Saturday, 20 March 2010

A Hard Day's Night (1)

A Hard Day’s Night was a big part of why I started this blog, because it’s the only Beatles album I’ve never got into. I’ve no idea why – it was the second one I bought after Sgt Pepper, when I found a vinyl copy for a quid in a bargain bin. Perhaps it was just the times: this was the mid-1990s and, and Alexis Petridis said in his review of The Beatles in Mono, whilst The Beatles were hugely feted back then, their early material was curiously unfashionable. Yet I did get into Please Please Me and With The Beatles when I bought those a couple of years later.

Times have changed and A Hard Day’s Night is now often seen as the essential early Beatles album. It enjoys the credibility of being the first to consist entirely of original songs and it’s attached to a very good film (I’ve always preferred Help! myself, although my opinion of A Hard Day’s Night went up after I watched it for only the second time last year). As Jonathan Gould notes in Can’t Buy Me Love, this was an important test for The Beatles: their movie was assessed by serious cultural critics in a way that their music hadn’t yet been, and it was generally recognised as much better than expected. However, it’s still the Beatles album I’m least likely to pull off the shelf. Even Beatles For Sale or Help!, both of which – unlike A Hard Day’s Night – have properly rubbish tracks on them.

I could just put this down to a gut reaction and you could go and read something else, but let’s try to rationalise it. A Hard Day’s Night was largely recorded in two halves: the first side had to be finished off quickly so that the songs could be placed in the film. This is apparent from the way the songs are integrated into the plot, i.e. not at all: The Beatles simply stop and play a song. There are several good reasons for The Beatles playing themselves in the film: it didn’t require them to stretch themselves too much as actors and it’s probably what the fans wanted to see. However, it also meant that the film didn’t have to be a ‘true’ musical, which it isn’t – the songs don’t tell the story or particularly break reality. Instead The Beatles, in their capacity as professional musicians, sometimes perform some music.

For A Hard Day’s Night to be a ‘true’ musical it would have needed a much, much longer development time, with full collaboration between Lennon/McCartney and screenwriter Alun Owen – but The Beatles were insanely busy and the film was a quick cash-in, making this impossible. It’s also hard to imagine what form a ‘true’ musical starring the early Beatles would have taken – at this stage they were still trading entirely in love songs, so for the songs to tell the story it would have had to be a romance, with all four Beatles pursuing one love interest or a love interest for each of them. Both would have made poor use of their group dynamic, and in any case it would have been a huge demand to place on songwriters who’d never done anything like that before (although Lennon mentioned it as something he’d like to do in an early interview). Far better to let Owen leave gaps in the script reading [SONG HERE] and let The Beatles record whatever they could come up with.

However, I do think that the pressure to get those songs in the can weakens the first side of the album. The singles are great, of course, but ‘I Should Have Known Better’ is only a half-successful stab at the new sound which would emerge on Beatles For Sale. ‘I’m Happy Just To Dance With You’ is notable for being the last Harrison feature written by Lennon/McCartney, and its chaste soppiness almost seems calculated to rile him into writing his own bloody songs in future. (It’s hilariously at odds with Harrison’s prickly sarcasm.) ‘If I Fell’ is glib and insincere: when performing it in the film Lennon seems slightly embarassed by it, adopting his ever-sensitive ‘retard face’ in the opening verse.

The second side, polished off after finishing work on the film, is better. I’m dubious of judging music on the grounds of ‘authenticity’: authenticity can be faked, and some of my favourite pop music is deeply pretentious and contrived. However, it’s at exactly this point in The Beatles’ career that Lennon seems to tire of writing generic romance songs and starts to tentatively mine his own experience (possibly inspired by Bob Dylan, whose work the group had discovered just as they started work on the album). This would prove a rich seam for him. ‘I’ll Cry Instead’ – submitted for the film, but rejected for the sourness of its lyric – is a fascinating mismatch of words and music, with a jaunty country tune forming the backdrop to a lyric of turbulent emotions, with the narrator promising to take revenge on a lover by breaking the hearts of other girls – but it’s a threat rendered empty by his admission that for now, he’s just going to cry. It’s Lennon’s most interesting lyric to date – and, apparently, autobiographical.

On the second side they also embrace ambiguous tones, with McCartney’s ‘Things We Said Today’ and especially Lennon’s superb ‘I’ll Be Back’ introducing a new style beyond their exuberant rockers and soppy ballads. As with some of the With The Beatles material, these songs attempt a subtlety which would have been of no use whatsoever at their inaudible gigs. It’s a strong statement of intent that they use the latter of those tracks as a closer for the album, where the first two closed with soul screamers.

But still, I think A Hard Day’s Night isn’t the strongest showcase for the Beatles I love. It’s their most unified album in terms of songwriting and performance: Harrison liked to use a different guitar for each album, and here he mostly uses a Rickenbacker 12-string given to him in America which has a particularly distinctive sound, whilst Lennon makes a perhaps Dylan-inspired switch to acoustic rhythm guitar for almost the entire album. These two things strongly colour and unify the sound of A Hard Day’s Night. In addition, this is a period where McCartney’s songwriting stalled whilst Lennon’s blossomed, with the result that a massive ten of the thirteen tracks are mostly by Lennon. Even one of McCartney’s, the aforementioned ‘Things We Said Today’, sounds more like a Lennon song. All of which means the album slightly lacks the eclecticism that I really enjoy from The Beatles. You often hear people grumbling about the early Beatles albums being padded with covers, but I rather miss the covers here.

I’ve still got another week of A Hard Day’s Night to go, but I haven’t been hammering it anything like as much as I did the first two. Maybe it’s just not going to happen.


  1. AHDN is the best Beatles album. I may have to explain why.

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  5. I'm inclined to agree with jonny