The Long and Winding Road Part 3: A Hard Day’s Night

A Hard Day’s Night (released 10 July 1964)

Dear A Hard Day’s Night,

I hope I don’t trigger any fans of Mamma Mia by writing this (as if they would ever read my blog), but the film you accompanied has long been recognized to be the first and possibly GREATEST jukebox musical ever made. Yes, the story is negligible and it’s basically just a bunch of jokes stuffed into an 87-minute film, but on the plus side, you get dialogue like THIS:

(at a press gathering)
Reporter: What do you call that hairstyle?
George: Arthur.

I’ve watched the whole thing from beginning to end (yes, I actually do research for these things) and I can testify to how funny — and how fun! — the film was. And I can also testify to how the seven new songs that can be found on side one of the disc beautifully complement the film. They’re sunny, they’re energetic, and everyone who watches can’t help but have a good time.

I don’t like it. Actually, I’m gonna go ahead and say it: this is my least favourite album of all.

“WHAT” shout other Beatles fans, immediately frothing at the mouth. “Surely this twit should have recognized that this album signifies THE VERY POINT where John and Paul abandoned the restricting form of rock-and-roll for TRUE POP SONGS! Their melodies and harmonies are wonderful, their instrumentation and arrangements sublime! He doesn’t even PAY ATTENTION to the music — I BLACKLIST THIS UTTER BERK,” upon which they damn me and my blog to eternal torment and go in search of some real criticism.

A clarification: though I do find you more insufferable than the other LPs, this still doesn’t mean you’re a steaming turd only fit for musical numbskulls. (The great thing about the Beatles is that even their lesser works can still be AMAZINGLY good.) I must say that there are bits about you that I find perfectly likable: John and Paul have still thrown in twists to keep it fresh, just like they did in Please Please Me and With the Beatles. (Unfortunately, both George and Ringo never got to contribute much, and all but three are from Lennon alone.) There’s that strumming fanfare from “Things We Said Today”, something that adds a dramatic touch to the melancholy mood. And anybody who’s listened to “A Hard Day’s Night” before will know just how stupefying that first chord is — and those bongos from Ringo, man! THOSE BONGOS!

This was indeed the first step forward for the Beatles. Prior to creating you, they’d mostly worked within the boundaries of rock-and-roll, and now we can see them trying their hand at different styles of rock and pop. This time, though, the twists just aren’t enough. Because although John is keen as ever to experiment, his efforts to branch out seem repetitive, or a feeble attempt to sound like another musician (there’s a strong Bob Dylan influence in “I Should Have Known Better” which everyone adores, but which for me just sounds like John’s in smartypants mode). I actually went back and checked your older siblings just to see if you could level the former allegation at them: the answer, to my own surprise, is no.

Take the aforementioned “Things We Said Today”, the song with the rhythmic fanfare from Paul. It’s one of your better songs, in my opinion, with some phrases running on like a continuous train of thought, and portraying the melancholic mood perfectly. But skip to the end of the LP, and you find John’s equally good “I’ll Be Back”: a song which is also based in A (major AND minor), has a distinctive guitar motif leading off in the intro, and also deals with melancholia tinged with a bit of hope. It’s as if Lennon and McCartney were racing to create a song with those specifics, and then both turned out so well that they couldn’t decide to leave which one out of you.

In other cases, it’s not so much as the songs sounding the same, as in how they are built around the same emotions and ideas: it’s a bit of a stretch, but “I’ll Cry Instead”’s desperation sounds a lot like the vulnerability you can find on “If I Fell” — both are about keeping up an image which must NOT be exhibited to anybody, especially to the lover. Don’t get me wrong, I love this idea, unique and heartfelt as it is — I feel that way sometimes (but that’s for another day). But when you use it too often — three times within an album — one can’t help but ask whether John’s emotional capacity extends any further than “I am very sad because my lover doesn’t seem to care about me”. Just TRY SOMETHING ELSE, John. 13 tracks of similar pop songs are only okay if you take them one at a time; the concept falls apart when you try to use it multiple times. (Some of these twists are even blatant rip-offs from former albums, reinforcing the “John couldn’t think of anything” idea: it’s hard not to listen to “Any Time at All” without immediately thinking of “It Won’t Be Long” from With the Beatles.)

And — I can’t hold this point off any longer, but yours is just not good production. I understand that the four of them had a deadline to meet, but that in no way excuses their HORRENDOUS performance of the line “is there anything I can do” in “Tell Me Why”, performed in falsetto and sounding completely inaudible. What the HELL was George Martin thinking when he said “yeah, we can use that”? On the other end of the spectrum, the aforementioned “Any Time at All” has a jumble of instruments (guitars, drums, piano, John’s voicebox) which may have seemed like okay on paper, but is actually so noisy as to be cacophonous, a word which here means “annoyingly noisy”. Just… why.

