Tuesday, 30 March 2010

A Hard Day's Night (2)

Last year’s Beatles NME special contained more than a few digs at Ringo and the Beatles’ practice of giving him a vocal spotlight on every album. I thought this was utter balls. Yes, the ‘Ringo track’ has entered the lexicon of popular music as a byword for a sub-par track sung by a band member who doesn’t usually sing and yes, this has happened because of rubbish like ‘What Goes On’. But it’s important to realise how important they were to the package offered by any Beatles album. The Beatles were marketed as a collective in a way that no other vocal group had been and each member had his own fanbase. Ringo wasn’t lobbying to sing, the fans demanded it. A Beatles album without a Ringo track isn’t quite complete – and A Hard Day’s Night doesn’t have one. It occurred to me to wonder, why not?

The most heavily-documented fact about A Hard Day’s Night is that it’s the first Beatles album to consist entirely of original songs (and, as there are no writing contributions from Harrison, the only one ever to consist entirely of Lennon/McCartney songs). A less well-documented fact is when exactly the Beatles decided to do this, as it didn’t happen by accident. Perhaps they simply relished the challenge of doing it, or thought it would be creatively satisfying, or would send a message to their emerging rivals, but it seems not uncoincidental that this first all-original album was recorded to tie in with their first film. Did The Beatles, or Brian Epstein, or Dick James, or someone at United Artists, point out that they’d be getting paid twice for these songs – once for use in the film, and again for their appearance on the album – and they could cash in most effectively by writing all the material themselves?

Whenever this happened, it wasn’t at the start of the album sessions. The Beatles’ studio time before the film was precious – they needed to get at least seven songs locked down. With this in mind, the fact that they recorded ‘Long Tall Sally’ in this time strongly suggests that it was intended for the film: as Ian Macdonald says, it was often used as their closing number and would have fitted well into the TV concert scene at the end. At some point, then, The Beatles decided that only their own music would feature in the film.

However, it seems clear that they didn’t envisage the entire album as being original, as when the group completed filming they resumed work on the album with ‘Matchbox’. This Carl Perkins cover would have provided Ringo with his spot on the album and made the second, not-from-the-film side a mix of covers and original material – which does seem to support my theory that it was the film element of A Hard Day’s Night which motivated the leap to all-originals. I will now present a slightly shakier theory that it was because ‘Matchbox’ turned out a bit rubbish that they decided to leave it off altogether and go for an all-original album: I’m not entirely convinced by it myself, but it’s worth considering that the third cover version they recorded during these sessions, ‘Slow Down’, is also fairly weak.

With Lennon in particularly prolific form they had enough new songs to fill the album out, so they did – and they perhaps blithely assumed that by the time of the next LP, they’d be able to do the same. Rather than banking the three covers they’d recorded for next time, they shoved them out on an EP named after its only genuinely good track, ‘Long Tall Sally’ – an unusual release, as all previous Beatles EPs had been compilations of already-released material aimed at paupers who couldn’t afford LPs. Oddly, this release seems to have sold about the same as a normal Beatles EP, so perhaps people didn’t realise it had new stuff on it.

One final twist in the assembly of A Hard Day’s Night came on the final day of recording. The Beatles had fourteen original tracks from the sessions, but ‘I Call Your Name’ had to be booted off because it sounded too similar to the much better ‘You Can’t Do That’, so it ended up on the Long Tall Sally EP. (Capitol’s artless sequencing of Beatles albums is epitomised by the fact that the two tracks were released together on Something New, separated only by ‘Long Tall Sally’.) The Beatles therefore fully intended to head into the studio to record one more song for the album the day before they headed off on tour. However, Ringo was taken ill on the morning of the session and instead the group spent the time rehearsing with his stand-in, Jimmy Nicol.

Studio documentation records that The Beatles booked this session, but doesn’t document what they planned to record. Maybe somebody should ask them before they all die, but here’s my theory: this session was intended to record a Ringo number, a Lennon/McCartney original, to replace ‘Matchbox’. It would be surprising if they hadn’t at least considered giving Ringo a new track for the album, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it was left to the last minute – this theory occurred to me when I discovered that the reverse later happened on Help!, when a Lennon/McCartney original intended as Ringo’s feature was replaced at the very last minute by ‘Act Naturally’, a cover.

