A Hard Day’s Night: The Soundtrack
“It is my considered opinion that you’re nothing but a bunch of sissies!”
Thus spake Grandpa McCartney (a very clean man) in the seminal rock film about arguably the greatest (certainly the most successful) rock band in the history of rock music – those lovable mop tops, the Fab Four, John, Paul, George and Ringo, otherwise known as the Beatles. In seven short but incredibly prolific years, the four went from light-weight popsters (Please Please Me), to soul-searching poets (Revolver, Rubber Soul), to honest-to-goodness rock gods (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles a.k.a The White Album). Today they are still a remarkably potent pop culture phenomenon – their 2001 release of ‘1’, a collection of their No.1 singles, went straight to the top of the music charts worldwide; their ‘musical climax’ song ‘A Day in the Life’ was recently voted the greatest ever British rock song; and upon Pope John Paul’s demise, the internet was flooded with cheeky queries about whether the new pontiff would be christened George Ringo the First.
But on to the business at hand.
The Richard Lester-directed A Hard Day’s Night was the band’s first (and most artistically successful) foray into cinema and was at once a departure from other singers’ vanity vehicles e.g. Elvis, in that in it the boys basically played themselves, the film showcasing one crazy day in the life of the Beatles, with some truly intriguing fictionalised characters added to the mix. And naturally, where there are Beatles, there are songs.
The title track (whose title was inspired by one of Ringo Starr’s trademark near-malapropisms) opens with the instantly recognisable chord from George Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker. Apparently, a debate is still raging over what chord it actually is. Musicologists to engineers to physics professors have for years been clocking each other over the heads with their dog-eared copies of ‘Origin of the Species’ in figuratively the bloodiest battle over a musical mystery since the fight over the real lyrics to the Kingsmen’s ‘Louie Louie’. While Mr. Walter Everett insists that it is a major subtonic ninth, Alan Pollack contends that the chord is a surrogate dominant in G major, the dominant being D, with the G being an anticipation that resolves in the G major chord that opens the first verse. But Prof. Jason Brown of Halifax scoffs at both and concludes that old Georgie boy was in fact playing the following notes on his guitar: a2, a3, d3, d4, g3, g4, c4, and another c4; Paul played a d3 on his bass; producer George Martin was playing d3, f3, d5, g5, and e6 on the piano, while John played a loud c5 on his six-stringer.
Well fudge all that I say. Bottom-line: it’s a great goddamn song!
As is the case with many a too-popular/successful artist whom tight-arses tend to dismiss with a ‘well, actually he wasn’t all that great’, the Beatles too have over the years been attacked for ‘in reality’ being mediocre musicians (among the attackers – our very own Maulana Vital Sign). Unfortunately for these basement dwellers, one hearing of the track and their shaky claim is blown to smithereens. From George and John’s pas de deux on their lead and rhythm guitars respectively, to Paul’s subtle left-handed bass, to Ringo’s understated (and grossly underrated) bashing about on the skins – this band is tight right from that disputed first chord. With John singing the verse and Paul joining in on the bridge (because, John said, Paul could hit the higher notes that he couldn’t), the song’s G major key in 4/4 time is a rock n’ roll homage to the classic melodic structure of the blues.
The band’s early affinity for the harmonica – among others, on ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘There’s a Place’ – is put to infectious use in ‘I Should’ve Known Better’. John’s no-nonsense, slightly reedy vocal opens with a sustained “Aaaaaaaa” as the first word of the title – an audacious interpretation that immediately gives the song a catchy hook.
By a happy coincidence two of the band’s loveliest early ballads are to be found on this soundtrack. The first, ‘If I Fell’, contains one of the most hummable instances of John and Paul’s famed Everly Bros.-inspired two-part harmony. The song opens with a decidedly ‘old school’ intro, in that this section, with John strumming a four-in-the-bar rhythm (and George hitting his notes on the downbeats), is almost independent from the rest of the song and is not repeated after the opening. Indeed, the intro is actually in a wholly different key than the main body. And after Ringo’s entrance on the verse, some rather unique chord progressions follow. Note especially the change when John and Paul reach the word ‘her’ on the lyric “Don’t hurt my pride like her”. Tis’ truly super stuff.
The second ballad is Paul’s tour de force ‘And I Love Her’. The root of later McCartney classics such as ‘Michelle’, ‘Yesterday’, and ‘The Long and Winding Road’, the song is an achingly sweet paean set to a marimba-esque, Latin-infused rhythm. Ringo’s gentle touch on the bongos accompanies Paul’s satiny vocals – one of the very few Beatles songs with a solo vocal. The voice and percussion are punctuated by George’s fine arpeggios on acoustic guitar. Going into a solo, he shifts gears and subtly moves into a higher key, at once lifting this bit, and the rest of the song, into something utterly sublime.
The unfairly neglected ‘I’m Happy Just to Dance With You’ appears to be yet another example of John and Paul’s fascination with alternating between a major and minor key within the same song, with both serving as the base key at different moments. It is also one of the first songs which employs George as vocalist, and he does a more than competent job. Abandoning his earlier experiments with singing with an American accent like his singing idols, here George lets rip his strong Liverpudlian brogue that can charm the pants off of Henry Higgins. The song also boasts some pretty snazzy arrangements, not least of which are the ‘oh-oohh’ backing vocals that serve to give it an unexpected depth.
‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ is of course one of the most well-known numbers from the album, its onscreen picturisation in montage form paving the way for the development of the music video. Musically, the song sets and breaks its own rules: while the verse is quite bluesy, the intro and refrain are distinctly not so. It was also one of the first pop songs to open with the chorus rather than the verse. Lyric-wise, it’s a cool counter-point to the earlier ‘Money’ (though Paul denied the rumour that the song was about prostitution!):
I’ll buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel alright
I’ll get you anything my friend if it makes you feel alright
‘Cause I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love
I’ll give you all I got to give if you say you love me too
I may not have a lot to give but what I got I’ll give to you
I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love
For me, the highlight of the song is a toss-up between George’s first truly great guitar solo, and, courtesy Paul, what has to be the most famous scream in rock history!
I could go on and on about at least three more songs from the album which in their own quiet individual ways are certainly worth a listen: ‘Things We Said Today’ (whose opening strums are at once relaxed and ominous), ‘I’ll Cry Instead’ (with John providing some mean vocals), and the luminously bitter-sweet ‘I’ll be Back’ (another cunning foray into the major/minor gambit – the intro starting simply in a major, the verse cleverly booby-trapped with a minor). Alas, I am out of space. And superlatives.
If you hadn’t guessed, yes, I do consider myself something of a Beatlemaniac. Can you blame me? And ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ provides a nice fix.