Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

(There's a less fragmented version here.)

For me, with Beatles albums before Sgt. Pepper, it has taken some getting used to the "real" UK tracks and sequencing (not to mention things gone entirely missing since, such as the album Hey Jude, a favorite). It's no bother attempting to sort it out, of course, and indeed the new versions are better in many cases. But I still miss elements of what I knew. The US Hard Day's Night (with red instead of blue album cover art) was one of the first albums I owned, and I played it to death, but it's fairly different from this one. For example, it included an instrumental version of "This Boy" from the movie soundtrack. I'm not even sure that's commercially available now, or where it is if so. Still, the UK version is better, if only because it has more Beatles songs from this great period. Here's about some of them.

"A Hard Day's Night"—That chord—this song—the way it attacks, and moves, the dense textures, the blunt black and white poise. Could the movie possibly have been in color with this for its theme? Even after all the years of withering familiarity and exposure, "A Hard Day's Night" still finds ways in to me—heard in the background at random, in the cover by Alvin & the Chipmunks, or taking to my armchair to study it closely, it can still surprise, and command great force. I don't think I had actually realized until very recently what an object of mystery and veneration the opening chord has become (Randy Bachman outlines the main points in a short and gratifying audio clip here). That's all very interesting—and goes to the musical vocabulary I find myself lacking to describe the intricacies of these pop songs. In fundamental ways pop itself is reinvented here. What else is going on in this song to make it so effective? It's mostly a John Lennon composition, based on a remark Ringo made in an interview about the grueling schedule, which they had been on for years by that point, and it has that vague air of threat in the background Lennon could bring to his songs (more on that below). A big hit—of course—#1 for two weeks in the summer of 1964, with the release of the movie. At "When I'm home," it lunges for the moon, affirming, "Everything seems to be right." Glorious howling vocal at the top of their (and my) range, something you have to reach for pretty deep. A nice scream, then a nice guitar break from George Harrison. Is this helping? I think this could have been the song whoever it was was talking about when they said writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

"I Should Have Known Better"

"If I Fell"—Indications are that the Beatles themselves did not take this song that seriously, introducing it in performance as "If I Fell Over." But that's just their charming way, yes? More or less a John Lennon song, according to the usual signs and sources (that's Lennon singing by himself at the start), it also features those unmistakable Lennon / McCartney close harmonies reminiscent of the Everly Brothers. Part of that effect comes from the two sharing a single microphone, singing cheek to jowl in physical space. This song is also interesting because of the eccentric structure, which is basically all verses, no chorus, and bears many moods and shifts in tone across its 2:22. It launches with the vocal and a run-on tangle of words, then there is a brief pause and the song opens wide with a ratatat snare drum figure and McCartney singing. A small moment but wonderful. The teen puppy love angle here—because teen puppy love is what they did approximately until Bob Dylan introduced them to marijuana—is fear of commitment due to fear of rejection and emotional pain, from the point of view (intentionally or otherwise) of a callow person who only believes he is wise. "If I give my heart to you / I must be sure," the singer firmly avows. Yeah, good luck with that, as ever. There's a slightly unpleasant turn at the end when it becomes apparent in a throwaway that the singer is probably actually contemplating an affair and may be a bit of a rat ("So I hope you see that I / Would love to love you / And that she will cry"). Pure Lennon, actually, who was capable of surprising mean streaks when it came to women (cf. "Run for Your Life"), which is probably why he wrote so many "woman" songs in the '70s. Subject matter rarely matters with early Beatles songs anyway.

"I'm Happy Just to Dance With You"

"And I Love Her"—This was a hit, riding the momentum of the movie and peaking at #12 in August 1964, with "If I Fell" on the flip. It was nearly a year ahead of my radio times, and though it was on the red soundtrack album I knew (also appearing in an instrumental version) I did not connect with it until oldies radio started importuning in about the late '70s. It's really quite beautiful—I don't think it's too much to call it stunning—in a way that harks directly to Buddy Holly, with Paul McCartney's voice plain carrying the melody. Maybe I like it so much because it's easy to sing with, I can really hit some of the important notes and words hard. Maybe it's another case of a nearly perfect song to play on car speakers. But I'm not getting tired of it on any speakers now and I think I would have to rank it high on the list of Beatles ballads. Since it's a ballad, and McCartney does most of the singing, I'm sure you can guess who wrote it. I found this note in Wikipedia that I want to include. I hear a lot about the innovative musicality of the Beatles but I don't have the vocabulary or chops to parse that stuff out for myself. But this seems evocative of things I've heard people say, and important: "A majority of this song switches back and forth between the key of E and its relative minor C#m. It also changes keys altogether just before the solo, to F. It ends on the parallel major of the key of F's relative minor, D. This technique is known as Picardy third resolution." (Me, I just think it feels good to sing with it.)

