Music Features

Happy Anniversary... A Hard Day's Night

Rubber Soul has more depth and varied moods, Revolver is more experimental and musically sophisticated, Sgt. Pepper is more iconic, and the White Album is more eclectic and raw, but the Beatles never made a more perfect album than A Hard Day’s Night.  It is the most prodigious flowering of the phenomenon called Beatlemania, that initial ecstatic reaction to the sound that first electrified the UK in mid-1963.  It was The Beatles' own hurried reaction to that phenomenon; the screaming crowds, the fawning press, and the general public having a grand old time donning Beatle boots and wigs, shouting “yeah, yeah, yeah” at every turn, all the while buying their records by the crateful.  Written and recorded largely in the months of March and April 1964, directly following their original conquest of America in February, it reflects an exuberance and spirit they would never quite recapture – in fact they never even tried.  Their next LP, Beatles for Sale, recorded later that same year, was to showcase a band already world-weary from meeting the insatiable demands of a berserk marketplace they had single-handedly created.  Pretty soon the weed kicked in, Dylan upped the ante and they never looked back to those loveable moptops the world fell in love with only a year before.  But they left behind a few great albums, a string of brilliant singles and this one towering achievement that completely encapsulated everything that was joyous, wonderful and lasting about that first frenetic year of worldwide fame.

It would have been enough if this were just a record choc-full of perfect, startlingly original pop songs, delivered with unbridled enthusiasm and skill, but it is elevated by being the origin of what is another lasting aspect of the Beatles legacy – their experiment in sound.  This quality would reach an apotheosis in the psychedelic era, but it began in the opening seconds of the title track, with an amazingly ambiguous chord featuring the band’s first toy, the prototype 12 string Rickenbacker 360/12.  For many years people have puzzled over the construction of the chord and exactly how it was played.  Now that the original tapes have been studied by Beatles experts and scholars it was determined that it’s actually a polychord made up of an Fadd9 on the guitars, a D bass note and a kind of Gsus4 on the piano, meaning it includes the notes, D, F, G, A and C.  You don’t need to be a musicologist to get how strange this sounds, as it poses a question to the ear – where do we go from here?  Again, on When I Get Home, they generate a sharp dissonance with vocal harmonies, on the opening phrase, “Who-wo-Iiiiii…!”  If I Fell and Tell Me Why have unconventional harmony as well, revealing how restless John Lennon was to exploit a new device once discovered.  Lennon, for the first and last time, dominates a Beatles record, being the sole or principal writer on ten of the fourteen tracks.  Later he would cede leadership to McCartney, but here he has his first taste of superstardom and royalties, and is operating on all cylinders.  Things We Said Today is likely Paul’s response to his partner’s boundary pushing, with some interesting chordal movement in the bridge, whereas his other major contributions, And I Love Her and Can’t Buy Me Love, are brilliant but standard genre exercises.  And Things We Said Today also reveals how they were experimenting with tone as well as harmony.  It, along with I’ll Be Back, has a degree of melancholy not present in earlier recordings.  Similarly, there’s significant soul-baring on I’ll Cry Instead and You Can’t Do That, not to mention a combination of bravado and vulnerability that would become a Lennon hallmark, and is a feature of their music that rewards listeners even today who venture into the deeper cuts of the Beatles’ catalog.

On the strength of this record, The Beatles' reputation, which easily could have gone the way of so many flashes in the pan, was solidified in history as composers and performers of consequence.  Observers at this late date should realize how surprising and unexpected this was.  The Beatles themselves were featured in a now-famous interview from 1963 openly expecting the bubble to burst any day, which would allow Ringo to open a ladies' hair salon.  Nowadays, the marketing of public images is so refined, that someone who has sex on camera can pull good ratings on their reality show for nearly a decade.  In the early '60s, a pop phenomenon couldn’t be expected to last longer than Chubby Checker did with the Twist.  Elvis went in the Army, Jerry Lee married his young cousin, Chuck Berry got busted, Little Richard flamed out and found God, and Buddy Holly died.  Now, these strange looking, androgynous Brits were being compared to the Marx Brothers in their first movie, and Schubert on their albums.  They clearly weren’t going anywhere.  Soon, everyone and his brother were starting a band, taking over the garage and throwing their long hair in the ring.  The model narrative of pop careers would soon become one of constant forward motion, or lacking the necessary genius and will, constant reinvention.  As we move from Bowie to Madonna to Lady Gaga, we see the diminishing returns of this model in practice.  It's a kind of Spengler-ian decline at work, morphing from becoming to become, as art declines into mere fashion.  This is where it all began,

But beyond its significance as a signpost in pop culture pointing to a different future, one can simply be reductive and say that A Hard Day's Night is simply the most joyous sound rock and roll ever produced.  It rivals the most uplifting gospel in its celebratory power and provides a link between the ecstatic surge of the Word made flesh and the secular world of the good-times seeking heathen - which is probably why Billy Graham hated it so much.  All those young girls wet their pants because they had a religious experience; Ginsberg called them shamans.  The European world had mostly forgotten what it was like to dance around the fire until you fell down drooling and shaking.  Civilization had put a lid on such liberating activities long ago, and no band of warmed over beatniks was going to open those floodgates.  By the end of the decade, hundreds of thousands of people were rolling around in the mud in Upstate New York.  That strange, opening chord was the first step in the journey that led them there.