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+


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