THE BEATLES: A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964)
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.
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