The multiple shows and appearances in the first two months of 1964 out of the way, the Beatles now moved on to their next major project: a film. It seemed the natural thing to do, as many of the big rockers of the time were making or were about to make their own musical movies. Most likely inspired by Elvis Presley’s star turns in the American film industry over the last few years, it was considered yet another viable avenue for worldwide fame. The end result was more often than not a drive-in quality film not unlike the Beach Party movies Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello became known for: a lot of fun to watch and listen to, but very little in the way of substance and plot. But that wasn’t as important as the music that would be featured–the point was to show the band in their natural habitat, performing hit songs. The storyline would be halted, the band would head up on stage and perform a big song, and would continue again once the song was finished. All kinds of bands including Cliff Richard (Expresso Bongo and The Young Ones), The Dave Clark Five (Catch Us If You Can, aka Having a Wild Weekend in the US) and Chuck Berry (Rock, Rock, Rock) would make films like this, to varying success.
The Beatles actually began recording music for their movie before they started filming, per director Richard Lester’s request. Lester was an American who had started making his name primarily in Britain, making comedic and often irreverent films, his first being the bizarre experimental short The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film with comedian Peter Sellers. That was a particuar favorite of the Beatles (especially John, who was a huge Goon Show fan), which helped Lester get hired for the film. Lester wanted a few songs beforehand so he could fit them into the shooting script, and the band gladly provided. They would only need a small handful of songs–maybe seven or so–for the film itself, but they treated the assignment as sessions for a follow-up album. The viewpoint was that Side A would be songs from the film, and Side B would be “songs from the album of the same name”. In the end, they laid down seventeen new songs, providing them with a full thirteen-track album, as well as an EP that preceded it.
EP: Long Tall Sally
Released: 19 June 1964
Track 1: Long Tall Sally
Little Richard’s early 1956 single was a huge favorite of the band and one they often played in their early days. Recorded on the afternoon of 1 March during the earliest days of the A Hard Day’s Night sessions, this was Paul’s baby–he could do a mean Little Richard wail, and he nailed it in one take. With all four band members rocking their hardest and George Martin providing the piano backing, the first take was so perfect that they didn’t bother doing another. It’s an all-out rocker that leaves you breathless.
Track 2: I Call Your Name
Recorded the same day as “Long Tall Sally”, this was an older track of John’s written at least a few years previous, which may explain the band’s return to the simpler lyrics of their first songs. It’s another curiosity, for a few reasons. First, this was originally a track given to fellow Liverpudlians (and fellow Epstein roster band) Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, who relegated it to a b-side (interestingly, its a-side was another Lennon/McCartney track given especially to them, “Bad to Me”). Second, John wanted to record it as he was unhappy with Kramer’s version (and admittedly, theirs is a bit of a hash). Third, it’s one of the first band tracks that feature George’s new toy, a Rickenbacker 360/12 guitar, one of the first electric 12-strings out there, and one he’d use in a number of songs from this period. And fourth…it’s the rare moment when the band switches into a completely different sound for the solo, in this case ska, of all things. In all honesty, it’s not one of their strongest songs, but as always, it’s a solid one.
Track 3: Slow Down
This Larry Williams track from spring 1958 had long been a staple in their early live shows (and one of two Williams tracks they’d record), a simple 12-bar blues rock song. I’ll be straight here–this recording is a complete mess, even though there were six takes done on 1 June – their first recording session after all filming of the movie had finished and a holiday had been taken. The playing here is fast and extremely loose to the point of sloppiness. There’s also a noticeably bad mix error around 1:14 in which the bass and the piano disappear for a few seconds, not to mention John screwing up the lyrics around the same time. And yet, it’s almost as if it was done that way on purpose, a track that was supposed to sound like it was played by a band up on stage at a bar, who’d already had a few too many, and no one seems to mind. It’s rocking, it’s messy, and somehow it manages to still be good.
Track 4: Matchbox
And now a track for Ringo! The band had been big fans of Carl Perkins since their Hamburg days, and this old blues standard (originally “Match Box Blues” from 1927 and updated by Perkins in 1957) was often performed during the time, specifically for the drummer to sing. Pete Best sang it during those early years, and Ringo handily took over when it came time for them to record it, which they did the same day as “Slow Down”. It’s a simple song for Ringo to sing, more in his limited vocal range than “Boys” and “I Wanna Be Your Man”, and a fun track for the whole band to jam to.
