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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Beatles: A Hard Day's Night


1) A Hard Day's Night; 2) I Should Have Known Better; 3) If I Fell; 4) I'm Happy Just To Dance With You; 5) And I Love Her; 6) Tell Me Why; 7) Can't Buy Me Love; 8) Any Time At All; 9) I'll Cry Instead; 10) Things We Said To­day; 11) When I Get Home; 12) You Can't Do That; 13) I'll Be Back.

Time has solidified the status of A Hard's Day Night as the one «early Beatles» album you have to get if you are only going to get one (although what sort of a silly person would settle for only one early Beatles album?) — if only for the objective reason that this is the only «early Beatles» album that consists entirely of originals; the next one like that would only be Rubber Soul, whe­re the band was already stepping into «maturity».

It is true that, in the UK at least, A Hard Day's Night sort of turned the whole idea of a «sound­track» on its head. In the States, which the Beatles had only just finished conquering in early '64, with the success of ʽI Want To Hold Your Handʼ, it was released as a «proper» soundtrack — seven songs on Side A and a bunch of movie-related instrumental versions of Side B (including, by the way, a very stylish, Duane Eddy-style, reworking of ʽThis Boyʼ as ʽRingo's Themeʼ — the one that is played in the movie as Ringo takes his solitary strolls upon «leaving» the band). But at home, the second side was completely unrelated to the first: six more songs, all of them originals, that had nothing to do with the movie. Yet the album was still, in some way, a «soundtrack», provoking the layman into thinking that, from now on, every recording with the Beatles name on it would be worth buying, even a collection of toothpaste commercials.

As for artistic growth, I would think that the strength of A Hard Day's Night lies in the details. At this point, «experimentation» was not yet an integral part of the Beatles' career: they did try out new ideas and approaches, but nobody seemed obsessed with them. John and Paul were burs­ting with melodies, not «concepts», and the only global thing that A Hard Day's Night proves us is that they do not really need those covers any more.

For one thing, up until now, the Beatles had a hard time coming up with original gritty rockers: other than ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ and, to a lesser extent, ʽShe Loves Youʼ (which was rather just «loud» than truly «rocking»), they preferred to rock out on their cover versions (ʽTwist And Shoutʼ, ʽRoll Over Beethovenʼ, ʽMoneyʼ etc.). Now, with ʽCan't Buy Me Loveʼ they show that they can easily create a fast, kick-ass pop-rocker along with the best of them; and with ʽYou Can't Do Thatʼ, show that they can rock out in a mean, nasty, mid-tempo manner, holding their own on the same field with contemporary R'n'B-ers and blues-rockers (I have always thought that ʽYou Can't Do Thatʼ was John intentionally pulling a Mick).

On the other side of the field, ʽAnd I Love Herʼ establishes Paul as an independent, self-confident sweet balladeer for his generation — placed at approximately the same strategic juncture on the LP as ʽTill There Was Youʼ was on the previous album, and showing that the band no longer requires the services of Meredith Willson to feed its fans with wonderful roses and sweet, frag­rant meadows. Granted, Paul still cannot write a decent lyric to save his life, but does he need to? There is a certain minimalistic charm, this time around, in "I give her all my love / That's all I do / And if you saw my love / You'd love her too" that sits perfectly at home with the equally mini­malistic riff that drives the song. And there is a bit of self-confident tease at the end of the song as that minimalistic riff is «driven home» with four more bars. «Yes, I am so simple and silly, but you will never forget this coda anyway».

That said, at this time John is still the dominant presence in the band. Most songs were still writ­ten collectively, to be sure, yet the «Paul stamp» is strongly felt only on ʽAnd I Love Herʼ, ʽCan't Buy Me Loveʼ, and ʽThings We Said Todayʼ — a «miserable» three out of thirteen! (This might actually explain some of the exquisite fan worship towards the album). And by now, his song­wri­ting had reached that level of perfection from which it would never fall back again (except when he was derailed by avantgarde temptations or politics).