"Tell Me Why"—Not all the songs on this album are in the movie—nor, for that matter, are all the songs in the movie on this album. But "Tell Me Why" is in both and actually occupies an important part of the movie. Recall that the picture essentially tracks the lads from the end of one show through the events that take them to the next. Along the way we see various fantasies made of their songs, and we see them rehearse, but not until "Tell Me Why" do we see them in live performance. This is "the real deal"—scare quotes mandatory because it's all cinema. But it's tremendously effective, suddenly cutting to a hall full of screaming, weeping girls and this song blasting. It's a John Lennon song so it has an edge to the words, almost confessional in an inside out sort of way. I guess that's based on what we know of Lennon's life at the time, secretly married, unhappily, even while living on the road approximately the kind of life we see in the movie (the famous "train to a room to a car" pursued by thousands of screaming teen girls everywhere constantly). And they were on the road most of the time. But musically "Tell Me Why" is at once so simple and such a bracing explosion of harmony and sound that it almost works like a generic early Beatles song (first honors for that would of course likely go to "She Loves You," which is in the movie but not on this album). "Tell Me Why" appeared on two US albums, the red soundtrack and Something New, which also feels like some nod to the importance it is accorded in the movie.

"Can't Buy Me Love"—A Paul McCartney song and ultimately one of the biggest Beatles hits of all, enjoying a five-week stay at #1 starting in March 1964, approximately the peak of Beatlemania. "Can't Buy Me Love" was the song holding the #1 spot in the historic week of early April 1964 when the Beatles occupied all of the top five positions. It was followed by "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and "Please Please Me," which means it was also the only song from the Hard Day's Night movie. In fact, after the title song, "Can't Buy Me Love" is probably the most pervasive Beatles tune in the movie, recurring more than once and providing the soundtrack for one of the picture's most iconic montages. Still, I have to say, it's not really a favorite—this could well be a matter of overexposure. Or the missing harmonies, which marks it out a little. Or maybe it's just not that good—it seems a little humdrum, which is not helped by the hackneyed sentiment, the basic "love over gold" business (neatly undercut elsewhere by John Lennon's vocal on the cover of "Money," though of course "love is all you need" was their future). McCartney himself recognized the paradox in the context of their massive world conquest imperial phase going on at the time, telling one interviewer later, acknowledging the strange life they experienced on the ascendant, "It should have been 'Can Buy Me Love.'" Maybe the thought experiment here needs to be, "If there were no other Beatles songs but this one, how would you feel about it then?" Would your answer depend on whether you could remember the disappeared catalog, and what would it be? 

"Any Time at All"—More of a John Lennon song—that's him bleating it out at the attack, albeit with Paul McCartney singing along to shore up some of the high notes, according to Wikipedia, and there's also a section of the song by McCartney, so ultimately a true collaboration. That's the good news. The bad news is there's not much to this one, though it plays well in your all-day Beatles music housecleaning mix, quick and efficient at 2:13, with hard edges and blunt force, a sweet drop or two, and on. The basic position would seem to be declaring oneself open to love, though inexplicably with a bit of a chip on one's shoulder. "Any time at all, all you gotta do is call, and I'll be there," says the singer, but he sounds like he's mad about something. Maybe you shouldn't call right now. Except that might make him even more mad. On the other hand, he softens appreciably a second later. "If you need somebody to love, just look into my eyes," he says, the smoothie, adding later, "If you're feeling sorry and sad, I'd really sympathize." I bet. Oh, how quickly we plunge into these things. So there are questions of sincerity or at least motivation, I think, and some willingness to chalk it all up to another era if you want. It's not for others to judge, there is probably some viable level of identification going on here in terms of gender relations among teens at that time, so leave it at that. McCartney's banging guitar chords and picked-out piano notes in the instrumental break are probably the best part of it.

"I'll Cry Instead"—Another hit song, peaking at #25, also in August 1964, and another John Lennon song too, though more in a country vein. To complicate matters, each version of the soundtrack had a unique version of this song—the US version was a little bit longer. But at any rate it was taken out of the movie late. According to Wikipedia, it was restored in fragment form in a later edit, part of a titles montage, but I never noticed it the last time I looked at the movie. Seems Lennon was into the confessional mode early, as it's another song that speaks by implication to his general unhappiness with the super-mega-star lifestyle in which he was embroiled (trapped). A venting exercise. There's also helpings of the gender hostility he would spend the next decade resisting and apologizing for: "But I'll come back again someday / And when I do, you better hide all the girls, / 'Cos I'm gonna break their hearts all 'round the world," so on so forth. Pretty mild compared to where he could and would go. And typically enough for the Beatles, especially in this early period, it sounds as happy as picnic music anyway, so the angst hardly stands out, even if the song keeps returning to the title theme. For me, this is a great example of all-day Beatles music. You can trace out the sources and elements of individual songs, praise them to the highest skies one at a time, and maybe even make the case for one being greater than another. But for me it's often all just generic Beatles music, sounds good loud on sunny days, and on to the next song. Rinse and repeat. All part of the inherent greatness of the band generally, and this album specifically.

