Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Beatles: A Hard Day's Night (1964)


(Parlophone)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

This is the Beatles' masterpiece, or at the very least the unimpeachable peak of the band they initially set out to be, from basements in Liverpool to the crawlspace behind cinema screens in Hamburg. Explosive, impassioned, blissfully fucked-up rock & roll, the highest kind of art and communication. Rubber Soul may have the strongest songs, the White Album may be the strongest amalgam, but it's this record that gives the base visceral reaction of knowing you're hearing the Beatles, an actual band, proving their utter mastery of everything. The moment it captures is so vivid and so present it can bring a tear to your eye as much as it adds a bounce to your step. They'd never record with this enthusiasm again, and they'd never fill an entire album with Lennon/McCartney songs again.

"Lennon/McCartney," of course, is an in-name-only attribution. All but three of the songs on A Hard Day's Night are John Lennon's work. This creates an interesting paradox: the album is worlds away from the movie that gave birth to half of it. Richard Lester's film is about community, confusion, imprisonment, and freedom; the album is about one man's demons. A Hard Day's Night is Lennon's real primal-scream record. "Please Mr. Postman," "All I've Got to Do," and "Ask Me Why," among others, had given some hint of the beautiful ache he was wont to bury behind some semblance of rock-boy swagger. The world in the palm of his hand, he's hiding no longer -- the depth of emotion, the joy and the pain, in every note he sings here is inescapable.

The eponymous track flies through you like a bullet train, opening the album with a thunderous guitar chord and Lennon's desperate-man-in-love theme. It's a decided evolution from "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." It adds something like pure charisma. Lennon gets by on similar arresting tactics for the swinging "I Should Have Known Better," girl-group shuffles "Tell Me Why," and "When I Get Home," all with stinging vocals that seem to prove Lennon's commitment to his material. No ordinary pop star, no studio musician punching the everyday clock, could sing the way he did in a million years.

What's more, there was a truth in these songs, a resignation but also a bracing desire to hope. "If I Fell," his most naked love song aside from "Don't Let Me Down," is in many ways the centerpiece of the LP. It often feels like these songs exist in a medium where they cry out, begging to be heard and understood. Lennon is deadly -- articulate, sexual, brilliant, and seemingly always on the brink of devastation, destruction. His voice is the Beatles' best asset by a longshot... it expresses so much that is inexpressible, in songs like "When I Get Home" that could easly be slight and forgettable without him. Alas, not one song he sings here isn't wonderful.

The voice isn't everything; as if to prove it, "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You," written by John but sung by George, comes flying out. It speaks volumes that it offers the same intensity in a voice that is, at best, not even a thousandth as good as John's. This is a song I come back to frequently. It roars with movement and one leans against the cracks, knowing something's hidden in there and waiting for it to show itself. The payoff is on Side Two.

Lennon seems liberated completely on the non-film songs. Sounding genuinely bitter on "You Can't Do That," he keeps the mental anguish rolling on three of the best rock songs of all time. "Any Time at All" one-ups the uncontrollable engine of the title track by heading somewhere with it. It is possible to lose oneself forever in the guitars on this track, and it's the Beatles' most raggedly delicate rocker, bleeding from all corners. "I'll Cry Instead" is so eloquent, sad, witty, personal, and vaguely weird it's hard to believe it comes from one of Lennon's songs and not either of his books. A country riff backs Lennon's sighing heartbreak clown routine, wailing out words about coming back and showing 'em all that he knows aren't true, and making them that much more moving as a result.

"I'll Be Back," the album closer, covers the same kind of territory, but the Beatles have saved the best for last. The melody is John at his peak, and his singing is something you can't explain, especially since the darkness and light of his lyric humanizes mindsets that we can't explain any more easily. The band's restraint hides the grandly affecting statements backing the song up; they sound just magnificent.

And although his single "Can't Buy Me Love," a raucous and rousing but somewhat generic rocker, doesn't amount to much in these surroundings, Paul winds his way skillfully through a set that threatens to overshadow him entirely. You know "And I Love Her," you love it (especially if you've viewed a performance of it through Richard Lester's lens) and you probably know "Things We Said Today." Paul's lyrics here -- though more indirect -- are a close match for John's in "I'll Be Back," and the cloudy hop of this gorgeous song is irresistible.

With the music business in the palm of their hands the world over, the Beatles lost none of their vitality. Their strengths are intact, refined and perfected, and this is the crown jewel in a fine career, a record of unparalleled grace and understatement, a powerfully succinct thirty-minute set of songs that, like the film, brims with life. Rock & roll has never been so gloriously beautiful while retaining the strength of its core. A Hard Day's Night is more than just a culmination of this band's near-perfect first three LPs: it's indispensable. The band needn't have done anything else afterward. It's to their credit that they did, but this is their highest statement on record. They laid themselves down here and that's it. Everything else is a luxury.

[Slightly modified from a review posted elsewhere in 2003.]

[SEE ALSO:]
Please Please Me (1963)
With the Beatles (1963)

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