Of course, not all of his songs here are equally de­serving. On Side B, the unfortunate ʽWhen I Get Homeʼ frequently gets the flack for being somewhat cruder and less coherent in its melody than the rest (although the chief culprit is usually the lyrics: word-wise, it is like the little imbecile bro­ther of ʽA Hard Day's Nightʼ, and the line "I'm gonna love you till the cows come home", for some reason, has always irritated me). ʽI'll Cry Insteadʼ suffers notably from the lack of a guitar solo: it is quite a respectable little pseudo-rockabilly number as such, but way too repetitive as a result. Most importantly, they just don't look too good against the background of everything else.

Although John is overrepresented on the album and Paul is underrepresented, now that I think of it, the starkest contrast on the record is between the best songs of each one of them — and that contrast, funny enough, is just the opposite of the public's general opinion on their artistic and personal natures, because it is John who is primarily responsible for the brightest song on the al­bum and Paul who is behind the creation of the darkest one. Coincidence? Or just one of those «stereotypes suck» kind of moments?..

The «brightest» song is, of course, ʽI Should Have Known Betterʼ. It is utterly artificial, and yet it is probably the most successful attempt they ever made at capturing that «first love feeling» mood that made them into such invincible teenage deities. Three ingredients combine to make it a into such a mind-blower: John's massive harmonica runs, overwhelming all the other instruments for miles around; George's minimalistic, but brilliant solo that, once again, makes the right choice in mimicking John's already perfect vocal melody rather than trying futilely to invent something different; and the singing, of course — all the prolonged notes that bookmark the verses from both ends, all the "whoah-whoahs", all the sexy "oh-oh"s and dips into falsetto in the bridge sec­tion, so many individual snares within so short a track. And no croony sentimentality in sight. This is yer Good Youth incarnate; people unable to feel pure joy at the sound of this song are, at best, «stuck-up», and, at worst... oh, never mind.

The «darkest» song is, of course, ʽThings We Said Todayʼ. The lyrics are actually stronger here than on ʽAnd I Love Youʼ, but whether they really fit the doom and gloom of the tune is questio­nable. There is a little bit of irony in the words, but, overall, the theme of separation is much bet­ter indicated by the music: although the tempo is relatively fast and the rhythm is quite toe-tap-provoking, the minor mode of the song provokes an entirely different reaction. And as the whole thing eventually fades away on the same melody that opened it, it becomes the first in a relatively short line of «wholesale tragic» Beatle songs.

Actually, I would say that in general, there is a certain drift in A Hard Day's Night from Side A to Side B: the movie-related songs are, perhaps predictably, lighter, brighter, and fluffier, where­as, as we get to the second side, the mood darkens and solidifies a bit. John allows himself to be a nas­ty jealous guy on ʽYou Can't Do Thatʼ, Paul goes all melancholic on ʽThings You Said Todayʼ, and even the opening drum crack on ʽAnytime At Allʼ would probably seem a bit out of place, had they wanted to put that song in the movie as well. Then it all ends with ʽI'll Be Backʼ, a song that vies with ʽThingsʼ for the title of «saddest» — only barely losing out because the vocals do not quite manage to show that ominous tingle of "you say you will love me...".

It's just these little things, really, that elevate Hard Day's Night above the general «good pop al­bum» status. It may be all about trivial sentiments dressed in simple musical forms, but never in simple musical clichés. The slamming chord that opens the title track; the falsetto peaks on ʽI Should Have Known Betterʼ; the deletion of the verse/chorus opposition on ʽIf I Fellʼ; and so on and on and on, from the «light» of Side A to the relative «dark» of Side B.

There is nothing genu­inely «revolutionary» about Hard Day's Night, because the songwriting and the artistic personae of John and Paul had already become fully formed on With The Beatles. There is simply a sense of some sort of completeness: this is the ultimate «light-pop» experience of its epoch, and an experience that could not even theoretically be reproduced once pop-rock had gotten out of its infancy stage. It is, at the same time, utterly naïve / formulaic and hunting for genius musical decisions. Genius musical decisions would, of course, be quite plentiful in years to come, but the «virginity» would be lost forever. Look at all the «twee-pop» bands of today — many of them are quite fine, but nobody in his right mind strives to close up that hymen, under­standing well enough that it is impossible. Today, naïveness and innocence in attitude is reserved for the likes of Taylor Swift — mainstream puppets that are almost always the laughing stock of «advanced» music listeners. The miracle of Hard Day's Night is in that, even today, «advanced» music listeners may easily listen to it without laughing, and join me in my thumbs up.

