Updated: Oct 7, 2020
19 years after the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, mercilessly bringing peace to 135,000 grateful Japanese, the Beatles dropped their own more benign but equally devastating one on Western civilisation. One closed a chapter on the old world order, the other opened a portal to the new.
A naysayer (there may be few of those reading this) will say that opening statement amounts to blowing smoke the size of a mushroom cloud right up into the Beatles' collective bottoms, but take a step back and gawp at the enormity of what was achieved: the crashing, apocalyptic opening chord of A Hard Day's Night thunder claps the moment the Beatles began their peak of collective creativity, ingenuity and influence that sustained until it ended with a crash of piano 3 years, 6 (SIX!) albums and 9 (NINE, NINE!) singles later. By the time the runout groove kicks in at the and of their '67 tour de force concept album, the world was a changed place and all we could do is to forever more try to understand what the hell happened between 1964 and 1967. The 20th century never quite recovered and wether the 21st century will is yet to be determined.
The Beatles, then. 1964. 18 months, two albums and 6 singles into their recording career, were already ubiquitous in the charts, the newspapers and teenage bedrooms in the UK and the USA, as well as some other backwater provinces like Canada, Australia, Sweden, France, Guatemala...whatever. They even invaded Germany at the first attempt, and no English warlord ever did that. They were every-bloody-where. That they had achieved this with a refreshing, but rather hodgepodge mixture of breezily catchy self-penned pop singles and nearly decade old rock and roll covers is something that has been somewhat neglected when looking back at the band's unprecedented rise.
So much is focused on their later, more outré output that what they were able to achieve with what they had at the beginning can be somewhat understated. Love Me Do, for example, is not much more than a child's attempt at the blues with a catchy harmonica motif; but it made the chart, on merit with little backing. And I like it. In context I still enjoy it very much, but if Herman's Hermits had released it, I'd throw dead cats at it and try to kill it with fire. Instead I buy it multiple times, in multiple formats in a multitude of mixes. So what was happening here?
The band were driven, in the early recording days, like Lennon's rhythm guitar: with the brute force of charisma rather than with any real technical finesse. They made it up as they went along, and guessed right every time.
here was the freshness of the dropped bars and Aeolian cadences that alarmed and thrilled people smarter than our parents, who just thought they sounded like a ruddy good laugh and quite fancied Paul. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see a natural, logical progression from Love Me Do through to She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand and on to Paperback Writer and Strawberry Fields, but in 1964 all the lucky few had was the journey in view, not the destination. That She Loves You was perhaps pop's greatest 2.5 minutes was possibly a fluke, followed by another, but by the time of the thunderclap something else was happening.
Charisma was overtaken by confidence. A Single? Sure. In the charts. Follow up? Why not. Number One. An album then? Another number one. Sod it, chuck 'em a film. CLANG!
Note: An inevitable, unavoidable hazard of obsessive fandom is the risk of over-listening. This is why we all buy the reissues, look for different pressings of records, think about dusting off the tape deck - to be shocked into thinking something new one more time. If this is you, and you're no longer jolted into a trouser tent over AHDN's frantic energy, then here's something that may help:
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A Hard Day's Night was, for my money, the Beatles' best single to date. Written to order and all by John. An act of defiance to stamp his control on a film and album project, driven by the ambition to better and best his partner. He does, for now, with 10 of the 13 album tracks entirely or predominantly written by Lennon. Beatle John owned Beatlemania.
The track was startlingly alive, even for them. It harnessed the musical force and energy of Twist & Shout and All My Loving into something yet more urgent, driving. John's reportage style is given an early airing, providing the song with an authentic punch. Simple melodic lines soar, the simple made complex. Or is it the reverse? It's impossible to tell. It has John in full, peak voice flight; forceful yet with feeling. Paul is in tandem, high in register, rendering a pleading singalong near impossible for mere mortals (you always forget and find yourself bounding in with Macca's confidence and none of his pitch).
Paul's here for a reason - John couldn't hit those damn notes, either.
To prove, if it were needed, that these boys were human, here's a great rollicking live version from Paris. The crowd are surprisingly respectful, and in thanks John Sieg Heil's them and Paul loses his voice (he later found it in a mademoiselle's knicker drawer) in the bridge. Nice 'disguise by being cute' attempt, Mr. M.
Here, George announces himself to the new even more frenetic era of Beatledom with his most memorable guitar solo yet. He betters it twice more on the album, but George is growing into his role as the most efficient and effective of all pop lead guitar players. From here, if he had before, he never put a foot wrong on his guitar parts. Never over playing, but adding just enough, with panache and invention. His AHDN solo is a runaway train upon a runaway train upon a runaway train. To hammer the point home, he gets the 12 string outro, too.
The band are operating at a level of tightness and momentum on Ringo's 4/4 climb to the end that gives the impression that only the wall in Number 2 could stop them. The drummer opens his high hat and never looks back, his Beatlemania style now settled and splashily confirmed. His place cemented. This is a level of total community, exclusive inclusivity that gave the Beatles that air of the gang that wouldn't let you in, but allowed you to laugh along. I've been on their coat tails all my life and the thought of catching them is terrifying.
What we have here is joy. Unbridled and unparalleled. They kept this up for the whole album and albums to follow, but never again was such lightening distilled into three minute, faultless pop than here. Brilliant, wonderful Beatle magic. A1. 10/10.
What did you make of 'A Hard Day's Night'? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
See you in the comments.