With their third album, A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles met the challenge of providing a film soundtrack for the first time, and despite the time they were putting in making the movie, the result is one of their finest. The only album penned solely by Lennon-McCartney, it contains only one song for George and none for poor Ringo. Still, the collection of songs is their first to be uniformly solid, and gives them their own sound for the very first time. The feel is less rock and more pop, with several slower love songs. Side One featured the film songs; Side Two, the ones they recorded to complete the album, which more than hold up to the movie numbers.
John really predominates this record. He penned and sang nine of the thirteen songs1, and I think the overall sound is due to this. It contains some of his finest vocals as well.
A Hard Day’s Night: What a way to start the album (and film). That crashing chord by George has been analyzed to death, and no one can agree on exactly what notes comprised it. One of the few Beatles songs where John and Paul trade the lead vocal (John on the verses, Paul on the bridge). Supposedly titled from a remark Ringo made during filming; however, John used the phrase “He’d had a hard day’s night” in the story Sad Michael from his book IN HIS OWN WRITE, published earlier that year. Who knows. George Martin doubles George’s guitar solo with piano; when they performed it live in the studio for the BBC, this part had to be edited in due to its difficulty. But Harrison played it pretty well at the Hollywood Bowl.
I Should Have Known Better: The harmonica opening is marvelous, although John was getting ready to quit playing it by this point. The chiming Rickenbacker guitars also give it a relaxed feel. John’s vocal on the bridge is both uplifting and sad at the same time, with those heartbreaking “Oh”s.
If I Fell: Their first real ballad which wasn’t a cover. The harmonies between John and Paul are heartbreakingly gorgeous. It would be the best ballad on the album were it not for Side Two. Check out the way Paul’s voice cracks on “vain” the second time around.2
I’m Happy Just To Dance With You: George’s spotlight. A nice piece of pop, which he sings well, but is a minor song for Lennon-McCartney. I suppose that’s why they gave it to him. The CD release was the first time I heard that bass drum in the verses properly.
And I Love Her: A beautiful ballad, although I don’t find it as gorgeous as If I Fell as it lacks the Everly Brothers harmonies. Still, those acoustic guitars are lovely, and the bongos and claves by Ringo a nice touch. The line “Bright are the stars that shine, dark is the sky” is a beautiful image. Paul later credited George for coming up with the signature riff, even claiming it should have been a McCartney-Harrison composition, which is pushing it. This was his first big standard, covered by many artists; it was written for his then girlfriend Jane Asher.3 An early version with electric guitars can be found on the Anthology 1 album.
Tell Me Why: A good song, but I always felt that it didn’t quite live up to the promise of the piano/guitar intro. The middle eight, where John sings in falsetto, “Is there anything I can do-o-o-ooh?” comes close. Nevertheless, awesome drumming and harmonies. Only second tier for the Liverpool lads; anyone else, first tier.
Can’t Buy Me Love: George Martin brilliantly suggested they begin with the chorus, and that made this a classic. Paul’s diamond ring lyric is interesting—they seemed to have a fixation on diamond rings for a while—but ultimately, money can’t buy love. Recorded in Paris, at the end of a session where the group overdubbed German-language vocals onto the backing tracks of She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand, at EMI’s insistence. 4
Any Time At All: First of the non-soundtrack songs, but I think it’s superior to the similar Tell Me Why. The snare drum crash at the beginning of each chorus is inspired. I love the way Paul answers John’s line “Any time at all” the second time round. George Martin joins in again on piano at the instrumental break.
I’ll Cry Instead: A country-tinged pop song which was meant to go in the film, but the director, Richard Lester, didn’t like it. The most interesting thing about it to me is the US mono mix. If you ever thought that this song sounded quite short, you are correct; originally it had an extra verse after the first chorus (“Don’t wanna cry when there’s people there….”). The song was recorded in two parts as Section A and Section B to be edited together later. For some reason, the US mono ended up with the extra verse. I think it makes it a much better song.
Things We Said Today: Paul took a back seat to John on this album, but the songs he did end up writing are all classics. This is a gorgeous two-chord ballad with an acoustic feel to the guitar strums. When they played this live at the Hollywood Bowl, they picked up the time at the choruses, and the audience went nuts.
When I Get Home: An R&B sounding number by John which was inspired by Wilson Pickett. A bit basic, but earns points for rhyming “please” and “trivialities”. I think the Beatles helped expand teenagers’ vocabularies.
You Can’t Do That: The B-side of Can’t Buy Me Love, this is an early attempt at heavy metal. John’s lyrics are sexist and mean, but the guitar riff backs him up all the way. Apparently John also played the guitar solo, but George mans the chiming riff which predominates throughout. The Rickenbacker sound on this and A Hard Day’s Night inspired Jim McGuinn (later Roger) to buy one himself and go electric with his folk covers, making Mr. Tambourine Man a hit. Which, in turn, helped convince the Beatles to stretch out with more Dylan-inspired lyrics…and so it goes round and round.
I’ll Be Back: My favorite ballad on this album, and a marvelous side ender. Just a trifle more ambitious than If I Fell, with not only verses and choruses but a bridge, all of which are beautiful. I’m just a sucker for minor-key harmonies.
Originally released July 10th, 1964 in the UK. Film stills were used for the cover; Tony Barrow again penned liner notes. United Artists got to release the film soundtrack of the same title with just eight of the songs (they also got I’ll Cry Instead); they filled the gaps with (ugh) soundtrack music. Capitol Records, meanwhile, got five of the soundtrack songs plus A Hard Day’s Night/I Should Have Known Better as a single; they mixed these five songs with the Side Two numbers minus I’ll Be Back, threw in the covers of Slow Down and Matchbox from a British EP (of which, more another time) and Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand, and hey presto! You have Something New.5
The CD release in 1987 consisted of the mono mix, due to a miscommunication between George Martin and the EMI execs.6 The stereo mix finally got its release on September 9, 2009.
A Hard Day’s Night is definitely in my Top Five of best Beatles albums. FWIW, the movie is their greatest film and one of the greatest of the Sixties New Wave Cinema.