P.S. A few words about the movie are probably in order as well. Time has been a little less kind to the movie than the accompanying album, I think. In 1964, it was seen as an even more colossal breakthrough: Richard Lester showed the world that a «pop artist movie» could actually be seen as an individual work of art, not just a dumb vehicle for the current teen idol to show off his cha­risma. That alone was a staggering discovery, rendering insignificant the fact that most of the Beatles could barely act (fortunately, Lester had the good sense not to ask them to act, so most of the time they were just being themselves — good news for John, worse for the rest of them), or that most of the jokes, puns, and gags, now that you look at them with a fresh eye, aren't really all that funny. (One exception is the cut-in scene between George and the advertising executive — some truly wicked dialog out there, as relevant for us today as it was fifty years ago, if not more so). Nevertheless, even if the movie is not as hot on its own as it is sometimes proclaimed to be, it is still one of the most fascinating — and, in a way, «authentic» — documents of its era. For best effect, watch it on a double bill with Viva Las Vegas.

Check "A Hard Day's Night" (CD) on Amazon


  1. One of my favourite visual puns in the movie is the "snorting coke" one, where John sniffs a soda bottle in the background during the train scene. He probably was thinking "I can't believe I'm getting away with this".

  2. First of all, you are right on about the movie, it's harder to watch as time goes by. I loved the hell out of it when I was 15, but I made a point of showing my girlfriend every Beatle movie recently (I'm now 28 years old,) and it was a bit hard to sit through. The best thing about it is simply the fact that you get to see these genius musicians running around. Ironically, the movies I thought most boring as a teenager, Help and Magical Mystery Tour, I now find more interesting and entertaining.

    Anyway, I'm not sure how "utterly artificial" "I Should Have Known Better," is. I understand you rightfully praised it to no end, but that one comment bugs me a bit, if only because the emotion in the song is so overwhelming. I am obsessed with the song, and outside of "A Hard Day's Night" (the song,) its my favorite early Beatles song. Did you ever read the McCartney interview where he claimed that John Lennon broke down in hysterical tears in the studio session trying to record the harmonic part? Isn't that bizarre? Don't you feel that says a lot about John and the song? I do.

    Another song worth highlighting? "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You." This song is great. The lyrics project such a nerdy genuineness that seems surprisingly vulnerable coming from the heroic Beatles at that moment in time. Obviously John wrote this song for George just to give him something to sing, and I guess John was probably embarrassed by it, but holy hell is it revealing. It's just the greatest nervous humble young love song. Also, the backing vocals are breathtaking to the point of otherworldly and demonic.

    To echo what you said, this is the ultimate serious teenage love song album. It's (probably) an unintentional work of pure genius. Everyone who enjoys pop music, needs love songs, and in my life, these are the best ever. I know that in the early 60s, love music was practically the only genre of pop music, but it seems like the Beatles took it upon themselves to take the concept seriously and simply make the best ones, all in the delicious 2 and a half minute format.

  3. Well, must say that I love the film, still. Watch it once in two years or something. The fact is, I can't quite separate AHDN the film from the actual album. In my case the sounds and the images overlap to a sort of dangerous degree...
    As for the music, it's of course immaculate. The mature-sounding "Things We Said Today" being my personal favourite.
    Oh and anyone here heard the 2009 reissues? I would just like to know whether they are different enough.

  4. (Part 1)

    <<"Today, naïveness and innocence in attitude is reserved for the likes of Taylor Swift — mainstream puppets that are almost always the laughing stock of «advanced» music listeners.">>

    Okay, George, this is the fourth or fifth such reference I've seen you make to Taylor Swift - and with all due respect, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that you're making them without actually knowing much about her or her music.