All told, this quick EP did reasonably well in the UK, and two of the tracks even made it as a single in the US (“Matchbox”/”Slow Down” hit a respectable #17 in the charts). It’s by no means their best work, but it’s an excellent example of a band’s evolving sound finally falling into place–a mix of American blues and rock, and British pop–and it’s also a great example of a band refusing to stay in one style.
* * *
Album: A Hard Day’s Night
Released: 10 July 1964
The Beatles’ first movie was released on 6 July to rave reviews worldwide–everyone had expected another throwaway movie, and no one had expected such a detailed, decently acted, well-written, and extremely well-made film from scruffy rock stars. The humor was distinctively British and to some extent specifically Liverpudlian, that ‘we’re taking the piss out of you because we like you’ working class irreverence. It was also made with the idea that not only would the kids love it, but the grown-ups would enjoy it as well. In a brilliant move from Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen, all four band members were able to show their own personal side, specifically in solo scenes. John got to play the silly but smart leader to his heart’s content, Paul got to play the straight man with responsibility (Wilfred Brambell played his “clean” grandfather that they had to take care of), George showed a quiet but deep intelligence in an unexpectedly serious scene (he’s cornered by clueless fashion designers and asked his opinion, thus introducing the word “grotty” to the world), and Ringo got to show his natural acting chops in a wonderfully somber solo scene. Its ‘day in the life of a musician’ plot made such a lasting impression that it still influences other music-related movies to this day. The soundtrack, started in early March before filming started and completed in June once it ended, was released a few days later in the UK.
Side A (songs from the film)
Track 1: A Hard Day’s Night
This track opens up with a distinctive Beatle note–a crash of guitars and piano so inventive that no one can seem to figure out how the hell they did it (the Wikipedia entry has some interesting theories on it, however), and one that sets the tone not only for the album but the film. In the movie, the first thing we hear is that chord, placed right at the cold opening (no fade in) of the boys being chased all over the city. The lyrics opine about their day being hellish, but in the end when they come home, it’s totally worth it. In those two-plus minutes of music and film, we know exactly what the movie’s about: it’s tough, but often fun, being a world famous rock musician. One last note–this was the very first time John and Paul wrote a song to order. In this case, thanks to Ringo’s malapropism-influenced title, they now had to come up with a theme song within a few days. The title had been chosen and confirmed for the movie on 13 April; by the sixteenth, they had the song in the can.
Track 2: I Should Have Known Better
Another of John’s, this was one of the first Beatles songs to have a Bob Dylan influence, even though it’s not quite as obvious this time out. One of the first in the new batch of songs, you can immediately hear a difference from their past few releases already. Their musicianship continues to tighten, but they’re becoming more adventurous with their songwriting. Though this track is very much in the mold of their verse/chorus/bridge oeuvre, you can hear the subtle differences. George plays a wonderful yet simple solo, again using his Rickenbacker 12-string and giving it a much fuller sound.
Track 3: If I Fell
John certainly outdid himself with this track, as there’s all kinds of fascinating things going on here. Let’s start with that opening: you get an introductory passage that doesn’t repeat anywhere else in the song, which also contains eight chord changes–D#m-D-Db-A#m-D#m-D-Em-A–all within the span of sixteen seconds. Once the main song starts, we’re brought into a beautiful duet between John and Paul sharing lead (with George filling in the occasional seventh-note), with all sorts of major and minor chords being played. Like its predecessor “This Boy”, it’s one of John’s best early efforts.
Track 4: I’m Happy Just to Dance with You
John and Paul wrote this one for George to sing, and it was recorded the same day as “Long Tall Sally” and “I Call Your Name” (1 March), which is interesting in itself, considering how vastly different the three songs sound. This is a lovely and restrained song with relatively simple love song lyrics, and it’s used wonderfully as a ‘filler’ performance track in the movie, one of the few times they actually stop what they’re doing to play a song.
Track 5: And I Love Her
This could easily be a companion piece to John’s “If I Fell” in terms of sound and composition. Paul’s lovely acoustic ballad has some absolutely stunning guitar work here, with John strumming a Gibson acoustic and George playing a Ramirez classical. George’s work here is stellar, the simple four-note low end complementing the eighth-note high end and even delivering a lovely romantic solo. It features in one of my favorite scenes in the movie in terms of cinematography.