If the track had featured any of the other Beatles as lead vocalist, it would have been possible to record it with Nicol after the rehearsal; there was certainly time to do so. It’s more likely that this didn’t happen because the group simply didn’t want to put another drummer on the record out of respect for Ringo, but if the ‘missing’ track was indeed intended for Ringo to sing, there would have been no hope whatsoever of recording it. I’ve even got a theory as to what the track in question might have been – the aforementioned ‘What Goes On’, which was almost recorded back at the session for ‘From Me To You’ over a year earlier but only saw the light of day on The Beatles’ next all-original LP, Rubber Soul.

This is all total speculation – if you can provide any evidence for or against, please do – but what is clear is that The Beatles had become quite wedded to the notion of the album being an all-original affair, because they could easily have stuck ‘Matchbox’ or ‘Long Tall Sally’ on it anyway to round it out to fourteen tracks – but they went with thirteen instead, making it the only one of The Beatles’ first seven albums not to contain fourteen tracks. Why was fourteen the magic number anyway? Was there a concrete reason for this? Please pipe up if you know.

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.

Friday, 5 March 2010

You Never Give Me Your Money

A quick post today (although I’ve opened posts with that before and had to go back and delete it 600 words later) prompted by an edit I had to make to the previous one last night. I popped into the blog for no real reason other than I was delaying getting down to work (I told myself I was checking for comments, but that wasn’t true because I get email notifications when comments are posted) and discovered that the YouTube clip of ‘All My Loving’ on The Ed Sullivan Show had vanished due to a copyright claim. There are a couple of other copies of this on YouTube, but one has rubbish sound and the other a terrible picture, and besides there seemed a fair chance that the copyright holder would ask for them to be taken down too. To my considerable delight, I found this instead, which I post again because it is FULLY AWESOME. Great work from 8-year-old Jordan and his dad.

I was slightly taken aback to find the original video had gone down, because there’s a hell of a lot of Beatles on YouTube and nobody seems to mind. Readers of earlier posts will know that vast chunks of the group’s discography has been posted in audio form, and you can watch pretty much all their videos and major television appearances, from Around The Beatles through Shea Stadium to the Budokan Hall. The copyright claim on the Ed Sullivan clip hadn’t come from Apple or EMI, and presumably came from the rights holders to the original shows. That’s actually characteristic of Apple, who are remarkably non-litigious over Beatles stuff considering how much financial clout they must have.

A lot of people probably think the opposite is true, because there have been some high-profile cases where someone has been prevented from using Beatles material – The Grey Album, the excellent mash-up of the ‘White’ album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album, is the obvious example. However, that’s the only area where The Beatles have clamped down on things: original Beatles recordings are kept the exclusive preserve of Beatles albums. You can’t buy commercial compilations with their tracks on and you’ll never hear them sampled, with a few rare exceptions (as producer of Withnail & I, George Harrison permitted the inclusion of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ on the soundtrack album, whilst his son Dhani recently allowed The Wu-Tang Clan to sample the same track).

In all other things, they seem to take a light touch. Most notably, I don’t think they’ve ever sued anyone for ripping off their songs – and god knows they’ve been ripped off a lot. ‘Start!’ by The Jam is probably the most blatant example.

I’d be interested to know whether the lack of action is because they just can’t be arsed, or whether it was a conscious decision. They were certainly never afraid to nick ideas from their peers back in the day, and Lennon and Harrison both had personal experience of legal action (over ‘Come Together and ‘My Sweet Lord’). Do they leave it alone because influence and ‘borrowing’ were strong parts of their own songwriting process, and it would be hypocritical of them to say ‘Wait a minute, The Coral, this “Pass It On” song of yours bears more than a passing resemblance to the mediocre Harrison composition “You Like Me Too Much” off side two of Help!’ I’d like to think so.