A Hard Day’s Night is a landmark album for the Fab Four. Ostensibly it was their first “soundtrack album”, featuring seven songs from their debut film of the same name (or eight, depending on how you look at it). More importantly, it was the first Beatles album that consisted entirely of original songs from the band. The r&b, rockabilly, and other assorted lifts from previous LPs? Gone, baby. Every last track on A Hard Day’s Night was a Lennon/McCartney original.
John Lennon himself was extremely prominent on the album. Of its 13 tracks, he sang lead on seven and was the primary songwriter on nine of them. Paul was no slouch himself; his three songs (in which he was the lead vocalist and primary songwriter) are each magnificent; all killer, no filler, as it were. George was given a Lennon-McCartney song to sing for himself, and poor Ringo was shut-out entirely as a vocalist.
But the end result was easily the strongest and most heralded album of The Beatles’s “early era” (1962-1964). This is where, at least as far as studio recordings are concerned, they really began to grow as songwriters and as a studio band. Their sound was beginning to “fatten out” a bit; while they were still recording short songs — I Should Have Known Better clocks in the longest at 2:43 — but their musical growth would continue (but also regress somewhat) with Beatles For Sale later that year and then explode off the launch pad with Help! and Rubber Soul in 1965.
This review will focus on the UK version of the album, but I’d like to briefly talk about the American release(s) of A Hard Day’s Night. Since United Artists released the film in the USA, they retained the rights to a soundtrack album. Thus the album was released by United Artists Records in June of 1964 and not Capitol, and as such the album only included the eight songs either appearing in or written for the film. The American A Hard Day’s Night was rounded out by four instrumental tracks, featuring “easy listening” versions of I Should Have Known Better, And I Love Her, Ringo’s Theme (This Boy), and A Hard Day’s Night. The remaining UK album tracks were featured on the subsequent US Capitol release Something New, which came out in July of 1964. As a footnote, EMI acquired United Artist Records in 1980, and reissued the soundtrack album as a proper Capitol release soon thereafter.
We start with the title track, which kicks off the album with one of the most debated chords in rock history (it ain’t that difficult, honestly) and launches into one of the band’s most recognizable hits. What I love most about this song — and there’s much to love — are the isolated elements of the song’s construction: the cowbell during Paul’s “When I’m home…” bridge, the piano/guitar solo that sounds so clean, melodic, and precise (which George H. and George M. actually played at half-speed an octave lower, on lead guitar and piano, respecitvely; the tape was sped up to match the song’s tempo), the 12-string outro , John and Paul’s epic harmonizing, Ringo’s driving yet metronimcally-perfect drumming… but it feels like a singularly homogeneous work. There’s nothing extraordinary about the song’s structure, about the arrangements or lyrics, yet with a few flourishes A Hard Day’s Night manages to strike that sweet spot of making an otherwise simple song sound so effortlessly and brilliantly catchy.
I Should Have Known Better is anchored by the flourishes of John’s harmonica riff, which hits us at the intro, between verses, and during the outro. There’s an acoustic backbone here that is only interrupted by the strum of George’s Tennessee Gentleman guitar, which gives the song a feeling of humility and earnestness. There’s an adolescent ambivalence that underscores the song’s joy of discovery and sudden possessive insecurity, reflected by the shift from major to minor key between the verses and the bridge. At one moment, the narrator is thrilled with his new-found bliss before being exposing his vulnerability, looking for assurance that the object of his adoration is “gonna say you love me, too”. You can almost see his eyes go wide with an expression of “Right? RIGHT???” The lyrics are simple but full of candor, the music catchy as hell. This is what the early Beatles could do like none other at the time.
If I Fell acts like I Should Have Known Better’s more sober sibling. Whereas the latter was innocence marked with a tinge of apprehension, the former is now seasoned, scarred, but still hopeful while desperately requiring assurances. The narrator has learned love isn’t about the superficial trappings, and even more, he wants the girl who broke his heart to suffer! A bit of a cold vindictive streak enmeshed in what is otherwise a simple plea for honest affections. The harmonies that drive this song are impeccable, immensely elevating what is otherwise an enjoyable ballad to a thing of beauty. The stereo version features double-tracked vocals on the intro, as well as Paul’s voice slightly breaking the second time he sings the word “vain” during the bridge.
I’m Happy Just To Dance With You is a bit of a throwaway, a Lennon/McCartney number that was given to George to sing. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy or detrimental about the song. It has a driving beat and some interesting chord progressions but is otherwise a fairly unremarkable song. I suppose that coming after the first three memorable tracks, it feels just entirely lesser.
