A Hard Day’s Night
When John Lennon sang “I feel alright” in the title track to A Hard Day’s Night, he meant it. In the spring and summer of 1964, Lennon was brimming with confidence. And who could blame him? Helping his band conquer America, writing a best-selling book, making out with Jayne Mansfield in the backseat of a car—the man was on fire. (Before too much fame, family, and food made him feel like a trapped, overweight Nowhere Man.)
Above all, this confidence manifested itself in a tremendous outpouring of songs. In 1963, the Lennon/McCartney team still wrote collaboratively—or “eyeball-to-eyeball”, as John put it. While the results were almost uniformly excellent, they began exploring what they could do individually the following year. And A Hard Day’s Night is evidence that for the time being, going it alone was much easier for Lennon than McCartney. In fact, on this album—the only one in the Beatles’ catalog comprised entirely of Lennon/McCartney compositions—John was the primary author of 10 of 13 songs. Considering the Beatles’ unbelievably busy schedule in early 1964, Lennon’s prolific output is nothing short of amazing. Even more amazing is that every one of his A Hard Day’s Night contributions is a gem.
The album’s best-known songs are those that appeared in the A Hard Day’s Night film and on Side A of the original LP (released in July 1964 and recently remastered). The kinetic title track—which John wrote to order for the movie—deservedly became a chart-topping smash. But “I Should Have Known Better”, the George Harrison-sung “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You”, and “Tell Me Why” would surely have enjoyed similar fates had they been released as singles. And towering over all of them is the timeless “If I Fell.” Marrying one of Lennon’s most beautifully complex melodies with some of his most vulnerable lyrics, the close-harmony ballad is a major work that belongs in the same discussion as the likes of “Yesterday”, “In My Life”, and “Something”. Stunning.
The non-movie-soundtrack side of the original album finds Lennon branching out stylistically, and is arguably an even greater showcase for his precocious musical gifts. John claimed “Any Time at All” was an attempt to rewrite 1963’s “It Won’t Be Long”. But its searing vocal and clever piano-guitar interplay prevent it from being a mere retread. “I’ll Cry Instead” is a highly successful foray into the country and western vein, with lyrics that are at once amusing and affecting (“I’ve got a chip on my shoulder that’s bigger than my feet”). And the R&B-infused rocker “When I Get Home”—a desperate tale of infidelity and guilt—is one of the most inexplicably overlooked songs in the Beatles’ canon.
Better yet are the two tracks that close the album. “You Can’t Do That” captures the essence of the young John Lennon brilliantly—with its swaggering vocal, near-violent lyrics, fierce (and rare) Lennon guitar solo and mercurial structure (how many 12-bar blues songs veer off in melodic tangents like the one “You Can’t Do That” takes in its middle eight?). And while his wistful, folk-tinged “I’ll Be Back” is one of the Beatles’ least explosive album closers, it’s easily one of their most effective.
None of which is to say that Paul McCartney didn’t make a significant impact on A Hard Day’s Night. His three contributions—the gorgeous “And I Love Her”, effervescent “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and atypically moody “Things We Said Today”—are all rightly regarded as classics. But he wouldn’t begin to reach his peak as a composer until two years later with Revolver, by which point the quantity and quality of his output surpassed that of his partner. In 1964, John Lennon was still enjoying his day in the sun as the Beatles’ dominant force. And A Hard Day’s Night is his finest hour.