    The "mainstream puppet" part simply isn't true - unless your definition of "mainstream puppet" is "sells a lot of records and isn't accused by conservatives of portending the end of Western civilization."

    Neither is the "laughing stock of «advanced» music listeners" part. If anybody short of trained music theorists is an "advanced listener", then T Bone Burnett, the Civil Wars, and Dolly Parton among musicians and Robert Christgau among critics certainly are. (I realize you don't like Christgau - neither do I, neither does anybody - but that's not the point.) And she's not their laughing stock. On the contrary.

    Granted, SOME "advanced listeners" are less impressed. But as you know, that was true of the Beatles at this point in their career too. This was the same year when some critic wrote, after their Ed Sullivan performance, that they "couldn't carry a tune across the Atlanic"; when, according to Bob Dylan, everybody else in the folkie scene thought they were a passing fad.

    You could, of course, say at this point “Taylor Swift ain’t no John Lennon or Paul McCartney.” True. (Neither is anybody else.) But on the other hand, she isn’t Donny Osmond either. In one sense, a comparison between Taylor and the early Beatles is actually valid. Both go down so easily that it’s possible to miss the fact that they’re doing some ambitious things in terms of song structure. (And pulling them off.) (e.g. The unusual number of phrases in the first verse of “Love Story” – three instead of the usual even number – so that the chorus comes in before you’re expecting it; the way everything drops out before the half length last verse of “Speak Now”, except for the acoustic guitar lick that you heard at the beginning of the song, giving you the feeling that you’re coming “full circle.” And then there are more obviously ambitious songs like “Enchanted” or “Safe & Sound”.)

    And judging by the two songs she contributed to the Hunger Games tribute album, and the critical reception they got, it won’t be long before Taylor’s reputation gets the same kind of revisal as the Beatles’ after Sgt. Pepper. i.e. Some people who previously dismissed her will decide they were wrong all along. Others will pretend that everything she did previously is still worthless, but that she’s magically become good in the middle of her career.

  5. (Part 2)

    Getting back to your review: You're right, of course, that nobody today could make a naïve-yet-genius album like A Hard Day's Night. But Taylor Swift is the wrong person for the comparison, because her songs aren’t naïve. Amateurish, sometimes (like everybody's early songs), but that's not the same thing.

    Partly the difference is the music and the singing, which can be anything from bombastic (“Haunted”) to intimate (“Never Grow Up”) to sprightly and rootsy (“Mean”) to rocking in a pop punk way (“Better Than Revenge”) to pop-ishly upbeat (“Jump Then Fall”) to some combination of the above – but never even tries for the (seemingly) unthinking, carrying-everything-before-it enthusiasm of the early Beatles (or other British invasion era artists), which seems to be simply out of reach for anybody nowadays.

    Partly it’s the lyrics, which show an awareness that, whatever wonderful thing you’re singing about, it’s FLEETING; at some times more blatantly than at others. (e.g. The idyllic romance that everybody makes fun of in “Love Story” without realizing that the whole song is in the PAST tense – “We were both young,” etc.; the “We will be remembered” refrain in “Long Live”.) Not necessarily better or worse than the kind of thing the early Beatles were doing, but different.

    For truly naïve, but rather less ingenious than the Beatles (though still certainly showing talent on the part of the writers and producers behind it), recent pop music – as naïve as it’s possible to be these days, anyway – an example would be Justin Bieber’s “Baby”.

    One other thing: You say that the Beatles playing themselves in the movie was a bad thing for everybody except John. I'd say it worked at least as well for Ringo, with his permanent-state-of-melancholy/confusion persona. They didn't make him the main character of the subsequent movies) for nothing. (Including the Yellow Submarine cartoon which, of course, the actual Beatles didn't have anything to do with.)

  6. Hold on Graham... How much did you just write about Taylor Swift? The answer is: more than was probably necessary.

    1. Ah, incurious Mandarin disdain. Such a refreshing pose! We sure don't see much of that in discussions of popular art today!

      (And it worked out so well for the real Mandarins!)

