Counterbalance: The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night

If I fell in love with you, 223rd most acclaimed album of all time, would you promise to be true—and help me understand? The Beatles' all-Lennon/McCartney LP from 1964 is this week's Counterbalance.
The Beatles
A Hard Day's Night

Klinger: In the beginning was the chord. And the chord was of the Beatles and the chord was the Beatles. And the chord was probably a G7sus4 (or maybe more like an Fadd9) played on a Rickenbacker 12-string, but there are also some extra notes sneaking in from the Hofner bass and the piano and so forth. But regardless, I maintain that it’s there, in that chord, that the Beatles became the Beatles and the 1960s became the Sixties. A Hard Day’s Night represents the moment where the Beatles take their first major leap into the innovations that would make them the embodiment of the pop music that was yet to come.

Maybe it was due to the fact that the album was released in conjunction with their first feature film, but the decision to release an entire album of Lennon/McCartney compositions (instead of a hodgepodge of originals, show tunes, girl group numbers and rock & roll standards) is quite telling. In many ways, it sets A Hard Day’s Night up as the first modern rock album. It sets a standard for up-and-coming groups, creating a expectation that they deliver their own material. It’s an enormously important album, and I maintain that it’s only due to moneygrubbery at Capitol that we haven’t talked about it yet. Your thoughts, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: We haven’t talked about A Hard Day’s Night yet because while it is — without a doubt — culturally important it is not as critically important as what would follow from the Fab Four. And since we’ve spent the last four years talking about critically important albums, it would stand to reason that it might take us a while to work around to this record. Besides, by the time we talk about Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, the White Album, Abbey Road and Rubber Soul, what do we have left to say? More nice things about the Beatles, I would wager.

Apparently being culturally important does not always equal critical importance. But I think you were about to explain that with a little story about Capitol and the always above-board business practices of the music industry.

Klinger: Well, it’s nothing as slimy as all that. Because the film was distributed through United Artists, that label got to release the soundtrack album (they apparently figured they’d make up whatever the film lost through LP sales). Capitol had been dragging their feet on releasing Beatles LPs in the States, and UA saw an opportunity. They cut a deal where they were able to use the songs featured in the film that hadn’t already been released on Capitol, and Capitol got to carve up those remainders and stick them on Something New and The Beatles’ Second Album. So the US version featured eight regular Beatles songs and four easy listening instrumentals. Which makes the US version of the album a little annoying (although the arrangement of “A Hard Day’s Night” that sounds like Dave Brubeck is kind of a hoot).

This also helps explain why the record isn’t more critically esteemed — the US critics hadn’t had much opportunity to hear it. The UK (or I guess “proper”) version wasn’t made commercially available in the States until the CDs came out in 1987, so our view of pre-Pepper Beatles was always just a little distorted. And ultimately, it’s the songs that made the difference, and no matter what order you heard them in they served as a rallying cry for a bunch of young musicians. Once you realized that they were actually writing all this stuff themselves — and that it seemed to be unlike much else that was going on at the time — you couldn’t just write them off as a novelty for the girls. And you were going to want to see if you could do it yourself.

Mendelsohn: I don’t buy it, Klinger. Not the record — I bought the record. I just don’t think the lack of critical appeal has anything to do with US critics not getting to hear the proper A Hard Day’s Night. There are numerous cases of UK-only albums (or more precisely, albums loved only by the UK) to make a splash on the Great List. The best examples are the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead at no. 25 and Massive Attack’s Blue Lines at no. 37. But then, our definition of “lack of critical appeal” is completely skewed when it comes to the Beatles. We covered the bulk of their material within the first year of doing Counterbalance. The Beatles own a tenth of the Top 50 records. So by that standard, A Hard Day’s Night is an abject failure at no. 223 on the Great List.

Klinger: Do you have any other apples you would like to compare to this orange, Mendelsohn? The Smiths and Massive Attack didn’t have their records chopped up into three LPs and mixed up with a bunch of older singles in order to squeeze a few extra bucks out of some teenyboppers. And even more to the point, 1964 was a couple years before the advent of serious rock criticism. By the time Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone got themselves up and running, their writers were swamped with releases by the groups that sprung up in the aftermath of A Hard Day’s Night, so they were too busy worrying about the Strawberry Alarm Clock to do a major rethink of these pre-rock era efforts.

Mendelsohn: I’m not saying that to downplay the importance of this record. I completely agree with your assertion that the Beatles started the ball rolling when it came to elevating the art form. I just don’t think they really stepped on the gas until Rubber Soul. The Beatles grew up into rock. Rubber Soul was the teen album, they were finding their footing and experimenting. Revolver was the young adult album as the group become comfortable in their rock bodies. Sgt. Pepper was the adult album, the band hitting on all cylinders. The White Album marks the point where the cynicism of adulthood sets in and the band struggles as each member seeks his own unique voice. The Beatles of A Hard Day’s Night were mere children. A kiddie group realizing they could write their own music. It is inspiring but its still flat. It’s the Beatles in black and white before they learned to speak in Technicolor.

Klinger: Eh, that may be overstating things (and it almost makes me wish United Artists had sprung for color film so we could put that trope to bed). And I don’t know how one could listen to this collection of tracks and think of it as “flat.” Yes, they’d go on to reinvent pop music in even more grandiose ways, and yes they’d go on to release better albums. And no, I don’t think this album needs to be in the loftiest heights of the Great List. But it’s pretty near impossible to listen to something like “Things We Said Today” or “If I Fell” or “Any Time at All”, and not hear something completely different than what all else was going on in pop music at the time.

Mendelsohn: I’m just making you work for it. In the Beatles’ pantheon, the album is a bit flat, but that probably has more to do with the technology available than anything else. You are completely on point about the song-writing. The Beatles flipped the switch on this record. They had little problem pushing their synthesized version of pop to the next level. The thing that I find really amazing about this record is just how varied and self-assured they were while cranking out all these differently styled songs. “You Can’t Do That”, is well-executed MOR rock with swaggering guitar and it stands in marked contrast to a song like “Can’t Buy Me Love”, a sunny strummer that helped the rise of Beatlemania. “Tell Me Why” could have been a girl-group cover and “If I Fell”, is spot on balladry. As different as these genres can be, the Beatles effortlessly synthesized it all into a cohesive package.

Klinger: And that ability to take in everything that was going on around them — and still make it their own — is a key component to the Beatles’ genius. Of course, A Hard Day’s Night only offers a teasing glimpse of what was to come (there are no George Harrison songs on here, and this is curiously the only Beatles LP not to feature a vocal performance from Ringo). But it’s at this point where we understand the Beatles as a fully formed entity. It’s why I recommend A Hard Day’s Night as a point of entry for young people who may just be trying to understand the Beatles as something more than just the band you’re supposed to like. It’s not where I first started (my first Beatles album was Sgt. Pepper, which I got for my 12th birthday, November 1980. Just a few weeks later…), but between the album and the film, I think you get the best sense for the musical brilliance and the personalities that make everything else make the most sense. Plus you get to start with a record of unabashed joy, starting from that chord and going onward.