Perhaps I’m getting too worked up about this. After all, you are but an offering of popular culture, designed to entertain and not to make a point (we’re about three albums too early for that). For now, to not view your songs as the blithe, somewhat jaunty ditties they were written to be seems to miss the point. So perhaps I should be focusing on the energy the four of them give out, their breezy attitudes and how… damn, it’s still bad.

Before I lose my remaining few readers, let me clarify that this is not an attempt to hate on positivity (I am a great aficionado of cheese). I agree with anyone who thinks that you are an album of sunshine and energy: anyone listening to the first side will discover for themselves the joys of “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Can’t Buy Me Love”. In the film, they’re used against footage of the Beatles running around and having a good time while their fans try to hunt them down for autographs and a closer encounter. They’re depicted as being a little perplexed about their fame, and they slip out just to have a good time, away from their screaming hordes of people screaming “RINGO”.

And that’s my point. Although we hear and see happy singers doing happy songs, what the film is ultimately trying to convey is that these twenty-somethings, like any other human, got tired of fame. It’s fun at the beginning, but after a while the touring got monotonous, and they had to churn out songs for an album AND make a film in between those hours as well. It gets tiring — and yet none of them were at their liberty to show this. How could the most charming men in the universe look tired and not be sunny? Even the scenes where they do get freedom end with them being herded back into their public lives. When you see their runaway scenes, and the film in general, it merely seems as if they’re refusing to take themselves too seriously instead of really wanting to avoid the spotlight. (As a literature major, I enjoy reading things that aren’t there into things I see.)

And I think this is the real reason why some of your songs don’t work. These songs are sung in a way that just never convinces their audience that they mean it. Songs like “I’ll Cry Instead”, “You Can’t Do That” and “When I Get Home” (please forgive me, I do have to shoehorn these titles in somehow) are supposed to sound upbeat. Instead, they have a ring of desperation to them as we slowly understand how anxious about his love the singer (and it’s always John) feels. And imagine the irony when we hear George singing, in the most deadpan way possible, a song called “I’m HAPPY Just to Dance with You”! When he sings (or rather drones) “cause there’s really nothing else I’d rather do”, I can immediately imagine a thousand different things he’d obviously like to do instead of singing this song.

The Beatles, in short, aren’t true enough for me here. They were true in their first two albums (in fact, your older siblings both contain “I’ll always be true” in their lyrics), when fame was still a refreshing idea for the Beatles and positivity was a selling point to the public. Save for “Don’t Bother Me” from With the Beatles, none of us had really seen the morose side of the Beatles. George was ill and probably in a foul mood when he wrote that song, but we still like it because it gave us something of a glimpse into his mindset at the time. But none of the Beatles, not even George himself, were fully able to embrace that within you (and without you), so we get standard pop tracks, tracks that put on a brave face and try to smile, a tactic which doesn’t work for me.

So even though you are a perfectly fine album when one considers all your individual songs, once we grab a magnifying glass, I’m struck not only by how many of your themes are unmistakably similar, but also by the lack of conviction you show. I get that each song within you can have their own intricacies if one looks deep enough, but that only shows if you pick them apart, piece by piece. How ironic: in your quest to sound different, new and original, you instead come across as an uninspired collection of the same old clichés.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to be extracted from you, then, is how simple honesty can sometimes be better than trying to put on a great song-and-dance that ultimately hides your feelings. One of the most famous Beatles songs, “And I Love Her”, can be found here as your fifth track. It is just a simple, bare ballad with a nice, steady beat, sung in a wistful tone that matches what the lyrics say. I love this song for how simple it is, and there’s no sign that Paul hides anything in it: the title itself is a great hint as to how forthright the singer is about the whole relationship. It’s a pure refreshing breath of wind that cleanses the palate after all those songs that wind up going nowhere after a complicated two minutes and a half. See, John? See, A Hard Day’s Night? Simple works.

Yours sincerely,

Favourite song: Asking me to pick a favourite song from this lot is like asking me to pick my favourite spoon: I don’t care and they’re more or less the same. However, as I’ve said in that last paragraph, “And I Love Her” is a nice indicator of just how a little honesty can go a long way. So I guess that’s the one.

(Featured image from cover of A Hard Day’s Night, copyright EMI Music/Parlophone Records.)

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