Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Beatles — A Hard Day's Night

If the film A Hard Day's Night was a test of the crossover power of Beatlemania, its soundtrack album had even more riding on it. Americans got bastardized versions of the UK albums, albeit some mighty fine ones -- seriously, look up the track listing for Meet the Beatles! and make a playlist from Please Please Me, With the Beatles and the various singles, and you'll get a great record. But those American versions went for all the acknowledged gold at the expense of the flow and the sense of, I wouldn't call it musical exploration, but certainly a subtle bending of the rules. So, American critics were quick to dismiss this cute little pop group as a fad. After all, if the film deal smacked uneasily of Elvis, so too did the appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Elvis too rocked the world when he appeared on the program, but his appearances and Sullivan's respectful "acceptance" of the boy on his third stint effectively spelled the end of Elvis's days of being regarded as a rebel and he never matched the effect of that breakthrough until his '68 comeback. Of course, that was a good four years on the horizon at the time, and critics dismissed the Beatles as one-hit wonders -- a sentiment that doesn't even make sense because, upon the release of the first 2 American albums in early '64, the Beatles occupied the first five slots of the Billboard singles charts and the 1 and 2 positions of the album chart -- who'd go back where they came from just as soon as their film tanked and took the soundtrack down with it.

Well, we already know about the film, its masterful and innovative use of rapid-editing techniques in the framework of a mock-documentary. But the soundtrack was what really mattered in terms of the band's future. Sure, the film's financial success practically guaranteed it would sell well, but all those snotty critics had no idea how wrong they'd be. Both the UK and (vastly inferior) American editions practically camped out at the top of both album charts (21 weeks in the UK and 14 in the States), absolutely crushing the competition that year. The film might have been poking fun at Beatlemania, but it only further stoked the fire. These boys were here to stay.

Of course, these days, A Hard Day's Night is widely, correctly, seen as the moment where the band crystallized into creators of almost universally perfect albums. Much attention focuses on the album's distinction of being the first (and only) Beatles album to consist entirely of original material exclusively written by Lennon/McCartney. That's a simple reasoning for the album's importance, but its real greatness can be attributed to something even simpler: all those Lennon/McCartney songs are good.

Yes, A Hard Day's Night draws a line separating the early, R&B and skiffle-influenced Merseybeat sound from the second era of the group's sound. Having met Bob Dylan, the band, and particularly John Lennon, took a shine to Dylan's lyrical brilliance, and Dylan's influence would be the primary motivator of the band's music through Rubber Soul. A Hard Day's Night is the perfect bridge: the group's most straightforward album, you don't even realize how good McCartney and Lennon are getting until you finally stop dancing to it the third time in a row you listen to the thing.

And what better announcement of the tonal shift in the band's direction than George Harrison's distinctive, mysterious chord that opens the title track? The Beatles certainly had their share of fun, irresistible rockers from the start, but "A Hard Day's Night" is a masterpiece of jubilation. The stringed instruments chug at a modest pace, but Ringo plays like a man possessed, drowning out his bandmates in cascading waves of cymbals. Lennon and McCartney share the lead vocals, and where others would fall down with a duet in a song dedicated to a lover, their give-and-take only makes the song more overwhelming.

Dylan's impact can be most readily seen in the next track, "I Should Have Known Better," the last Beatles song to ever open with harmonica, as much a signifier of the shift from Merseybeat even as it perfectly fits into that early sound. It very much sounds like early Dylan even though he hadn't "gone electric" then, when Lennon bringing out the nasal aspect of his voice even more. Lyrically, however, it's McCartney who exhibits the most impressive growth on the album: "And I Love Her" perfectly demonstrates his soon-to-be-legendary ability to craft a ballad that sidesteps the saccharine melodrama that at least tinged some of his early songs and instead emits a haunting, gripping feel that keeps you rooted to your seat. The instrumentation, with its light bongos and Mediterranean guitar, sounds as something you'd hear coming from a villa, and George Martin ingeniously injects a wide space between that sound and the vocals, so much so that I almost attributed the echo to it and not studio effects. It's removed reading of lyrics that, on paper, seem schmaltzy ("A love like ours,/Could never die, /As long as I, /Have you near me") become slightly upsetting, as though the singer recognizes the lie of it.

Paul also scores big with the fast-tempo "Can't Buy Me Love," a track that nearly equals the opener in terms of sheer fun. Then there's his interesting take on nostalgia with "Things We Said Today." Set in the present (obviously), it projects how two lovers will look back on their currently blossoming relationship when they've grown old together. The way the music flows between sunniness and regret as McCartney balances his tale of young love as told by youngsters pondering growing old together, how their memories will keep them warm in time spent apart, is nothing short of brilliant, and it's far and away McCartney's most mature writing of any of the early material.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that Lennon doesn't get in some unassailable gems of his own. "If I Fell," as with "Things We Said Today" is gorgeous ballad with conflicting moods. As with his earlier ballad, "Do You Want to Know a Secret," Lennon displays an ability to pen the gushy stuff as well as his buddy Paul, albeit with a sense of fear and human vulnerability that Paul's more upbeat numbers typically lack. Extrapolating that fear leads to "You Can't Do That," a paranoid vision of a jealous lover who threatens to leave his girl if she continues speaking to other men. Suddenly, the bright depictions of young love of the group's first three albums give way to a moment of harsh reality, when blind love can occasionally be terrifying. Naturally, the group buries this under a pop rock beat (including prominent cowbell!). But Lennon also loses himself in pop at times, and his driving doo-wop "Tell Me Why" and "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You," a tune that might as well be shipped directly to high schools to play at their proms.

If With the Beatles saw the band honing their craft, A Hard Day's Night reveals the full might of their unstoppable pop ability. Regardless of the content of the song, you can easily dance along to every cut, including the Country & Western-esque number "I'll Cry Instead," which not only changes styles but delivers some incredibly personal lyrics courtesy of Lennon detailing his discomfort with the avalanche of fame that overwhelmed him and the band. Their first albums showed Lennon and McCartney gently feeling their way through their influences, never flagging and often adding a unique touch that made covers and copied sounds wholly theirs, but with a certain amount of youthful doubt. Here, they emerge as confident rockers, assured that their successes must be the mark of people who know what they're doing, and even if the album is their most matter-of-fact, it's as much an avenue for growth as their previous records.

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