A Hard Day’s Night represents the peak of The Beatles work during the Beatlemania phase from 1963-1965, a period that began with Please Please Me and ended with Side 1 of Help!
Although I dislike comparing albums and artists because it’s a silly and pointless thing to do, I do want to share one technical comparison. I listen to A Hard Day’s Night more often than I listen to Rubber Soul.
Rubber Soul was the first album in The Beatles’ “progressive” phase that ended with Magical Mystery Tour. The Beatles were trying new things, and as is always the case when trying new things, people (even The Beatles) need time to find their groove before they really get the new thing down. Rubber Soul has some great tunes, some middling tunes and some awful tunes. As a whole, it foretells of exciting possibilities, but is something of a mixed bag when considered as a stand-alone work.
A Hard Day’s Night, on the other hand, brims with confidence, good cheer and irresistible energy, mirroring the excitement The Beatles generated throughout the world in the post-assassination year of 1964. Lennon and McCartney were on fire during this period, penning some of the best pop-rock songs ever written. While they would go on to higher levels of sophistication later, A Hard Day’s Night captures a special moment in time when they became the undisputed masters of the pop-rock songwriting craft. As a band, the Beatles are in such a groove at this point that even the lesser songs on A Hard Day’s Night sound fresh and alive. While it may lack the sophistication their later works, A Hard Day’s Night gives us the best and most developed manifestation of the band in their early years.
The original British album (fuck the American version with its ridiculous fill-in instrumentals) places the songs from the movie on Side 1 and the non-cinematic songs on Side 2. The songs on Side 1 are more popular and familiar because the typical listener can recall a delightful scene from the film while the song is playing. This is too bad, because there are some great songs on Side 2 that have been relegated to the back lot (as much as you can relegate any Beatles song to a back lot).
Side 1: The Film Songs
The famous chord that opens the album is one of the most compelling openers in music history, one studied extensively by musicologists with disparate views concerning what fucking chord it is. What makes it so complex is that although it sounds like a guitar chord, Dominic Pedler (in The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles) identified five different sound sources plus a bonus sound created by Paul’s bass note reverberating in John’s acoustic guitar soundbox. I wish I’d read Pedler’s book before I spent years trying to duplicate the sound on my shitty little acoustic, because his analysis clearly demonstrates that I didn’t stand a fucking chance.
That magical chord flings open the door to the pounding rhythms and full-out commitment displayed on the title track. Lennon is in exceptionally fine voice, but we can thank our lucky stars that he couldn’t hit the notes on the middle eight and had Paul take over. The vocal shift ramps up the excitement in a song already exploding with vitality and allows for a smoother transition to the verse. “A Hard Day’s Night” is two minutes and thirty-three seconds of pure musical adrenaline.
“I Should Have Known Better” is a song you simply must sing along with, if only to try out your falsetto on the mi-ine notes. It also brings back pleasant memories of the scene with the Fab Four playing cards in the baggage compartment, smoking, laughing and ogling the British eye candy. The boys did get a little lazy in the lyrics, lifting “I never knew what a kiss could be” from The Everly Brothers’ “’Til I Kissed You,” but if you start rating pop songs on the originality of the lyrics, you’ll be a pretty miserable person before long.
The boys ramp down the tempo on “If I Fell,” but the vocal performances also reflect full commitment, with Lennon and McCartney—particularly Lennon—capturing the vulnerability expressed in the lyrics. The first two songs triggered the birds to have screaming orgasms; this one initiates the sweeter, deeper kinds of orgasm that make a girl want to cry with gratitude (as many of them no doubt did).
George gets a turn at the mike on “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You,” a song accentuated by the muscular oh-ohs of John and Paul and a very catchy melody. When I listen to this song and the gift they gave to Billy J. Kramer (“Bad to Me”), I am in awe of both their natural melodic talents and the diversity of their melodies during their early period. The Beatles were as hot as DiMaggio at this point in time.
