Ian MacDonald, in his excellent book Revolution in the Head (1994), stated that the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night and the final chord of A Day in the Life, two of the most famous examples of such in popular music, bookend the peak creative years of The Beatles. While I don’t always agree with his opinions on the Beatles work, it’s a hell of a tome, and he is spot on in this judgement.
The spring of 1964 had seen The Beatles hurriedly filming their parts in their first feature film, still potentially called, appropriately enough, Beatlemania. The idea was to make a low-budget musical movie that saw the Fab Four pretty much being themselves, coping with their new-found fame, plus a surreal plot involving Paul’s grandfather, played by Wilfred Brambell from Steptoe and Son. Hopefully they could achieve this without falling into the same trap as Elvis, ie, getting stuck in an endless rut of ever-poorer cheap romantic comedies with substandard songs.
By April they had recorded most of their third album, for the first time featuring nothing but Lennon and McCartney songs. There are several versions of how the title track came about, but they all state the inspiration came from Ringo Starr and his knack of saying things wrong but somehow making them sound poetic. Referring to the fact they’d often work through the night in the studio, Starr ended one session announcing how it’d been a hard day’s night. John Lennon liked the phrase so much he’d already included it in his first book earlier that year, In His Own Write. This passage came from the short story, Sad Michael:
‘There was no reason for Michael to be sad that morning, (the little wretch): everyone liked him, (the scab). He’d had a hard day’s night that day, for Michael was a Cocky Watchtower.’
The film’s producer Walter Shenson loved the phrase, and decided it would be the name of the film. He told Lennon he needed to write a song with the same name, and was startled to be given it the following day.
Lennon and McCartney had already begun composing together less and were getting competitive about who got the A-sides on their singles, and Lennon may have been wanting the hit after McCartney had written previous single Can’t Buy Me Love. This period was Lennon’s most dominant within The Beatles, before McCartney considered himself de facto leader upon Epstein’s suicide, and Lennon was often too high to be bothered to compete so much. The group had the song polished in three hours flat on 16 April.
Knowing that A Hard Day’s Night would open the album as well as the film, The Beatles felt they had to come up with a good opening. What they probably didn’t realise is they would come up with one of the most memorable intros to a pop song ever. That famous chord has been subject to enormous amounts of literature over the years. It would seem it came about from all four band members, plus George Martin on a piano, striking their instruments at once.
Such a great intro requires a great song, and the Beatles don’t disappoint there either. It’s one of their best singles of this period, and while the lyrics are still rather cliched, they’re a step up from some of their 1963 material, and anyway, it’s such a strong song, it’s effervescence masks any weak points. Naysayers of Starr’s drumming, begone – his performance propels this track brilliantly. Okay, we could have maybe done without the cowbell, and I like a good cowbell, when used right. Macca handles the high notes on the middle eight superbly (Lennon felt he couldn’t do these bits justice) and Harrison and Martin’s duet on guitar and piano is another highlight. Almost as brilliant as the song’s opening is the ending, which was Martin’s inspiration. He pointed out to the group that they were recording film music now, and should keep that in mind when considering the fit of each song into the film. Harrison’s chiming arpeggio is beautiful, and a great example of how many ideas The Beatles were now coming up with. Lesser bands would have built an entire song out of that arpeggio. The guitarist had been given a prototype 12-string Rickenbacker, and it’s ringing sound helps make that third album such a delight.
That summer was all about A Hard Day’s Night. The film was released in the UK on 6 July, and was a critical and commercial smash, cementing the Fab Four as loveable mop-tops, but also showcasing each one’s charisma too. The title track made for a perfect introduction to what followed, and it’s hard to hear the song without picturing the quartet running from screaming girls, with Harrison falling over at one point (this was a genuine accident that was left in the sequence).
Unusually, the US got to hear it first, as the soundtrack album was released on 26 June. The single and album were released simultaneously in the UK on 10 July. In August, both releases held the number 1 spot in both the singles and albums chart in the UK and US, a feat that had never before been achieved.
Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Weeks at number 1: 3 (23 July-12 August)
Actress Matilda Ziegler – 23 July
Author Ian Fleming – 12 August
28 July: It was the end of an era when Winston Churchill retired from the House of Commons at the ripe old age of 89.
4 August: The first portable television sets went on sale to the public.
This day also saw a classic single released, in a year full of them, when You Really Got Me by The Kinks went on sale. More on that in the near future.