Track 6: Tell Me Why
Recorded on the same day as the previous song (27 February), this track was written by John just a few months earlier (either during their extended stay in Paris or their US visit) and is one of his many multi-layered songs. I say this in terms of lyrics and composition, as on the surface, it sounds like a swinging, almost doo-wop track that anyone could have written…but underneath the all the poppiness, the lyrics belie a deep jealousy and mistrust.
Track 7: Can’t Buy Me Love
Released as a single a good few months before the movie, this song closes out the “film” side of the album on an upbeat note. For the most part it’s a simple 12-bar blues riff with a few chord embellishments along the way, but Paul turned it into an irresistibly catchy tune and a surefire hit. It’s also used in one of the most famous scenes in the movie (and is a nod to Lester’s own Running Jumping & Standing Still Film). Originally the scene was to have “I’ll Cry Instead” playing, but this song worked much better, given its fast and breezy tempo.
Side B (songs from the album)
Track 1: Any Time At All
By June, the band had over half the album in the can–with all of the songs from the movie done and a good handful of the rest done as well–they had a few more days left to fill up the rest. On 2 June they recorded three tracks that would fill up this side of the album, including this incredibly strong track from John. It can easily be considered one of the defining Beatle tracks that divide the early years of simple songs and the next phase of more elaborate and folky songs. Of note is a middle-eight solo written by Paul; it’s a simple bridge that does little more than use an ascending melody to build tension, but it’s a great example of how well John and Paul worked together, feeding off of each other’s ideas.
Track 2: I’ll Cry Instead
John’s original entry for the “break-out” scene in the movie is a relatively short track that sounds very much like a country song. It’s another song of jealousy and heartbreak, but unlike “Tell Me Why”, this one has a more positive outlook–he knows he’s the jealous type, but he’s not going to get everyone else involved in his drama. In an inspired move, twice the band uses the trick of lifting all the instruments out of the mix for a few seconds right at the end of the second and third verse (right under “I’ll show you want your loving man can do”), creating not only tension but also expectation once the music kicks back in.
Track 3: Things We Said Today
Another of my favorite tracks from this album, and also released as the UK b-side to the “A Hard Day’s Night” single. This is another of Paul’s songs in the “letter” format, even though it’s delivered more like an internal monologue or a hushed conversation rather than a written love letter. It’s wistful and sad, but wishful and positive at the same time, especially with the harder-edged middle eight. The lyrics are also quite mature, years older in theme than the simple love songs of just a few years previous.
Track 4: When I Get Home
This track, recorded the same day as “Things We Said Today” and “Any Time At All”, is an interesting counterpoint to the title track–while “A Hard Day’s Night” embraces the inherent craziness that comes with being a musician, “When I Get Home” is about wanting to escape that craziness as soon as possible and get home to his girl. This just goes to prove that while John could write a seething and jealous lyric, he could also write something purely from the heart.
Track 5: You Can’t Do That
The b-side to “Can’t Buy Me Love” finds its way here near the end of the album, having been dropped from the movie. This track was supposed to be a part of the ending concert segment of the film, but was dropped due to time as well as it being a slow track compared to all the other upbeat tracks in that scene. As mentioned previously, John wrote this as a nod to Wilson Pickett, relatively unknown at the time but well liked by the band.
Track 6: I’ll Be Back
This album closer is interesting in that it not only shows how much musical ground they’d covered in a short amount of time, it also hints at what their next few releases would sound like. One of the handful of songs recorded on 1 June, John’s song mirrors Paul’s “Things We Said Today” as if to hint to their fans that the band–at least the bouncy and lovable moptops the world knows–is going away, but they’ll be back sometime down the line. They’ll be different and somehow irrevocably changed, but they’ll come back to them one way or another. Given these two songs were written and recorded so relatively close together, one wonders if John and Paul had done that on purpose…
* * *
In retrospect, this could be considered the album where they finally found their signature sound and knew exactly what they wanted to do from here on in. A Hard Day’s Night, the album, is miles ahead of the rough and raw Please Please Me, and much more polished and orderly than With the Beatles. And all this while at the height of their career! Despite the distractions of movie making, tours, television appearances and live shows, they kept a keen eye and ear on what they liked and what influenced them, and paid attention to how it translated into their music. All those years of hard work had finally paid off, and they were about to reap the wards in spades.
Next up: The various A Hard Day’s Night singles, “I Feel Fine”/”She’s a Woman” and Beatles for Sale