Originally reviewed on November 23, 2012; rewritten March 2016.
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 fucking 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.
Since my audience is largely American, relatively few people will be reading The Alt Rock Chick over Thanksgiving weekend. My former compatriots will be heavily involved in the two great American sports of eating and shopping, so I thought I’d slip this one in while no one was looking to fix a hole in my Beatles catalog. You know, where the rain gets in . . . my mind has been wandering lately . . . I need to stop that.
While I’ve retained my American citizenship, I can no longer ethically claim a membership in American society. However, I have compensated for that loss by earning membership in a more exclusive group. I’m now one of the few people outside of George Martin’s immediate family who has listened to Yellow Submarine in its entirety three times.
Not counting musicals (most of which I loathe anyway), there aren’t too many movie soundtracks that make for great listening experiences when separated from the film. The two I like most are Philip Glass’ soundtrack for Mishima and Danny Elfman’s soundtrack for Milk. Yellow Submarine doesn’t even accurately reflect the music in the film. Why include “All You Need Is Love” and not “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?” The best song on the album was cut from most versions of the initial release of the film, the clip restored thirty years later in the flood of re-released Beatles material. Even the George Martin orchestral contributions are not technically accurate reproductions of what you hear in the film, since the versions on the album weren’t recorded until after the film was released. Only two of The Beatle songs you hear were written specifically for the film; two others were retreads and the last two had been gathering dust in the Abbey Road vaults.
The movie isn’t bad, but I’m sure it meant more to the people who grew up in that era than it does to a millenial looking backwards. It presents highly sanitized versions of the lovable moptops as they embark on a quest to free an undersea paradise called Pepperland from the anti-music, anti-happiness, anti-beauty Blue Meanies. The Beatles save the day by playing music and the Blue Meanies are defeated. I suppose the Blue Meanies represented the straights, The Establishment and/or the pigs and The Beatles everything that is right with the world. The animation is clever and quite advanced for the time. It’s really a film for children and for the inner child lurking about in the psychological clutter of the adult population, a psychedelic version of The Wizard of Oz. If I had a kid, I would allow it, and I’d give a very honest reply when he or she asked, “Mommy, what do they mean when they sing, ‘Can I take my friend to bed?’ Is their friend sick?”
The album is conveniently divided into two distinct sides, one with Beatle performances and the other with George Martin’s contributions. The Beatle side is bookended with the title track and “All You Need Is Love.” Of the other four songs, two are less-than-stellar efforts. “All Together Now” sounds like something McCartney knocked off in thirty seconds; it’s a simple singalong song that’s neither offensive nor stimulating. “Only a Northern Song” is George Harrison whining about not getting the attention nor the royalties earned by his more talented mates for his relatively weak songwriting efforts, with a few stray metaphysical phrases and weird sounds thrown in for good measure. Originally intended for Sgt. Pepper, George Martin put his foot down, told Harrison it wasn’t good enough and dropped it from the album, a wise decision that left Harrison childishly miffed. The song sucks lyrically, melodically and instrumentally, and George should be grateful that they apparently couldn’t come up with anything else to cover the “Sea of Science” segment in the movie.
The two songs that are worth the price of admission are “Hey Bulldog” and “It’s All Too Much.”
Geoff Emerick describes the experience of “Hey Bulldog” as the last time he had any fun working with The Beatles. A few weeks after the recording (made during the filming of the promo video for “Lady Madonna”) they would wander off to India and come back a fragmented, grumpy bunch. While they still made a few good records, they lost their playfulness and began to take themselves too seriously. In spirit, The Beatles on “Hey Bulldog” are The Beatles goofing off on the playing fields in A Hard Day’s Night, but by this time their awareness of musical possibilities had expanded exponentially.
The musical structure of “Hey Bulldog” is fascinating on many levels. Much is made about this being one of the few piano riff songs in The Beatles’ catalog, but I think the more important consideration is that they use the seventh chord (B7) as the root and never resolve it to the tonic chord (B major). Seventh chords are primarily used in blues and rock to create tension that leads to resolution—the listener feels a sense of satisfaction when that last line of a blues song hangs on a seventh chord for a moment before coming back to the tonic, where the song began (B7-E, for example). By maintaining the 7th chord as the baseline, The Beatles gave “Hey Bulldog” an edginess that lasts throughout. The upward chord sequence you hear on the bridge to the chorus (the “You can talk to me” lines) is a simple trick, but a very effective one: all they do is take the Bm chord and move the perfect fifth (the F#) up two half-steps per measure (Bm, Bm5, Bm6, Bm7) then do the same when they shift to the complementary Em (Em, Em5, Em6, Em7). This sequence amplifies the dramatic tension already inherent in the root 7th chord. Another way of explaining the tension is that the song is written in the key of B major but we never hear the B major chord we expect to hear—we only hear its neighbors, B7 and Bm (and variations of Bm).
