The Beatles | A Hard Day’s Night (July 1964)
Rock / Pop Rock – 30:13
“Don’t take that tone with me, young man. I fought the war for your sort.”
Pop stars can come a cropper when they try to branch out; many a singer has discovered that the talents which they believed they possessed in the arts were, in reality, limited. They may be able to sing, but beyond having a good voice, they were nothing special. Even the greats like Elvis discovered that looks and sound did not necessarily mean anything. In fact, by the early 1960s, it seemed that both the songs selected for The King, as well as his choice in movie scripts, were scrapping the barrel – of the 31 films made by Presley, only three or four register any recognition with the modern movie-goer, while the tracks were not so much throw-away as pure rubbish. It was a waste of fine talent; a studio determined to milk a star for everything he was worth. Pop stars made films so their labels could make money, not so they could prove artistic integrity. But, as they did with so many other things, The Beatles were happy to prove the rule wrong.
A Hard Day’s Night proved the Fab Four were more than just another boy band out to create disposable pop music. John Lennon was determined to make something which was far superior to the usual run-of-the-mill pop star movie vehicle (his exact words of how the film should turn out were slightly bluer than those you’d expect from the refined image the band were cultivating at that stage of their career). The film, of course, is fantastic; director Richard Lester created a documentary-style drama that resulted in portraying a stylised image of the band that has endured for more than 50 years. But this isn’t a blog about movies; this is about the records. And it is safe to say that the soundtrack to the film stands up just as well after five decades as the cinematic vision it showcases.
Tellingly, after two previous albums, A Hard Day’s Night was the first album by the Beatles which featured songs entirely penned by the musicians themselves. Of the 13 tracks, 10 are by Lennon with the remaining three (And I Love Her, Can’t Buy Me Love and Things We Said Today) written by McCartney (Harrison, whose first written song had featured on With The Beatles, would not feature as a songwriter again on a Beatles album until Help! was released in 1965). If that was not a statement of intent – that the band would have control of its own output – then I don’t know what is. It was also a good way for the group to ensure that the songs they performed were not interpretations of other people’s hits, but showed their own prodigious talent. Fortunately, Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting was up to the task.
Things kick off with one of their biggest hits – and the title track of the album – A Hard Day’s Night (the title came from one of Ringo’s many malapropisms when, after a long night shoot, he declared to the others: “Well, that’s been a hard day’s night.”). As George’s guitar crashes in with a single chord, there is a declaration of the band’s intent – this is a deafening cry of their skill as both writers and performers. It is a blast from start to finish; a heady mix of great beat, crunching guitars and beautiful harmonies. It is everything you expect from a Beatles’ song and it hits all the marks. It is a fantastic introduction to the album. There is confidence in the material which continues into the second song, I Should Have Known Better, with John starting things off on the harmonica. It is interesting looking back now to this album – within a couple of years the band would be pushing the boundaries with their work, and yet this seems very much a product of the early 1960s. Of course, this was the first album to rest entirely on the shoulders of their own songwriting abilities, so you can understand not wanting to be too experimental. But songs like If I Fell and I’m Happy Just to Dance with You seem throwaway efforts; yes, they are great songs, but seem to belong to a different era. And after those two, the first side drags to a close with the rather dreary And I Love Her before Tell Me Why, a piece of fluff which is perhaps one of the most mediocre that the band has ever recorded (a huge criticism for a group that regularly displayed genius in their natural state).
Fortunately – and going against the norm – it is the second side (the additional tracks written for the album rather than the movie) which is the best. Most of the time, the second half of an album can contain more fillers than classic tracks – this is far from the case with A Hard Day’s Night. Unusually, it is the other two Paul McCartney tracks which also prove the best (I admit that I often find his songwriting a little too twee), particularly the fantastic Things We Said Today. It seems a lost classic – it was relegated to the B-side of the single version of A Hard Day’s Night. It is a beautifully written piece which deserves to stand alongside some of the Beatles’ more famous numbers. McCartney’s opener for side two, Can’t Buy Me Love, is also a wonderful rock ‘n’ roller, getting the feet tapping and leaving you humming it happily for the rest of the day. Lennon matches his band-mate’s rock classic with Any Time At All while I’ll Cry Instead features fantastic lyrics of a man determined to prove an ex-girlfriend wrong by making a success of himself – but only once he’s spent some time crying. The album ends with a trio of crackers – When I Get Home is another fab rock ‘n’ roll song with its cry of ‘Whoa whoa aye!’ giving a pleasant jarring sound to the track; You Can’t Do That sounds both lyrically and musically like a precursor to Run For Your Life (from the Rubber Soul album); and closer I’ll Be Back (another declaration that this was just the beginning) is ends by demonstrating both the band’s songwriting skills as well as their beautiful harmonies.
As a whole, A Hard Day’s Night is both a visual and musical feast – the music complements the movie. True, there are still weaker songs on it but given that the worst that can be said of them is that they are average for The Beatles is hardly an indication that they aren’t very good (although I could live without hearing And I Love Her too often). But it certainly showed that Lennon and McCartney were a songwriting force to be reckoned with and revealed the confidence which would allow them to create even greater tracks in the future (many of which will turn up on this list). And when the pair do write a great song, it is an instant classic. The Beatles did better albums, but that doesn’t stop this one from being more than worth a listen.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to A Hard Day’s Night here:
Next time: Olympia 64 by Jacques Brel