08 August 2010

Track By Track: It’s Very Clean




A Hard Day’s Night
The Beatles
Parlophone, 1964
Producer: George Martin

The hardest part of writing about classic albums is coming up with something to say about them that hasn’t been said a thousand times before by other critics, pundits, or even the artists themselves. That’s especially true for the Beatles, who are the subject of millions of words of praise and respect, and about whose albums entire books have been written. So if it seems to you that I’m setting the bar a little high in starting this column off with the daunting task of following all that, then you’re right. I am. I’m nothing if not foolhardy. Also, there’s something of an element of “Well, if I can pull this off, I can manage anything else with ease” -- which I know isn’t strictly true, because I’m going to run into the same problem with many of the albums I intend to cover here. C’est la vie, man. Life is nothing without its little challenges.

A little historical information, for the sake of context: in late 1963 the Beatles were approaching the height of their worldwide fame, and United Artists wanted a piece of the pie. A three picture deal was quickly signed by Brian Epstein, and producer Walter Shenson was given the task of bringing the Beatles to the silver screen. Playwright Alun Owen and director Dick Lester were recruited for the task, and wisely decided to let the four Liverpudlians’ natural chemistry, and their incredibly catchy songs, carry the film. The resulting movie, A Hard Day’s Night, was a worldwide smash and is hailed today by many critics as one of the greatest musicals ever committed to film.

A musical lives or dies on its songs, so it’s a good thing for this one that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were on one of their strongest runs at this point in the Beatles’ career. The soundtrack album they wound up creating -- written in hotel rooms and on off days between tour dates, and even during the filming of the movie -- became a timeless classic, full of instantly recognizable tunes and cementing the Beatles’ reputations as hitmakers. It’s notable also for being the only Beatles album that contains nothing but Lennon/McCartney compositions from start to finish. And as such, it’s worth going through track by track. So, with that in mind, let’s run to the station, shall we? We have a train to catch . . .

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“A Hard Day’s Night” -- Famously written to order in a single night by John Lennon, this is one of the most recognizable songs in the Beatles’ repertoire. And it’s not hard to see why: from the crashing opening chord, which is the aural equivalent of grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you to get your attention, to the jangling, arpeggiated fade-out that made a million teenaged boys start saving for Rickenbacker guitars, there’s not a wasted note or a moment that doesn’t make you want to get up and dance. The lyric itself, based like the title of the film on one of Ringo Starr’s more memorable malapropisms, is a poetic trifle -- minimalist and not terribly insightful. Yet it has a universality to it; its sentiment is understandable to anyone who’s had a bitch of a day(‘s night) and is happy to walk in the door and be greeted by the comfort of a pair of loving arms.

“I Should Have Known Better” -- When I was seven or so my mom gave me my first Beatles album: Hey Jude. I wish I still had it, for nostalgia’s sake, even though it wasn’t an official British Beatles release -- just a clearinghouse for heretofore-uncollected singles meant for the American market alone. The album spans almost the Beatles’ entire career, from A Hard Day’s Night to Let It Be, and “I Should Have Known Better” is the second cut on side one, making it one of the earliest songs I connected with the Beatles as a group. It’s still one of my favorites: a bouncy, happy number that presages the coming folk-rock explosion, drawing elements of blues and skiffle and even Hollywood musicals into a gently swinging whole tied together by Lennon’s harmonica, his hey-hey-heys, and the sweet falsetto note he hits in the middle eight. And another odd Beatles innovation is the repeated middle eight towards the end of the song, riding out on that rather than on another verse. It’s not their invention, but they use it well here. A great little pop song.

“If I Fell” -- John Lennon is on record as referring to this as a “silly love song.” It’s typical of his self-effacing attitude that most songwriters would kill to have penned something as good as this. It’s actually a fairly unique entry in the Beatles’ oeuvre. It has an unorthodox intro featuring a melody unrelated to the rest of the song, and then dips immediately into the rich interaction of John and Paul’s close harmonies, one of the groups biggest musical strengths. John and Paul were natural harmonizers, and had been singing together for years at this point, so they knew, almost instinctively, how to complement one another and which notes to hit to make a song sparkle. Here, they outdid themselves, basically creating a cooperative melody where each harmony part combines into a greater whole. Few pop groups or rock groups were doing anything like this at the time. And this is Lennon’s idea of a silly love song? Wow.

“I’m Happy Just To Dance With You” -- McCartney called this a formula song for George to sing, back in the days when Harrison didn’t feel comfortable submitting his compositions to the group. In some sense it feels like a formula song too, albeit a very energetic and well-written one. And what does it say about Lennon and McCartney that even their weaker, “formula” songs make other composers’ original work look sick by comparison? I love the backing vocals on this track, by the way -- they bring the song to another level, and bring a joyful sweetness to the sentiment of the lyric. It really perfectly captures that excitable yet complacent happiness of dancing with someone you love for the first time.

“And I Love Her”-- One of McCartney’s strongest songs from this period -- a gentle, heartfelt ballad with a clever lyric and a lovely solo vocal by Paul. Ringo’s light touch on the percussion -- forgoing drums for blocks and maracas -- brings out the natural strength of the melody. And the exquisite middle eight (rumored to have been written by Lennon, though Paul claims to this day that the song is all his) with its unexpected semi-rhyme brings things to another level. An underrated classic.

“Tell Me Why” -- One of the things I always love about the Beatles is that you can turn any corner on one of their albums and be greeted by one of these peppy, unassuming rockers. This was apparently patterned after the Phil Spector-style girl groups of the time,and you can hear bits of the Chiffons and the Marvelettes in there if you listen hard enough. But really this is straight-ahead, four-to-the-floor Merseyside rock and roll, and it doesn’t try very hard because it really doesn’t need to. It’s one of those songs that comes on over the speakers and you find yourself singing along to it, almost in spite of yourself. It’s fun and fast and almost insanely catchy.

