Friday, October 09, 2009

Album Project: A Hard Day's Night

The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night (1964): Back in the day, making a movie was essential for any would-be conquerors of the entertainment world. Pop music acts weren't expected to last more than a year or two; if you really wanted to make it big, you had to get into the movies. The group enlisted director Richard Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen to put together a mock documentary of a couple of days in the life of a Liverpool pop group on its way up; the result was a lighthearted romp that proved successful at the box office, further cementing the Fab Four as international titans, as well as establishing each as an individual personality - sardonic John, romantic Paul, pensive George, good-natured Ringo.

A Hard Day's Night's title track opens with that chord - instantly recognizable, arresting, it became the signature of the early Beatles' sound and still recalls the heady days of the British Invasion today. "A Hard Day's Night" is yet another in the remarkable string of singles The Beatles released in this period, featuring John's double-tracked lead vocals, Paul's work on the bridge, and a spidery guitar solo from George, showing his mastery of his new Rickenbacker twelve-string guitar. They even throw in a cowbell as a finishing touch.

Two notable developments on A Hard Day's Night signify considerable advances in The Beatles' style and sound. For the first time, the group uses a four-track recorder, giving the Fab Four and producer George Martin added flexibility in constructing the tracks. Also, this is the first Beatles album where all the compositions were written by the group; specifically, it is the only Beatles album written entirely by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The duo were writing new material at a frenetic pace at this point, giving The Beatles a deep pool from which to pull the LP's thirteen tracks.

The first seven tracks (side one) comprised songs featured in the movie. They feature the maturing romanticism of "And I Love Her" and "If I Fell", and John's bittersweet performances on "I Should Have Known Better" and "Tell Me Why". George Harrison has no songwriting credits on the disc; Lennon and McCartney give him "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You" to sing. Also included is "Can't Buy Me Love", the smash single released prior to A Hard Day's Night, in which McCartney provides one of the 60's enduring catchphrases: "Money can't buy me love".

The final six tracks consist of material written around the same time that didn't fit in the movie, yet represent some of the group's most mature songwriting to date. McCartney's lone vocal track, "Things We Said Today", is a gem; a philosophical look at a relationship projected into the future, with an upbeat, rocking middle eight. The remainder of the tracks are primarily John's as he shifts through a kaleidoscope of moods - angry, hurt, jealous, always longing for love underneath. He pledges his loyalty on "Any Time At All", shows his jealous side on "You Can't Do That", and closes the LP with a poignant air on "I'll Be Back". (The US version of A Hard Day's Night leaves off all of the UK disc's second side except for "I'll Cry Instead", and substitutes four George Martin instrumentals used on the movie soundtrack.)

The album and movie complete The Beatles' rise to the top of the entertainment world, and lead the way in convincing their fellow musicians that rock 'n' roll could be much more than good-time dance music. Bob Dylan was fascinated by the unusual chord changes throughout the disc, while Roger McGuinn was inspired by Harrison's guitar playing to go out and buy his own Rickenbacker. Within a period of eighteen months, The Beatles catapulted themselves from Liverpool beat group to the biggest stars the rock music world had ever seen outside of Elvis Presley, and yet they had merely scratched the surface of their vast talents.

(Update: John Lennon would have been 69 years old today. Happy birthday.)