Monday 11 May 2009

The BEATLES: A Hard Day's Night

(#37: 25 July 1964, 21 weeks)

Track listing: A Hard Day’s Night/I Should Have Known Better/If I Fell/I’m Happy Just To Dance With You/And I Love Her/Tell Me Why/Can’t Buy Me Love/Any Time At All/I’ll Cry Instead/Things We Said Today/When I Get Home/You Can’t Do That/I’ll Be Back

They have multiplied. There are now five times as many of them as there used to be; twenty faces being pulled at or pushing the camera – except for Ringo, who patiently sits it out – gazing at us from within a constellation of assumed film reel, wondering: why are there so many of us and so few of you?

It is hard not to imagine their peers hearing - witnessing - the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night” for the first time and not asking themselves the same question, in immediate and abject despair. It is still the nearest thing to pop’s equivalent of the Big Bang, the godly gesture which forever separated the Beatles from the quarried men who hoped to walk beside them on their towpath. MacDonald calls it a G eleven suspended fourth, Harrison referred to it as an F major chord with a G on top (played on his new 12-string Rickenbacker) but advised asking Paul about his bass note – and although the former description is, technically, the more accurate, there remains the knowledge that the chord – the fist of rampant creation – can never really be pinned down. If its intent were to begin time, then it can be excused for having no identifiable precedent.

The irony of it all is that, apart from its beginning and ending, “A Hard Day’s Night”’s explosion has little to do with guitars. Within the song’s main body Ringo’s drums, bongos and cowbells and Lennon and McCartney’s voices more or less predominate; the principal guitar here is Lennon’s acoustic rhythm, suggesting a skiffle group waking up in a spaceship (the latter confirmed by the mid-song Harrison/Martin guitar/piano break, taped at half-speed and then speeded up to resemble a suitably frantic harpsichord). The melody line scales and descends sundry tonal snakes and ladders and the division of lead vocal duties – John on the verses, Paul on the middle eight – cannily disguises the song’s complex, two-and-a-half octave range. There’s a lovely moment when Paul, palpably straining – virtually shrieking – to grasp the double “TIEEEEEGHT” at the end of the second middle eight, threatens to go off the scale and lose his voice altogether but doesn’t; coming back into the final verse, Lennon responds to his exhausted but exultant “YEAH”! with an approving grin of “Mmmmmmm!” And if that weren’t enough – but entirely fittingly, given the song’s impatient pelvic thrust – Harrison’s Rickenbacker returns triumphantly at the end, chiming between A minor seventh (without a fifth, flattened or otherwise) and F major and fading out on that opened-out promise; here’s the future, what are you going to do with it?

The answer – any answer – proved to be beyond the ken or scope of any of their fellow Merseybeat travellers (though, as it turned out, not beyond that of some of their Mancunian counterparts) and so the Beatles, having separated British pop from its stifling previous history, now detached themselves from the family entertainment flow, or at least were determined to do so. It is noticeable how in Lester’s film the four seem to be the relatively calm centre of an established British universe busily going mad; their capers in the Isleworth field and elsewhere, derived from Lester’s previous The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film short improvised with Milligan, Sellers, McKern and others four years previously, still delight with their instant freshness, but the showbiz great and good surrounding them are otherwise fussing and cussing like overheated kettles. Norman Rossington’s Carry On Sergeant manager was nobody’s idea of Brian Epstein but lent the film its defining opposing element – whereas John Junkin’s jittery but adoring roadie was far closer to Epstein in terms of personality.

Yet the real rebels in the film are – if we’re talking alternating between loud and soft – Wilfrid Brambell as Paul’s grandad and Ringo himself. The former has seen it all and lived through more, long and hard enough to realise the gleeful futility of existence; we won two world wars to allow glumness? By some accounts Brambell’s performance gave a truer picture of the man himself – a Dublin dandy, a closeted gay alcoholic – than could have been gleaned from his dozen years of Albert Steptoe in Galton and Simpson’s brilliant extended extemporisation of Beckett’s Endgame (though note should be made of his touching and truthful final appearance in Terence Davies’ 1983 film Death And Transfiguration, not to mention the fact that on the back of his performance in A Hard Day’s Night he was subsequently engaged to play the Mothers’ bassist in Zappa’s 200 Motels, though quit the production after about a week of shooting).

The part of the film which I most frequently revisit, however, is the long, slightly disconnected section midway through where Ringo wanders off on his own, availing himself of pleasantly innocent psychogeographics through a West London riverside still rubbing its sores from the war. Barnes, Kew, Twickenham, the Ealing Studios child on the riverbank who understands Ringo as no one else could, the bitterly warm loneliness of the Twickenham pub where he unsuccessfully tries to get served; a world from which he was already thoroughly separated, even before he became famous (interesting also that Ringo is essentially ranging through the Stones/Yardbirds’ southwest stamping grounds). He returns safely to the TV studio and the theatre, of course, and even in the controlled and clearly mimed environment we do get an inkling of the Beatles’ conversion-friendly power; a world which includes, among others, the nascent Phil Collins and Charlotte Rampling.