John’s vocal, especially on the bridge, reminds us that he was one of the great rock ‘n’ roll vocalists of them all, and his energetic piano is an absolute gas. George steps up and nails the solo (Emerick mentioned it’s one of the few times he got it right from the start), and Ringo adds his usual punch and flair. But the centerpiece here is clearly Paul McCartney’s awe-inspiring work on the bass guitar. Some time during The Beatles’ peak creative period beginning in late 1965, McCartney started a practice of remaining in the studio after the others had gone to work out bass parts and experiment with the potential of the instrument. The hard work paid off on many songs during this period, and “Hey Bulldog” is clearly a tour-de-force performance. “Paul’s bass line was probably the most inventive of any he’d done since Pepper, and it was really well-played,” wrote Emerick. Here’s a version with the other instruments dampened so you can hear how nimble, inventive and still intensely rhythmic Paul could be:
George was apparently in a much better mood when he wrote “It’s All Too Much.” It’s not as complex as “Hey Bulldog” but is nonetheless an exciting piece with a celebratory feel (according to The Beatles Bible it was written under the influence of acid). It’s basically a drone song that sticks pretty much to the tonic G with added fourths and ninths, permitting the melody to float easily over the music. The instrumentation is not as extensive as it sounds; other than the usual Beatle instruments, we hear trumpets, a bass clarinet and a few stray small percussion pieces. The fullness of the arrangement is extensively aided by feedback, from the opening slash of guitar to the sustained high-pitched moan that runs through the “silver sun” verse. One other feature in this song is prominent, a classic Beatles technique, but a very engaging one nonetheless: hand-clapping. “It’s All Too Much” is one of the best feel-good songs in the Beatles catalog, and a perfect ending to a film with such an upbeat message.
George Martin’s contributions have been ignored by the listening public and deserve a better fate. This is not the crap that United Artists stuffed into the U. S. version of Help! “Pepperland” is the most tame of the seven pieces, a lush and rather formal piece that could have fit easily into the soundtrack of an Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy set in an Americanized version of Europe. “Sea of Time” opens with Indian instrumentation and flashes of “Within You, Without You” before shifting to a waltz with interesting syncopation. The piece takes several turns from dreamy and childlike to curious and mysterious before fading on lush strings. “Sea of Holes” is my favorite piece because it implies such striking imagery. Here Martin supplements strings and oboe with the backwards effects common in Beatle music of the period and foreshadows some of the work of Philip Glass with sudden increases in dynamics.
In “Sea of Monsters,” Martin uses the backwards recording technique on instruments like trombone and cymbals to create the sucking effect of the vacuum monster, but the piece loses its feel when he changes the mood by reverting to full strings and inserts a fragment from Bach’s “Air on the G String.” “March of the Meanies” contrasts the sweet tone of marimba with insistent rhythms from strings and brass to create the necessary ominous introduction, then takes a sizable leap in dynamics to intensify the semi-martial air. “Pepperland Lays Waste” effectively recreates the eerie, colorless visuals through slightly dissonant combinations of strings, flute trills and subdued repetitions of “Pepperland” themes. “Yellow Submarine in Pepperland” is a rather anti-climactic end to the orchestral diversions.
All in all, I found it quite interesting to listen to the orchestral side while commuting on the Paris Metro. There was one point where the ominous tones of “March of the Meanies” began as we approached a popular stop and people began subtly jostling for position while pretending not to jostle, then BLAM! the door opens and it’s every Meanie for him or herself.
Yellow Submarine will never make any Best of the Beatles lists, but with two of their most exuberant songs and a pleasant diversion in the form of George Martin’s contributions, it’s a long way from being a ripoff.
Happy Black Friday to my American friends, and please try not to get injured in the madness of the season.