    2. Sorry, Graham, I agree with Ken. Ms. Swift should have stuck to modeling instead (which is what the major role of her career is anyway). I've heard half of the songs you're talking about, and I've yet to hear a shred of real talent.

    3. A pretty face may last a year or two?

      Anyway, fine. Though my comment wasn't only about whether you or I think she's talented, and my issue with Ken was his general attitude, not his opinion of her in particular. We'll see what history's verdict is.

  7. I do really hate that sort of disdain the so-called "true music appreciators" show to popular, naïve songs like the aforementioned Taylor Swift's work (though I haven't heard much of it). It's just so smug and arrogant, it makes me want to do horrible things to them repeatedly.

    I'd argue that if you want some lovely, happy, naïve pop with actual talent from recent years, Coldplay are the band you want. "Yellow", "Shiver", "Green Eyes", "Fix You", "Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love", "Strawberry Swing", "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall" and more... all recommended if you're in a bad mood and in the need of some simple, uplifting tunes. In fact, since they're a C band, I imagine it won't be too long until George gets around to reviewing them - looking forward to that!

  8. Somebody cannot write "naive" pop without actually being naive. I think that's a huge part of the problem with a lot of modern music. Coldplay is no more naive than Snoop Dogg. It's very calculated. It might be well written but it's not naive.

    1. I actually have some of Coldplay's pre-Parachutes EPs and various B-sides - commercial or not, they have a soul, it's very evident. Really, they're just a band who wants to make good music (well, except for X&Y, which had a distinctly fake feel to it) - how much more naïve do you want?

  9. It's why stuff like the early Beach Boys stuff and the early Beatles stuff which, can be a little cringe worthy at times, holds weight: it was written by very young kids having a great time. 50 years of pop history has erased the capacity for truly naive pop music, as Justin Bieber and the like, regardless of the quality of their music, are not naive as they know full well what is is occurring: they are becoming super stars off of banality.

    1. Eh. They weren't all THAT young, and the Beatles in particular had already been around the block a few times. (Took more stimulants and had more sex in Hamburg than a lot of indie rockers will in their entire lives.)

      And while the Beatles - or at least John and Paul - do seem to have had a great time writing, recording, and performing (at least until the screaming got too loud) in the early years, the Beach Boys were a morass of abuse and neurosis from the very beginning.

      I'd say it was the naïveté of the MUSIC - and maybe the general mood of the time - that made it possible for the bands to sound the way they did, not vise versa.

      So I'd say you're exactly right when you say the "50 years of pop history has erased the capacity for truly naïve pop music." Or, more precisely, fifty years of rock history. That's the price of experience.

      Non-musical history shares some of the blame too. It's easier to believe in naïve truths when you're in the middle of the biggest expansion of prosperity in history than when you're coming off of four decades of stagnation/decline.

    2. It's odd, I can certainly see the subtle change in attitude between a song like 'Happy Just To Dance With You' and 'We Are Never Ever Ever ... Whatever'. The latter is much more knowing, speaks of a totally different sexual state of awakening, and is more self-reflexive in the sense that it is playing on musical tropes it knows are already existent in pop music. None of the qualities I just listed is in the least bit good. Taylor Swift's single isn't naive, it's heartless. Soulless. Witless. Face it man, she sucks!

  10. "Can't buy me love", what a wonderful song. IMHO, a top 10 for the band. This IS how good rock n roll is done, composing. Fresh, new and non-generic rock n roll. I hate generic rock n roll.

  11. "Can't buy me love", qué canción tan buena. Para mí, un top 10 del grupo. Así es como se hace el buen rock and roll, componiendo. Fresco, nuevo, con personalidad. Odio el rock and roll genérico.

  12. I think Paul contributed to AHDN more than people tend to give him credit for. Paul said I’m happy just to dance with you and If Fell were 50/50 collaborations (though Lennon said he wrote them), he also claimed that he helped to finish off I’ll be bacK and helped in the middle eight of the title track. And that it’s not strange, because Richard Lester remembers John and Paul giving the final touches to that song in the movie set. Two (And I love her and Can’t buy me love) of the three big songs in that album are Paul’s songs (and sung by him alone, without any backing vocals).