The album’s songs are in equal parts futuristic and ambiguous. Futuristic if, for no other reason, this was the first Beatles album to consist entirely of their own compositions (and the only Beatles album to consist entirely of Lennon and McCartney songs), but also because of a fervent freshness and consequent newness stronger than had been suggested on either of their first two albums. This gained strength was crucial; coupled with the energy and irreverence (particularly on Lennon’s part with regard to conventional song structures), I often think side one of A Hard Day’s Night – which incorporates all of the songs used in the film – to be the best and most thrilling side of music on any Beatles album; here is a group totally in control of itself and happy with it.

Lennon’s crazed mono/polytonal walrus of a harmonica on “I Should Have Known Better” is a punk step forward from “Love Me Do”; here is where the Dylan influence starts to seep audibly into the Beatles’ work. Lennon’s vocal is so carefree and Harrison’s super-miked 12-string growls (combined with, again, acoustic guitar in the rhythmic forefront) that its good humour makes nonsense of assuming that its words are nonsense. Lennon is bending the rules like William Brown squatting in the back row of the lecture theatre in the Guildhall School of Music and just as happy to catapult convention.

Still, even happiness has its limits here; by the second line of “If I Fell,” Lennon is already pleading for help (“Help MEEEE understand”) and the song gently meanders around unorthodox bar line/modulatory tropes (though most clearly continue to be derived from Smokey’s Miracles). Moreover, the line “I found that love is more than just holding hands,” though representing a belated and rather touching rise out of adolescence into maturity, is the first instance of Beatle intertextuality (self-referring to “I Want To Hold Your Hand”), though nowhere near as self conscious and suffocating as the tendency would eventually become. Less of a declaration of love than a rather nervous fumble around the notion of love – the “look of love” if we must – Lennon wanders between second person at one remove (“I would love to love you”) and third person (he suddenly begins to talk about her as “she”), this is a song about a hypothesis of love which its author and singer hasn’t yet finally worked out.

George gets his nervous choirboy-at-the-end-of-term-school-dance solo feature on “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You,” although his somewhat morose vocal suggests the surface to belie the reality (I love his Scouse “Every-think!” in the second verse); though a relatively minor song, it still works because of all its subtle and not so subtle arrangemental touches; the now characteristic Beatle trope of beginning a song with the second half of its middle eight, Ringo’s hearty African drum slaps to echo Harrison’s chronically insecure heartbeat, and the group’s very deviously deployed Bo Diddley guitar lines (recorded a couple of days after “Not Fade Away” debuted in the singles chart, was this the first instance of the Stones influencing the Beatles?).

McCartney’s “And I Love Her,” though seemingly this album’s parent-pleasing representative, is actually a far more disturbing song than its reputation suggests. Here is a song of unalloyed but rather confined love almost wholly in a minor key, as though this is a love which has to be hidden, that can only come alive at night. Thus, instead of any sunshine, the song’s central metaphor bases itself upon the bright stars shining and set against the dark sky; McCartney’s unusual emphasis on “dark is the sky” injects a tinge of unrest into the song’s apparently becalmed waters. The simple emotional tropes used in the song’s harmonic construction – the gentle semitonal lift to allow Harrison’s Spanish guitar solo, the closing Picardy third major – have such a devastating emotional impact that they do more than remind us that the genius of the Beatles as writers was not to introduce or innovate a new musical language but to examine the existing language from a different and hitherto untried perspective. In “And I Love Her” they tell us that this song’s love, the singer’s secluded joy, has been hard won, that there is a pregnant pleading for relief which is only answered by the song’s final but (in retrospect) inevitable concordance of ascent into the major key.

Before we can dwell on this too long (and too dangerously), however, Lennon sweeps back into the picture with the thrilling “Tell Me Why” to remind us that few groups ever expressed unhappiness as happily as the Beatles did. Another of his Shirelles-derived girl group tributes, the song races along with exceptional power, McCartney’s comping jazz bass effortlessly complementing Starr’s cymbal triplets, and the band roaring over both and having great fun doing so, as proven by the hilarious John/Paul/George asthmatic falsetto take off section in the middle eight. “All I do is hang my head and moan,” grins Lennon as the song rises to a comforting climax.

The side concludes (it could be taken no further) with the lap of honour of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” a song which ushers in the new age as forcefully as “A Hard Day’s Night” but more subtly; throughout McCartney refers to his Other as “my friend,” suggesting not merely sexual ambiguity but (more powerfully and truthfully) a Harold Wilson casualness which spelled the end of moons shining in June, spooning, turtle doving, and so forth, but especially undue deference; everyone is now equal so let’s swing into tomorrow. As with the Stones’ “It’s All Over Now,” there’s a definite country tang to the song’s swagger (though Ringo’s flooring tom toms place it firmly and finally in the rock camp) and George plays his best solo on the album; slightly distorted and nervously nudging but thoroughly relevant and thrilling.

