December 17, 2020Series
Now we're talking! A Hard Day's Night was released July 10th, 1964. For those of you keeping score, that's a little less than eight months after With the Beatles (which itself was eight months after Please Please Me). What I'm trying to say here is WOW those mop-tops were prolific!!!! A Hard Day's Night also has the distinction of being the first album of all original songs, crediting Lennon/McCartney for all of it. And y'all, it's so so good. Obviously it's not "Peak Beatles" but it is a really strong, often superb entry in their catalog. I think in particular the one-two punch of the first two tracks, "A Hard Day's Night" and "I Should Have Known Better" create a kind of pop-induced delirium. They are perfectly constructed and a great example of how Lennon and McCartney were starting to depart from their more derivative music to gift us with something much more original and exciting. There are really no clunkers on the album, although a few songs still feel reminiscent of earlier musical eras ("Tell Me Why" and "You Can't Do That") and when you play them next to "Can't Buy Me Love" it's hard to compare. But every song has at least one really interesting or exciting passage - harmonies, cool key changes, John Lennon primal scream. It's hard to find fault with this album, unless you compare it with the heights the Beatles will rise to in future records.
In preparation for this post, I also watched the 1964 film A Hard Day's Night for the first time. It is generally considered the best Beatles film. Roger Ebert wrote a very affectionate and laudatory review back in 1996. If I'm being honest, though, I have to say I appreciated rather than truly enjoyed it. Seeing them all so young and silly is a treat, and it's a relief to see how easily they perform on camera (not all musicians who try to "act" do as well as they did). I giggled at quite a few of their punchlines, and of course loved the music and some of the scenery. But the true value for me was as a time capsule of a very specific time in the Beatles' history and, by extension, ours.
As I was watching, I was reminded of a scene in Boyhood that makes the whole movie for me. Mason, the protagonist, and his friends dress up and wait in line (along with many, many other families) for the midnight release of the latest Harry Potter novel. I'm so grateful for that scene because, as more and more time passes, it will be that much more difficult to describe to people what it was like when a new installment was coming. It seemed like everyone in the world was talking about it, speculating about plot twists, and sharing an enthusiasm for reading that hasn't been matched since. This brief scene in the film has preserved that moment in amber, and even though it's not the same as living through it, I consider it an excellent souvenir.
In A Hard Day's Night, it seems like we come as close as we can to experiencing the visceral energy of Beatlemania. So much of the movie involves the Fab Four running - usually away from screaming hordes of fans. As an observer, it's terribly overwhelming. But at least as depicted in the film, in 1964 the Beatles themselves still found the attention amusing and not oppressive (as of course they would later). I think the movie also does a good job of providing a window into the easy chemistry the four of them once shared - cracking jokes and teasing one another. I would write more about the plot but to be honest there isn't really one. I'm glad I watched it but I can't say I'm dying to rewind and watch again. If you're interested, it's streaming on HBO Max, and available to rent on both Amazon Prime and iTunes.
You can listen to the samples of each song from A Hard Day's Night here, and I've got a few thoughts below.
Track One: A Hard Day's Night
It's hardly an original thought, but that opening chord tho!
Track Two: I Should Have Known Better
Harmonicas and key changes for the win.
Track Three: If I Fell
This is a lovely song, with the harmonies creating a real feeling of melancholy.
Track Four: I'm Happy Just to Dance with You
A rare Harrison lead vocal in this era, this song is pleasant enough but probably the least distinguished on the album.
Track Five: And I Love Her
My favorite part is the bridge, with a truly plaintive guitar solo that adds a lot of depth to the song. Plus that immediately recognizable four note chord (ba da da dum) that plays throughout.
Track Six: Tell Me Why
This song shares a lot of DNA with "Roll Over Beethoven", which the Beatles covered on their last album. It's a lot of fun but gets most interesting when two-thirds through they hit a surprisingly effective falsetto - it catches you off guard and elevates the tune.
Track Seven: Can't Buy Me Love
I can't imagine what I could say about this that hasn't already been said, so I'll just say I've probably heard Can't Buy Me Love THOUSANDS of times and I have NEVER gotten sick of it. It is a bottomless well of fun.
Track Eight: Any Time at All
I love the poetry of this song - there's some perfect couplets: "If you need somebody to love, just look into my eyes" "If you're feeling sorry and sad, I'd really sympathize" "If the sun has faded away, I'll try to make it shine" "When you need a shoulder to cry on, I hope it will be mine".
Track Nine: I'll Cry Instead
This is one of those dissonant songs where the rhythm and melody sound cheery (until the bridge) and the lyrics are something else entirely - both sad and mad. But it's undeniably catchy, so you might find yourself singing the words absently and thinking "wait a minute - what did I just say?"
Track Ten: Things We Said Today
The constant rhythm of the backing guitar is really noticeable in this song, in a good way. It seems as important a voice as the singing.
Track 11: When I Get Home
There's a little bit of suspense in this song - it's not until about halfway through that you know that it's about getting home to tell your girlfriend you love her (rather than yelling at her - which kind of seems like the direction for the first minute or so).
Track 12: You Can't Do That
This is another one of those songs I liked a lot better before I really tuned in to the lyrics. There's some toxic male possessiveness here that is draped in catchy harmonies and a cool back beat. So this gets my "least favorite" designation for the album.
Track 13: I'll Be Back
A pretty song, but a subdued way to end the album (compared to "Twist and Shout" on Please Please Me and "Money" on With the Beatles. But we know that they'll be back soon - see you in a month to discuss Beatles for Sale!