“Can’t Buy Me Love” -- Another song that I first heard on the Hey Jude compilation album. It’s actually something of an anomaly in the Beatles catalog as it takes a standard twelve-bar blues form, something they didn’t often do. And even when they did do it, they would often turn the formula on its head a bit, as they did here by beginning and ending the song with an ear-catching snatch of the chorus -- apparently George Martin’s idea. Martin always had good instincts for pop music and rock and roll (odd, considering his background in classical music and comedy), and those instincts serve the Beatles well here. That chorus-first beginning captures the attention, much like the opening chord in “A Hard Day’s Night” does, and “Can’t Buy Me Love” goes on from there to rock your face off. McCartney’s rollicking vocal never lets up, and Harrison’s solo is note perfect. From start to finish it’s one of the Beatles’ best early-period songs.

“Any Time At All” -- Probably the weakest song on the album. Lennon characterized it as his attempt to rewrite “It Won’t Be Long.” Not a bad tune, though the chorus is a bit rushed and wordy. I hesitate to use the word “generic” but if there is such a thing as a blueprint early-period Beatles song, this is it.

“I’ll Cry Instead” -- This is a bit more like it: A country/western based confessional-type song, with fun lyrics -- people cite the line “I’ve got a chip on my shoulder that’s bigger than my feet” as an example of bad songwriting on Lennon’s part, but given the man’s personality I think it’s more likely this was a deliberate ploy to inject a little humor into an otherwise dark song. The boastful last verse borrows from blues idiom, bragging about breaking hearts all around the world to teach the girl who broke his heart a lesson -- but the last line is a rueful admission that this isn’t going to happen any time soon.

“Things We Said Today” -- A lot of rock fans who think they know the Beatles assign roles to the members of the group: John was the arty-farty one who wrote and played screaming rockers, Paul wrote the sugary ballads and the empty-headed pop stuff, George had his head in India from 1965 on, and Ringo couldn’t sing. And those couldn’t be further from the truth -- well, except for the one about Ringo. The truth is, Lennon was equally apt to write a sappy ballad as Paul was, and Paul’s one-take performance of “Long Tall Sally” is easily the equal of John’s similar single take shredding of “Twist and Shout.” And Paul was just as willing to experiment with songwriting forms and conventions as John was, as witness his great contribution here. It’s a song about being in love -- but it’s written in a minor key, and takes the point of view of glancing ahead ten, even twenty years down the line to what that love will be like, and from there looking back fondly on the day the song is being written. It’s a sort of “reverse nostalgia” technique that to my knowledge really hadn’t been approached before in popular song, and McCartney pulls it off beautifully. It’s somehow dark and light at the same time, and it’s a damn good song to boot.

“When I Get Home” -- Interesting song. One of the things that stands out for me is the “Whoa-oh-oh IIIIIIIIIII!” chorus, and the faint, draggy dissonance that creeps into the harmony. It presages similar dissonant, heavy-chorded songs that were yet to come, like “Ticket To Ride” and “She Said, She Said.” The verses were pretty standard for a Beatles raver at the time -- though John’s line about having “no time for trivialities” is a hint of the wordsmith he was becoming -- and the tune itself is typical for this period in their careers. Again not quite generic -- no Beatles song can really be called generic -- but blueprinted, yeah. Nothing wrong with formula if the formula works, after all.

“You Can’t Do That” -- There are a lot of rock songs out there that could be seen through today’s eyes as objectifying women, or even as misogynistic. “You Can’t Do That” skates right up to that edge . . . and, unfortunately, crosses right over it. You could say a lot of things to excuse that -- times were different, the song comes from a blues tradition, and without even trying I can name you ten blues and R&B songs that are twice as bad, etc. -- but honestly, the way things are today that’s a losing battle, so fuggit. Instead I’ll just say that “You Can’t Do That” has a great melody that is ruined by unfortunately possessive, paranoid, and creepy lyrics.

“I’ll Be Back” -- A Hard Day’s Night is an all around triumph of an album, so it’s interesting, even odd, that it should end on such a dark, ambiguous note as this. It’s an unusual song in and of itself; it keeps shifting keys, the bridge changes the second time around, and there’s no chorus. And the song fools you by fading out earlier than you think it should.. It’s an early sign of Lennon’s dissatisfaction with the strictures of pop music, and of him reaching for something more than the  verse-chorus-verse-middle-eight-chorus-verse-chorus that most rock and roll offered him. It crops up again and again as the Beatles’ career goes on, this reaching for the different -- both John and Paul would do it, in their own ways -- but to see it emerging here, on the Beatles’ third album, at what is essentially the then-pinnacle of the group’s career, is revelatory, I think. Or at least interesting to think about when you’re home alone, the TV is broken, and the Internet is out.

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In closing (you there in the back, stop cheering), A Hard Day’s Night is the best of the Beatles’ early albums, the first of a number of peaks they would attain over the years, and a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. Pop music and rock and roll just don’t get any better than this.

Coming up on Track By Track -- well, it depends on where my mind takes me. I’d like to cover albums by the Stones, more Beatles, the Clash, the Who, Zeppelin, Massive Attack, The Beastie Boys, John Coltrane, and a lot of stuff in between. But I have no idea right now what the next column will be. I can say that it won’t happen for a couple of weeks though, as I have other commitments coming up that will keep me from writing a longer column like this for a while. The next one should appear before the end of the month, though.

Also, I should note that if you have an idea for an album I should cover in this space, please give me a shout in the comments section below. I’m more than willing to entertain reasonable suggestions -- and even unreasonable ones, if I’m in the right mood. So please, make yourself heard!

Namaste!

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