The six songs on side two were composed, mostly on the turn of a dime, to flesh out the rest of the album (it was, as Tony Barrow’s sleevenote points out in its own, inimitable way, “one of the greatest challenges of their pop-penning career” – and, as Norman Rossington does throughout the film, Barrow is still referring to the four as “the boys” as though National Service were still a thriving issue), and as McCartney was at the time preoccupied with/besotted by Jane Asher, it fell to Lennon to write most of them. The net result – apart from McCartney’s “Things We Said Today” – is effectively the first Lennon solo record and the album takes on a tone simultaneously more aggressive and more uncertain. “Any Time At All” is a good rocker which takes the hopefulness of “It Won’t Be Long” a slight step further though Paul and George manfully succeed in covering the gap left by the absence of a middle eight – the sudden gleam of guitar and piano arising over ten bars like Poseidon emerging from a swimming pool in New Brighton, and George’s hello-The-Byrds coda.

The country pastiche “I’ll Cry Instead,” however, is so buoyant musically that it nearly masks an extremely confused Lennon, both lyrically and vocally. “I got a chip on my shoulder that’s bigger than my feet,” he exclaims before bemoaning his shyness in the face of crowds and an embryo of desperation: “I’m gonna hide myself away (in the second middle eight this is answered by a bizarre yell of “WAHEY!”)/But I’ll come back again someday,” the extraordinary line “I’m gonna break me too,” and a narrowing down to walking bass and tambourine to emphasise Lennon’s vaguely sinister “show you what your loving man can do.”

McCartney’s “Things We Said Today,” meanwhile, vacillates between doleful A minor verse and chorus and spirited, striving A major middle eight (this really was their Aeolian cadences album); another would-be love song sung in the shadows (imagine the Shadows as a folk group, even) with a very definite sense of impermanent foreboding. The vocal harmonies come from the Everlys but Lennon’s acidic semi-acoustic strikes throughout (and Ringo’s tambourine, entering on the cusp of the second middle eight) point towards a less secure, smiley future; there are already elements of Pete Townshend in Lennon’s attack but the song’s general Duchess of Malfi lost on the Mersey Ferry air of leyline dreaminess also signposts, as Lena pointed out, the work of future Liverpool groups, not least Echo and the Bunnymen.

This is followed by an astonishing two-fisted roar of bipolar betrayal from Lennon. Significantly, the tougher rhythms of “When I Get Home” and “You Can’t Do That,” though still Motown-derived, now lean far more towards the Marvin Gaye of “Hitch Hike” (i.e. more into the Stones’ Motown orbital) than to Smokey. On “When I Get Home,” Lennon is preparing for hysteria. “I gotta whole lotta things to tell her!” he roars. “I’m gonna love her ‘til the cows come home…/’Til I walk out that door…AGAIN!” He’s two-timing, and limboised by it; hear Starr’s contemptuous cymbal splashing impotently against a brick wall of block harmonies and multitracked guitar rhythmatics. “I’ve got no business being here with you…THIS WAY!” Lennon trembles.

But on “You Can’t Do That” he finds that she’s been two-timing too, and he doesn’t like it one bit. One of the most furious rockers anywhere in the Beatle catalogue (and looking forward in part to the Stax/James Brown/second stage Motown fusions to be formed throughout Rubber Soul and Revolver). Lennon’s exasperated “OHH!!” sirens like a mortal sword wound. “I’m gonna let you down and leave you flat!” he hisses (to a deadpan ditto response from the others on backing harmonies) “BE! CAUSE! I! TOLD! YOU! BE! FORE!!” as guitars and drums threaten to bring the studio walls down. Especially fevered is the song’s groaning guitar duel, John’s hammerheaded thrashing contrasting with George’s marginally more plaintive responses.

The side and the album end on another low key A major/minor meditation. Six or twelve months earlier “You Can’t Do That” would have been the album’s natural closer, but shades of autumn are dawning even in this springtime as Lennon resigns himself to the fact that he’ll continue fucking himself up by keeping his options open; bear in mind that he was still 23, unconvinced about Cynthia and the father of a recently born son. He can’t decide whether to torch it all and start something new or miserably put up with things as they stand, even though he knows that he’ll keep coming back to the treadmill, or to heaven (those Picardy thirds on “come/came back again” tell their own resolving story). Instead of a bring-the-ceiling-down climax, the record fades out, or rather wanders out of the studio much as Ringo does in the film, with a raised Harrison eyebrow of tonal ambiguity. No wonder so many of their contemporaries settled for the easier and perhaps happier life of the scampi-and-chips circuit. But the harder second wave of beat groups were beginning to come to the fore over the second half of 1964, and the Beatles knew they were in for less deferential competition. Any big bang, after all, is liable to create a universe in which even its creators are obliged to exist.