A Hard Day’s Night,” “If I Fell,” “And I Love Her” or “Can’t Buy Me Love,” but it remains a classic album side nevertheless. Lennon solidifies his hold on the album as the lead vocal on five of the remaining six songs. This is a heavier slice of Beatle music than side one, containing no real ballads. This makes A Hard Day’s Night the hardest rocking album of the early period. In fact, while the Beatles would go on to record harder songs, this album may be the most consistently hard rocking of their career.

A Hard Day’s Night is Lennon’s triumph. It’s the album he had the largest impact on until the White Album in 1968. The whipping pace of side two, led by the one-two punch of “Any Time At All” and “I’ll Cry Instead,” the propulsive acoustic guitar workout “Things We Said Today” (one of McCartney’s best early tunes, featuring one of the best middle eights in Beatle history), and the closing triptych of “When I Get Home,” “You Can’t Do That” and “I’ll Be Back,” leaves the listener exhausted and breathless from the sheer exuberance of the Lads. While side two has no Beatles classics (from a popularity perspective, not a songwriting/performance perspective), it completes an album that surpassed With The Beatles to become the single best example of a rock and roll album to that point.

Grade: A+


When You’re Strange: A (Bad) Film About The Doors

For over 30 years, I’ve been a fan of The Doors. I was knee-deep into the band when the book No One Here Gets Out Alive was released and by the time I’d turned the last page I was well over my head. For a teenager, the wild tales of Jim Morrison’s excesses were like nectar. Morrison wasn’t simply a drug addicted drunk like Janis Joplin, he was a poet, a shaman. Or as the beginning of that first bio put it, “Jim Morrison was a god. At least a lord.”

The book, by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman, became the boilerplate for all future Doors releases. And that’s too bad because now that my teenage years are behind me, I think the book is junk.

The problem is not that the book has errors, but that No One Here Gets Out Alive encased Jim Morrison in a mythology that is, at best, half-true.

From every page of the book, you can hear the authors screaming “Look at the tormented genius!” One doesn’t get the impression that Morrison had a really serious drinking problem; instead Morrison is portrayed as a Dionysian shaman who tests the boundaries of existence through a derangement of the senses. Well, no. He was a drunk and a drug addict, but mainly a drunk. He wasn’t testing boundaries any more than the guy I see on Park Avenue in the morning, staggering down the street with his pants around his knees.

But the book was a moneymaker, and it brought a renewed interest in the band…an interest that greatly profited Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger, and John Densmore.

Since the publication of Alive, there have been a score of books about the Doors, a boxed-set of rarities, remixed reissues, officially released bootlegs, a full-length feature film, concert films, a VH1 Storytellers episode featuring the surviving members and a rotating gaggle of lead singers, and even a tour featuring Ray, Robbie, and Ian Astbury doing his best, most shameless, Morrison impersonation. Most recently there is a 90-minute documentary narrated by none other than Captain Jack Sparrow himself, Johnny Depp.

Some of this material has been great. I’m very partial to the “Doors Collection” DVD that compiles their videos, Hollywood Bowl performance, and their interview/performance at PBS, along with backstage film footage. I also thought Ray Manzarek’s book Light My Fire and John Densmore’s book Riders On The Storm were both excellent. Stephen Davis’s biography of Morrison, Life, Death, Legend is one of his better books.

But for the most part, the Doors remain trapped in the amber that is No One Here Gets Out Alive, and that’s a pity. Somewhere out there, right at this moment, Ray Manzarek is telling the story of meeting Jim on Venice Beach. He is using the words “Dionysos” and “shaman” without the slightest trace of irony. Rather than the story being a celebration of the Lizard King’s lyrics, vocals, humor, and life it is the story of one man’s descent into alcoholic hell. In recent years, Manzarek has been more forthrightly stating that Morrison had a real problem and that drunken Jim was not a pleasant guy to be around. But all too often he couches his criticism in that No One Here Gets Out Alive myth that Morrison was a dark god testing the boundaries of human experience in his endless quest to break on through to the other side.

Which brings me to When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors. Among Doors fans, there was a lot of hype around the Tom DiCillo-directed documentary since it promised lots of unseen footage and the cooperation of the surviving band members. It was all a sham.

The only remotely interesting thing about the documentary is the inclusion of clips from HWY, a short film made by (and starring) Jim Morrison. The footage from this film is pristine and oddly fascinating, but it in no way compensates for the fact that this is an otherwise dreadful documentary.

Clocking in at a paltry 86 minutes, the entire history of the band from formation to inglorious end is given less screen time than their incendiary first album gets in the Classic Albums: The Doors DVD (now, that’s worth watching). There are no interviews with anybody in the band or their extended entourage. Almost all the footage has appeared on other Doors-related DVDs and videos. Events are told out of sequence (the story of July 1969’s Soft Parade album is told before the story of the 1968 New Haven on-stage arrest and the March 1969 Miami incident). The narration by Johnny Depp is breathless and overheated, and the script he’s reading sounds like a first draft that was written in one weekend by someone whose only knowledge of the band came from a cursory reading of No One Here Gets Out Alive. Any Doors fan with a working knowledge of the band will be more than familiar with the story as it is presented here. Like their disappointing coffee table book The Doors By The Doors, this is Doors 101, an introductory class for a band that merits so much more. On the plus side, the footage of a hapless flight attendant asking the Doors if they’re a band “like the Monkees” is priceless.