"Things We Said Today"—Did not make it into the movie or the US version of the soundtrack, appearing instead on the US album, Something New, which came out within weeks of the movie. Busy busy, sorting out this mess. Because it was not on the US soundtrack, and I did not own Something New until I was in my 20s, it still feels a bit like a "new" song, unfamiliar in that it was not grooved into me by the age of 14. It's a Paul McCartney song and really takes it around the block, with McCartney's typical bent toward the ballad but also with rapidly shifting tempos and moods, and an aloof yet searing melody. Lennon's acoustic playing has sharply dramatic flourishes that power it up even as McCartney's lyric takes an interesting strategy, projecting nostalgia into the future as he has reportedly said. By the time "Things We Said Today" reaches the chorus it has already traveled widely. In its way it's another example of a perfect Beatles song. There's a hook that grabs attention right away in the acoustic guitar, while the verses bob and weave about, carrying a complex melody that only insinuates itself further the more it is heard. There is an enduring feeling of discovery in it that sends it a long way. I find I can get caught up in ruts of playing it many times consecutively and listening closely. But why is this so effective? Why does it sound so good? Wikipedia has a discussion of the compositional elements so I refer you to that for thoughts on chord and key changes. Sometimes I just feel inadequate about getting at what makes these things work so well.

"When I Get Home"—A John Lennon song, which deliberately or by happenstance echoes a line in the title song, "A Hard Day's Night," although the sentiment there—"When I get home to you I find the things that you do / Will make me feel all right"—seems at first rather different here. The singer announces he has "a whole lot of things to tell her" when he gets home, and they don't necessarily sound like good things. False alarm, he means the best: what he wants is to "love her till the cows come home." The next song, "You Can't Do That," is the better example of this style of Lennon, suspicious and hostile toward women, apparently working out issues of masculinity for the moment by flat assertion and threatening manner—that insecurities thing again, what a hassle. The youth, suits, caps, puppy dog boyish manner, turn in the lyrics, and context of the times paper it over, and it's easy enough, even now, to hear this primarily as the usual wondrous Beatles munge of elements from places like the Everly Brothers, Shirelles, and a lot of years already of playing small clubs and honing their rock 'n' roll. I particularly like the way the song floats up with a big breath from a "whoa" at the bottom of the diaphragm to a keening, falsetto "Ahhhh-eee-I," in the attack and liberally sprinkled along the way. Music to howl with, stamp feet, jump up and down, simulate tantrums. It's otherwise the cocky, strutting Lennon, described in more detail below, that moves this along, with brash impatience and force. Not much to it, but irresistible in its way.

"You Can't Do That"—Another John Lennon song, and a good example of the counter-Lennon, the one popular history has mostly scrubbed, the near misogynist angry strong-man realist who bellowed "Money (That's What I Want)" and whose most ringing moment may have been "Run for Your Life" (as opposed to the gentle punster doodler in wire-rims who staged bed-ins for peace). That Antilennon also appeared in the '70s, as on "Jealous Guy," but it runs so far outside the typical perception of him I think there's a kind of amnesia about it. But it's clearly the thrust of "You Can't Do That," a proto-garage hard rocker, from the title sentiment and aggressive attack in the early seconds forward. In the context of Beatlemania at large, heard through the din of screaming, it's almost cute, like Ricky Nelson playing at the badass in Rio Bravo. But sight unseen, image unknown, it could well be a revelation on the order of "Money." This singer is not a good man. He is surly, snarling—abusive, that overused word—perfectly clear about what he means: "I got something to say that might cause you pain / If I catch you talking to that boy again / I'm gonna let you down / And leave you flat / Because I told you before, oh / You can't do that." One might ask what is meant by "let you down" and "leave you flat," but whatever they are there can't be that much good spin of it. The story gets worse from there, but the song is otherwise a pretty sharp straight-up electric guitar romp, out of the Chicago schools of rhythm and blues (with solos!), and they acquit themselves fine, especially Ringo.

"I'll Be Back"—One more John Lennon song, in another vein. I love the stark drama of it, achieved in a complex of ways: from the switching around between major and minor keys, the flamenco style of strumming the acoustic guitar, the weird aimless structure, the confusing ambiguities of situation described, apparently involving a breakup but told from many angles (foreshadowing the puppy love song project of the next soundtrack album), the abrupt fade. "I'll Be Back" appears and proceeds and disappears again like a visitation. It's thus fitting, I suppose, that the prevailing sentiment is of a haunting or even stalking (thinking of the "Run for Your Life" John Lennon we know from the previous song too), embedded in the title itself, albeit gently, gently. At one point it sounds as if the singer is causing the rupture, making it seem as if it is a caprice on his part, passive aggressive, even cruel, something he has done before. A strange point to make as one is dumping someone, but all right. Maybe there are circumstances. Has she been unfaithful? Has it happened before? Chasing down these and the multiplicity of other nuances of the space between people in relationships would come to be a great preoccupation of theirs, which makes this a fitting last song on the album. Reading up about it on Wikipedia just now, it appears "I'll Be Back" also borrows chords from Del Shannon's "Runaway," a haunted song in its own right. Beautiful—a musical amplification, but also thematic, as "I'll Be Back" may serve as a response to the runaway ... or by the runaway ... a wonderful ambiguity, full of its own tensions. Will this couple make it? Stay tuned.

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