Originally featured on Medium.com/@carrickmcdonald, December 15, 2015.
The first chord of “A Hard Day’s Night” has more vitality than anything from The Beatles’ first two albums. If that’s not enough, the song also introduces a couple of recurring tropes that will appear in various (and better) forms throughout the group’s oeuvre. If that still isn’t enough, the two were intertwined: a sleep-starved Ringo was explaining how hard the group had been working and before he could finish the phrase “hard day’s work”, got a look at the black sky and called it “a hard day’s night”. The song itself is coy. The group has been working nonstop but his lady friend knows how to make him feel alright. Doing what, I wonder. The song ends in sharp chimes, like a folk rock mirage of clocks.
The first three songs are a mood-setting trio (a formula that would see greater effect on the next album), promising an album of songs about love and affection with a new maturity, a new stateliness. “I Should Have Known Better” is a folky stomper, all hook. If I Fell” is the final song at the sock hop, the one they turn the lights on for. “And I Love Her” was and remains my favorite song on the album, a downbeat return on the promise made by the slight jazz stylings on the last album. There is a plucked rhythm that weaves in and out of the song and blossoms into the simple guitar solo. It is the most subtle moment the early Beatles came up with and a recent vinyl single of Kurt Cobain performing the song was a big hit with people who haven’t bought an album since 1994.
“Can’t Buy Me Love” is a song I never need to hear again. It’s not enough that it’s played out. It also regurgitates the group’s early inability to comment on something besides love. Anything besides love. The thematic tedium sours nearly a third of the album for me, short or not. The folk flourishes do the album a few sonic favors, surprisingly. It’s my personal opinion that acoustic folk music is some of the dreariest, least interesting art on the planet, but a song like “Things We Said Today” succeeds by sounding cloudy and stripped-down, a tense melody married to ambiguous lyrics.
Listening to “A Hard Day’s Night” again reminded me of one of my largest ideological gripes with die hard Beatle fans, which is that they give undue weight to the worst parts of the catalogue. Why more people, en masse, prefer something annoying like “Can’t Buy Me Love” to any of the deeper gems the album has to offer is a question I can’t answer. I wonder how many people feel genuine affection for the most popular Beatles songs and how many people do what they are told. Is it a self-perpetuating closed loop, like the notion that quality music ended with The Beatles? Is the snake eating its own ass? I refuse to live in a world where the song “Can’t Buy Me Love” is held up as a bastion of cultural good taste.
“You Can’t Do That” reminds me of something I appreciated about The Beatles but never knew how to articulate. The song is twisty, for lack of a better term. It folds and unfolds on itself, the sort of slinky, off-kilter sixties pop that you could dance to even though you would always be a measure off of the beat. “I’ll Be Back” mines the same quiet melancholy of “And I Love Her” and it’s an underrated song, pleasing to the ear and twisty in a much more contemplative way.
“A Hard Day’s Night” is a much better album than I remembered. The emphasis on cloudy folk rock and the more subdued musical palette on the downtempo number suits The Beatles, and because they were savvy towards their own sound, they chose to explore these textures in greater detail on the next couple albums. And I’m glad for it. “A Hard Day’s Night” satisfies as an uncommonly solid pop album from the early sixties, in large part due to the band’s insistence on writing their own material and assimilating emerging textures into their formula as the sounds were becoming important. The Beatles put their ear to the ground and heard the rumblings of Bob Dylan, at least peripherally, and the album inches them closer to the unknown, slowly but steadily.
Featured Image credit: immigrantrocks.blogspot.com.