The moptops go acoustic with “And I Love Her,” one of their classic love songs with a perfectly designed guitar riff courtesy of Mr. Harrison. The decision to add claves to the rhythm section was another brilliant decision, enriching a standard pop song with a touch of the Latin that was also popular at the time. The boys kick into high gear with “Tell Me Why,” a relatively predictable piece saved by its put-it-all-out-there performance.
The Beatles stay in high gear with pedal to the metal in “Can’t Buy Me Love,” where McCartney gives one of his best rock vocal performances in the Beatles catalog, highlighted in part by the decision to forgo plans for supportive harmony. There was no need for that—shit, Paul owns this sucker. Personally, I love singing this song, as it is fabulous and fun vocal practice prior to the annual family New Year’s bash.
The first side consists only of those songs that made the cut for the movie, leading one to assume that Side 2 is likely to consist of filler material for those who will listen to anything by the Beatles to keep the high going. Au contraire, mes amis!
Side 2: The “Lost” Songs
If anyone dares to opine that Side 2 of A Hard Day’s Night is filler music, they’re going to have to answer to me. And I have the whips and riding crops to back it up!
“Any Time at All” is a great fucking song! Lifting off with a good whack on the ass—er, drums—John and Paul do a brief call-and response on the opening chorus that sounds like we’ve caught them mid-song with their voices completely on fire. The melody and chord structure of the verses are anything but garden-variety pop song, and Lennon-McCartney are confident enough in their craft to add, subtract and extend notes without damaging the melodic flow (“If you need a shoulder to cry on,” and “There is nothing I-I won’t do”). McCartney is credited with the piano solo, supported by matching notes from George on guitar. The piano sounds more George Martin than Paul, but I’ll defer to the experts. Whoever it is, it’s another interesting variation, and every little detour resolves back to the slamming excitement of the chorus. I get the shivers when John belts out the coda, slightly varying his timing and adding a bit of tremolo to his voice. “Any Time at All” was ab-fab long before they invented the term.
John stays up front for “I’ll Cry Instead,” a jaunty, hip-shaking rocker with some interesting chord changes on the bridge. It’s about a guy who gets dumped but vows to come back in a form so desirable that girls everywhere will be heartbroken when denied a shot at his pecker. That’s the spirit! It’s only one minute and forty-six seconds of music, but the song moves and the Beatles are as tight as always. The brief stop time moment when we hear McCartney’s Hofner in all its glory is a special treat.
What happens next is something of a shift. “Things We Said Today” clearly did not belong in the movie, because its overall mood of melancholy clashes with both the tone and the spirit of the film, which is more carpe diem. That’s not to say it’s not one helluva song, because it is! The shift to major key in the bridge was one of those moments of sheer brilliance Lennon and McCartney constantly provided listeners during their peak period. Here the shift serves to break the bittersweet with an exciting splash of rock power. The touch of harmony on the third line of the verses is another subtle touch that takes the song to another level.
The bluesy feel of “When I Get Home” comes next, while it ranks as the weakest tune on the album, there is no faulting the performance or John’s blue-note-tinged vocal. John does even better on “You Can’t Do That,” and does it well enough for the listener to ignore the tale of deep insecurity inherent in the adolescent concept that a potential partner can be possessed with or without her consent. The opening and closing guitar passages are both memorable, and the Paul-George call-and-response seriously raises the overall temperature.
The album ends with the haunting acoustic number, “I’ll Be Back,” noted for its oscillating root chord (Am at the start, resolving on A major) and unusual shift to B minor in the middle eight. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, one that clearly demonstrates the Beatles, even at this early stage, were relentless explorers who weren’t going to be happy with the musical status quo.
The Beatles were on an intense creative high during the period of A Hard Day’s Night, and though tiredness would catch up with them during the period of their next release (proving that they were indeed human and not gods), there are few artists in any field who achieved what they did so early in their careers. We can use the word magical to describe this period, but really, it wasn’t magic at all—it was the full commitment of artists who refused to settle for the mediocre.