‘A Hard Day’s Night’ Turns 60: The Beatles’ Most Revolutionary Album

No matter what the Beatles created, the world never seemed ready for what that was. You only knew that it would be different than anything before. Had you loved the band’s last album, you were also aware that the one about to hit record store shelves would be a departure, a moving-on from what already existed. The Beatles both challenged and rewarded listeners this way, which is among the best things about them.

That surprise factor existed from the start with a single like “Please Please Me,” and, of course, “She Loves You,” a song that feels as if you’re hearing it for the first time after you’ve heard it a thousand times. The albums startled as well: Please Please Me had the gumption to function as a cohesive statement and not merely a couple of hits fleshed out with filler, while sophomore outing With the Beatles was a rhythm and blues masterwork from the industrial cities of America via the ports—and the musical melting pot—of the Beatles’ Liverpool.

If you were around back then, you may have believed that the Beatles were about to settle in, and what they did going forward, for however long they managed to last, would be variations on that marvelous output to date. But this was not the Beatles way, and it was certainly not the way of A Hard Day’s Night, the album they released on July 10, 1964, and the best they ever made.

It sounds strange to say, but Beatles people often don’t know a lot about A Hard Day’s Night and spend far less time with the band’s early material than they do the work from December 1965—when Rubber Soul was released—to the final album in Abbey Road. Prevailing wisdom suggests that before Bob Dylan turned the Beatles on to pot—and after which they decamped into the realm of psychedelics—they weren’t serious artists, but rather pop merchants.

Many people now think that they sang twee songs of teenage love. And it’s true: If you were a 13-year-old girl, you’d have had no problem nursing some sweet romantic fantasy. These boys wished to hold a girl’s hand; perhaps it could be yours.

A Hard Day's Night album.

A Hard Day’s Night album.


As time passed, and the later Beatles came to be recognized as artistic revolutionaries for whom the studio itself was an agent of unbounded creativity, the early Beatles fell into what subsequent generations think of as the oldies category. If you listened to “Can’t Buy Me Love,” you likely did so between the likes of Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” and the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” in the car with your parents.

But here’s what I’ve learned—and just as importantly, what I’ve learned to accept—in my lifetime of thinking hard about the Beatles: They were at their most radical in the years of 1963 and 1964, with A Hard Day’s Night being the ultimate album-length example of their inventiveness, in terms of songwriting and sound-painting. It was material of this nature that caused Dylan to pull over his car on the side of the road and contemplate just what the hell he had heard coming out of his radio from this English collective.

Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr.

Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr run down an empty London street in a scene from the movie A Hard Day’s Night.

Bettmann/Getty Images

A Hard Day’s Night the LP begins with “A Hard Day’s Night” the song, and specifically what we can call the chord of chords. The opening polytriad conveys more in three seconds than most artists do in a lifetime, because of what it sets up to follow. It’s the sound of annunciation, of newness, awakening, germination. Richard Wagner had his famous Tristan chord, but that was a chord for the opera lovers, whereas the chord that begins “A Hard Day’s Night” is the chord for the world.

The concluding chord of “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper receives more publicity, but that song itself is an inversion of “A Hard Day’s Night.” Lennon and McCartney trade sections in each; one song finishes, the other begins.

The value of a work of art is proportionate to the amount of life it contains. Were you to focus less on the words of “A Hard Day’s Night” and hear the work as pure, unified sound, you’re apt to find yourself feeling more alive than you did previously. It’s a jolt. Pure energy. Earlier takes were slower—not quite indicative of a chugging blues, but with certain aspects. The musical atom had yet to be split as it would be for the proper version where we hear how Lennon himself is consumed by that energy. When it’s his turn to sing again after McCartney’s second pass through the bridge, he can’t help but insert this delirious “ooohhhh” beneath his partner’s vocal before he surges forward again with that classic Lennon voice.

A Hard Day's Night premiere.

Fans line up along the streets in hope of seeing the Beatles as they arrive for the A Hard Day’s Night premiere in Liverpool, England on July 10, 1964.

Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The Beatles were always Lennon’s band, but this, more than any other, was Lennon’s album. All of the songs were by Lennon, McCartney, or both, thus making A Hard Day’s Night the only album about which this can be said. The pair could now outfit a full album with dynamic songs, no covers needed. Lennon’s voice changed significantly in time, including during his time as a Beatle. But if there’s one straight-up, gotta-have-it quintessential rock and roll voice, it’s Lennon on A Hard Day’s Night. A voice in which to revel.