One of these days, somebody will sit down with the surviving members of the Doors and force them to stop regurgitating the mythology. Yes, Jim Morrison was a drunk and a drug addict, but while he may have gone on stage three sheets to the wind, he wasn’t writing that way. Nobody writes good songs while inebriated. This is the Morrison I want to hear about: the poet, the songwriter, the music fan. I want to hear about the man, his sense of humor, his sober relationship with the other Doors. The Doors came out of an explosive era in rock music, but aside from their infatuation with Arthur Lee’s Love, the Doors seem to exist outside of the music scene. It’s almost impossible to get musicians to stop talking about music, but the Doors seem to talk about everything except music.

There’s a real human story behind this great band. It is not a tale of gods and lords, of shaman or Dionysian ecstasy. The story of the Doors is the story of four friends who were exceptionally good musicians, who wrote great songs, who rehearsed, who laughed together, who toured the world. Yes, the tales of drink and drugs, of arrests and outbursts of violence, are there, but these episodes of excess are not the whole tale, just part of the larger, human story. Hopefully there will be a documentary someday that will tell the whole story, not just the salacious parts.

The Listening Post: September 2010

Autumn brings earth tones.

  • MojoTom Petty And The Heartbreakers. After a lot of time wandering in the wilderness in search of real inspiration, Tom Petty has come back with his strongest set of tunes since 1994’s Wildflowers. That’s not really saying much since this is only his fourth album in 16 years, but that doesn’t underestimate the strength of these albums. What’s interesting on Mojo is how Petty has reclaimed his muse by going back to his roots. There’s a strong bluesy feel to a lot of this, but the best tracks on the album are the ones that are the strangest in terms of Petty’s repertoire. “First Flash of Freedom” features an extended psychedelic instrumental section that sounds like the Doors jamming on an alternate take of “Light My Fire,” with Mike Campbell channeling Robbie Krieger. “The Trip To Pirate Cove” uses a ghostly backing vocal to augment a haunted tale. “No Reason To Cry” is a countrified ballad, and a beautiful one. “I Should Have Known It” is a bruising rocker. On the other hand, “Don’t Pull Me Over” simply proves that Petty should steer far away from reggae, “U.S. 41” and “Lover’s Touch” are strictly compose-by-numbers, and “Something Good Coming” is a decent ballad that never goes anywhere. Clocking in at over an hour, Mojo is about 15 minutes too long, but is still a worthy listen, thanks mainly to Mike Campbell’s excellent guitar throughout and the bar-band spirit that the Heartbreakers manage to inject into the songs.
    Grade: B+
  • Tons Of SobsFree. It is immediately apparent upon listening to Tons of Sobs that the début album by Free was logging a lot of time on Jimmy Page’s turntable in 1968. While most knowledgeable music fans know that Page borrowed an enormous amount of sound from Jeff Beck’s Truth, the debt that the mighty Zeppelin owe to Free is a less well-known story. After the Moody Blues-ish opener “Over the Green Hills, Part 1” Tons of Sobs explodes into a molten meltdown of British blooze, led by Paul Kossoff’s ferocious guitar playing and Paul Rodgers’s impassioned and soulful vocals. “Worry” features jagged, circular guitar lines that will shred your eardrums, and there’s a terrific version of Albert King’s “The Hunter.” While most of the songs suffer from the sameness of sound and performance that dogs a lot of the Brit blues albums of the late Sixties, there’s no denying that each track represents this mutant strain of heavy blues at a peak, and the album as a whole doesn’t have time to get boring since it begins and ends in less than 40 minutes. What this album represents is a template for what heavy rock would sound like in the 1970s. While other bands may have taken the sound further and done more with it, the debt that bands as diverse as Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Foghat owe to Free is enormous. And Free had a better lead singer than any of those bands, and a guitarist who could hold his own with any of his more famous peers.
    Grade: A-
  • Taj MahalTaj Mahal. L.A.’s Rising Sons were considered one of the can’t miss bands of the club circuit, gifted with the extraordinary guitarist Ry Cooder and, in band leader Taj Mahal, a vocalist with more grit and soul than any of his peers. Despite some fine recordings, however, The Rising Sons never hit. Ry Cooder went on to a semi-legendary career playing with nearly everyone under the sun, and Taj Mahal became the oddest of birds: a blues cult artist. Despite a great reputation with the critics, Taj never had mainstream success as a blues player because his music included everything from folk to world music. But in 1967, the début album was a straightforward collection of great blues tunes featuring sublime slide guitar from Taj, extraordinary lead guitar from Jesse Ed Davis, and the virtuoso Ry Cooder playing rhythm. Add in a rhythm section that practically defines the term “in the pocket,” cover it with the magnificently gruff vocals by Taj, and you’ve got one of the single best blues albums you’re ever likely to hear. There’s only one original song, “E Z Rider” but the covers are smartly chosen to highlight the band. Taj sets up Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” and delivers a hit to the Allman Brothers who stole his arrangement. Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” gets a passionate reading with stinging slide guitar worthy of Elmore James. “Leaving Trunk,” “Everybody Got To Change Sometime” and “Diving Duck Blues” are electrified translations of the acoustic country blues of Sleepy John Estes, and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Checking Up On My Baby” gets sped up and swings like a Louisville Slugger. At nearly nine minutes, “The Celebrated Walkin’ Blues” drags a bit, but only a bit, and that drag is a smallest of nits to pick on an otherwise extraordinary album.
    Grade: A