The Beatles - A Hard Day’s Night - Review
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critics' view

Pop in 1964 was part of showbiz: Once the Beatles hit a certain level of box office, there would never have been any question over making a film. Pop music meant teenagers, which meant fads, which meant the clock was running on the band's fame. The jazzman George Melly, who was writing about pop in the UK press at this time, remembered being convinced several times that the Beatles had hit a peak and their fans would soon desert them. I doubt this was an unorthodox opinion.

A film career might extend the fame a little, and smooth the band's inevitable transition to light entertainment. If the film was an enjoyable romp, so much the better— John Lennon asked for A Hard Day's Night director Richard Lester on the basis of a comedy short he'd made (later referenced in the film's famous "Can't Buy Me Love" sequence), but Lester had also helmed 1962's It's Trad, Dad!, a snapshot of the British pop world just pre-Beatles (Tagline: "The newest, most frantic fad!"). He knew how to mix music and feelgood filmmaking to commercial effect.

A Hard Day's Night, in other words, is a crucial inflection point in the Beatles' career. Coinciding with their leaving Liverpool and moving to London, this could easily have been their first step on a road of crowd-pleasing predictability: Instead, both film and this soundtrack album are a testament to how fabulous pop can be when you take care over doing it.

The album is most famous now for being the first all-original record the band put out— and their only all Lennon-McCartney LP. Formidably prolific at this point, the pair had been creating songs— and hits— for other performers which must have given them useful insight into how to make different styles work. There's been a particular jump forward in ballad writing— on "And I Love Her" in particular, Paul McCartney hits a note of humble, open-hearted sincerity he'd return to again and again. His "Things We Said Today" is even better, wintry and philosophical before the surprising, stirring middle eight.

But the dominant sound of the album is the Beatles in full cry as a pop band— with no rock'n'roll covers to remind you of their roots you're free to take the group's new sound purely on its own modernist terms: The chord choices whose audacity surprised a listening Bob Dylan, the steamroller power of the harmonies, the gleaming sound of George Harrison's new Rickenbacker alongside the confident Northern blasts of harmonica, and a band and producer grown more than comfortable with each other. There's detail aplenty here— and the remasters make it easy to hunt for— but A Hard Day's Night is perhaps the band's most straightforward album: You notice the catchiness first, and you can wonder how they got it later.

The best example of this is the title track— the clang of that opening chord to put everyone on notice, two burning minutes thick with percussion (including a hammering cowbell!) thanks to the new four-track machines George Martin was using, and then the song spiraling out with a guitar figure as abstractedly lovely as anything the group had recorded. John Lennon's best songs on the record— "A Hard Day's Night", "Tell Me Why", "When I Get Home", "You Can't Do That"— are fast, aggressive, frustrated and spiked with these moments of breathtaking prettiness.

The Hard Day's Night film itself was also a triumph in its way— Lester's camerawork capturing the frenzy of Beatlemania and the way the group's music was feeding off it. It had the happy effect of introducing the group's millions of new global fans to their world— the fire escapes, boutiques, bombed-out spaces, and well-preserved salons of 60s London. In fact the film's knowing dialogue and pop-art cinematography has a level of surface sophistication that the Beatles' records don't approach for another year or two (though they were already far more emotionally nourishing).

Watching the film you're reminded that what the Beatles had set in motion was pop music's catching up with the rest of British popular culture: In art, in TV satire, in film and fashion and literature, the 60s were already a boom time. Pop had been left behind— tastemakers looked instead to jazz and folk to soundtrack this creativity. What the Beatles had— accidentally— unlocked was pop music's potential to join, then lead, the party— though it wasn't yet a given that they'd be the band to realize said potential. A Hard Day's Night is an album of an era when pop and showbiz were inseparable— and if it doesn't transcend that time, it does represent its definitive peak.

Tom Ewing
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Pitchfork is an American online magazine launched in 1995 by Ryan Schreiber, based in Chicago, Illinois, and owned by Condé Nast. Being developed during Schreiber's tenure in a record store at the time, the magazine developed a reputation for its extensive focus on independent music, but has since expanded to a variety of coverage on both indie and popular music. The site generally concentrates on new music, but Pitchfork journalists have also reviewed reissues and box sets. Since 2016, it has published retrospective reviews of classic or otherwise important albums every Sunday. The site has also published "best-of" lists – such as the best albums of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and the best songs of the 1960s – as well as annual features detailing the best albums and tracks of each year since 1999 (and a retrospective Best Albums of 1998 list in 2018). external-link.png
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