Having cracked open the sky with a chord, song, and performance, as if letting out the black in white of the old world so as to make space for the color of the new, the Beatles followed with “I Should Have Known Better.” It’s a song—like “Tell Me Why” later on the record—that ends up being more than it would appear it ought to be. Call it that bewitching Beatles alchemy.

Before the Beatles were the Beatles, they went by monikers like the Quarrymen and played the musical style known as skiffle. Instruments were often homemade—a tea chest, for instance, worked nicely.

The Beatles' John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison perform from their 1964 film A Hard Day's Night.

The Beatles’ John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison perform from their 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night.

Screen Archives/Getty Images

Skiffle drew heavily on folk and the songs of buskers. Rubber Soul is touted as the Beatles’ folk foray—albeit folk crossed with rhythm and blues, which was the ingenious melding—but folk is present on A Hard Day’s Night without being overtly present. It’s there in the wood-grain of the notes.

Lennon’s acoustic guitar is a driver of the band’s sound. It’s more prominent here than on any other Beatles record. Skiffle isn’t in evidence on the first two LPs, but before the Beatles ever officially got back to their roots—as they would in 1969—they were doing a version of returning so as to better move forward in the first half of 1964 as the songs of A Hard Day’s Night came together.

The Beatles built a legacy on what I think of as perpetually halcyon moments. Instances of recorded sound that cause us to think, “I’m grateful that I get to hear this.”

One such moment occurs at the end of the first bridge of “I Should Have Known Better.” Lennon’s voice is single-tracked, which it won’t be later in the song. He gets to the end of the line, “And when I ask you to be mine,” and goes full-falsetto—which wasn’t a Lennon staple—and stretches the last word—into which he has inserted several h’s, as in “mi-h-h-h-ineeee”—across a full two bars.

John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney.

John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney wave to their friends at London Airport, before flying off for their home city of Liverpool for the premiere of their movie A Hard Day’s Night.

Bettmann/Getty Images

I’m not sure how one might beat the first side of the album. George Harrison’s guitar work—which often features his use of a 12-string Rickenbacker—is a painterly mélange of virtuosic augmentation. His solo on “Can’t Buy Me Love” is awfully heavy for the time—and punkish. Meanwhile, his delicate acoustic guitar break on “And I Love Her” is so supple that it can’t really be held against you if you’re surprised he had it in him. But it’s Harrison fills, the way he colors the space between vocal notes, brightens a bridge, counterpoints a chorus, that makes the record a landmark of guitar textures and tones.

Then there is Ringo Starr on the drums. If the Beatles had a conductor—once they got going with a song, that is—it’d be Starr, the pusher of the beat. Find me a rock and roll record with better cymbal work—signature sounding cymbal work—and I’ll eat Starr’s famed Ludwig kit.

Lennon is at the fore as a writer, but McCartney was coming into his own. “Can’t Buy Me Love” was the Macca bell-ringer from Side 1, but his “Things We Said Today” is integral to the feel of Side 2. That first side doubled as soundtrack to A Hard Day’s Night the film. The reverse trafficked in concerns, worries, doubts; in short, introspection.

There’s a goodly amount of Rubber Soul—and “A Day in the Life”—within the grooves of the second side of A Hard Day’s Night, and yet despite a tempering of some of the blissful aspects of the soundtrack portion, joy is always in evidence. The Beatles weren’t about happiness—joy was their thing. Joy is richer, goes further, takes a deeper hold within us. It’s wiser, and allows for those concerns, worries, fears.

Male shortcomings are in evidence on “When I Get Home” and “You Can’t Do That.” But the narrators/singers of these songs—whom we can’t take to be the Beatles themselves—tended to find a way to eventually hold themselves accountable.

“Any Time at All,” for example, perfectly codifies the essence of friendship and we sense that it’s the friendship between a man and a woman, with no additional agenda other than the other person’s well-being. We’re many things as we listen to this record, but one of them is stirred. You feel like a part of the world has gone right when you listen to A Hard Day’s Night.

The Beatles leave us with an all-timer of a goodbye, one which seems to keep going and going, perhaps because once we hear this particular song—“I’ll Be Back”—it’s as if it continues to play in our heads as we make our way in our own lives.

The band would later claim that the love one takes is proportional to the love one makes. But here in July 1964, joy remains even after the album’s official leave-taking, on account of how well that joy was evinced. Allowing one’s self the joys of A Hard Day’s Night is like becoming more alive than one already was. All you need to do is start with a chord. Or allow that chord to start with you.

This post was originally published on Daily Beast

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