And I Love Her is exquisite. Paul’s rich, darkly acoustic ballad acts as the antithesis to John’s semi-neurotic yearnings of If I Fell and I Should Have Known Better. George is credited with the riff that underpins the song, while his tasteful flamenco-influenced solo and the minor-key arpeggios that kick in with the second verse only make a near-perfect song even better. I often wondered if the song could be interpreted similarly to The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, insomuch that it is taken from the vantage point of a spurned, obsessed, deluded would-be paramour. The American mix of the song is worth seeking out, as it contains Paul’s vocals without the double-tracking. It makes the song less polished, but also much more immediate in its presentation.
Tell Me Why breaks the atmosphere set by the previous track by erupting into an uptempo doo-wop inspired number. It’s a fun rocker probably most notable for its chorus, and how well (and pleasingly) Lennon could stretch out the words “why” and “lie” to great effect. Otherwise, it’s definitely one of the album’s lesser songs (but by no means a bad one).
Paul’s soulful classic Can’t Buy Me Love closes out Side one, and became one of The Beatles’s best known hits from their early era. Recorded in C with a basic twelve-bar blues progression, it became the band’s sixth British hit single (third in the USA), landing at #1 in both countries. And why not? Despite nearly 50 years of familiarity from constant radio and pop-culture familiarity, Paul’s strong vocals and the song’s bluesy hooks still deliver. I prefer this rocker to Tell Me Why or I’d Be Happy Just To Dance With You; while those songs are fine, they fail to reach the same sonic and lyrical resonance of Can’t Buy Me Love. And if you can, check out some of the studio outtakes/demos for a fascinating take in which George and John provide interesting back-and-forth harmonies during the verses. Good stuff.
A resounding THWAK from Ringo’s kit rings in Side two with the arrival of Any Time At All, one the album’s superior deep tracks. All of the “non-movie” songs were featured on Side 2 (with the “sort of” exception of I’ll Cry Instead — more on that in a bit), but they all fit in comfortably with the “movie” songs. Any Time At All, if nothing else, feels like a precursor to the folksy songwriting featured on Beatles For Sale, only with a bit more chime and assuredness in its production. I particularly enjoy the back-and-forth vocals between John and Paul on the chorus. George’s solo (with another George Martin piano overlay) seems a bit peculiar on the middle eight, but that section was originally intended to include vocals as well. It works well regardless.
I’ll Cry Instead is another Lennon composition, and an excellent one at that. It takes a major tack from country, a smaller one from r&b, and throws in a bit of pop, resulting in a song that moves breezily from opening riff to final chord. It could be my favorite album track after And I Love Her, but with so many great songs to pick from, my mind might change any given moment. I’ll Cry Instead was written for the film but eventually left out; it was, however, featured in subsequent re-releases during a pre-movie photo montage. So is it a “movie song”? Not in the strictest sense of the word, but no matter. It remains a quality Lennon tune.
Paul takes the reins again with Things We Said Today, which was the B-side to the UK A Hard Day’s Night single. It’s a dark, somber affair, fraught with an air of frustration and complication, of two lovers being separated, trying to cling desperately to whatever happiness they have while apart. The key and tempo changes accentuate the crescendo of the singer’s frustration, while afterward dropping back to sad but wistful reconciliation. Fantastic track from Paul.
I think When I Get Home is a bit of a clunker. Whereas I’m Happy Just To Dance With You and Tell Me Why might be a bit of filler, they still have enough going for them to put them on the positive side of the scale. When I Get Home sounds unwieldy and awkward. The “whooooa IIIIII” refrains are appealing, but the verses are stilted and uncomfortably phrased. The “love her ’til the cows come home” line is especially trite, by Lennon standards anyhow. This is the one album track I can easily skip every time.
You Can’t Do That makes up for the previous song, a funky, eminently toe-tapping pop song rooted by a memorable twelve-string riff and a ridiculously catchy chorus. George and Paul’s background vocals are on fire, adding smug confidence to a composition centered around telling a girl to basically ‘cut the crap or you’re gone’. This was the B-side to the UK Can’t Buy Me Love single, and it makes a perfect counterpoint to that tune’s boundless optimism.
The album finishes its journey with Lennon’s inimitable I’ll Be Back, providing a near-perfect ending to the listening experience. I’ll Be Back would have been right at home with the best tracks from Beatles For Sale — like Any Time At All, it’s a precursor to such upcoming “dark” acoustic numbers as No Reply, I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party, and I’m A Loser. This is a superb song. Similar to And I Love Her or You Can’t Do That, it is centered around a driving riff that both introduces and bids the song goodbye, as well as weaving in and out of the verses like a signature motif. Like If I Fell or I Should Have Known Better, it has no real chorus, in essence making each verse a focal point of the song. The harmonies are lush and melodic, the key minor and mournful, the subject matter both heartfelt and obsessive. A powerful, almost haunting ending to a great album.