Sunday, July 13, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 194): "A HARD DAY'S NIGHT" (1964) The Beatles

OK, fans, it was 50 years ago today this little number was released. In my personal mythology, this is the song that started it all. It’s not like: before this there was just “music” and after this there was “my” music, but it feels that way. As I was just a little kid, anything I say about it is clearly filtered through who I became and how things played out with the lovable Mop-tops themselves. In 1964, there was only the fact of The Beatles as The Beatles. Unprecedented because, though there was all that Fifties rock’n’roll and R&B that they cribbed from, that stuff wasn’t as readily available any longer. And even if it were, it wouldn’t have had the “gear Fabness” of these glib Liverpudlians. These wily Brits were selling our heritage back to us fad-happy Americans and we were only too happy to clamour for more.

Again, that’s all the dressing of history. What does any of that have to do with how “A Hard Day’s Night” sounds? Well, it does because, as became clear in a bit—and would’ve been clear at once if you caught them on Ed Sullivan earlier in 1964, or went into the movie theaters to see the film—there was a look and an attitude that went with The Beatles and it was, as they say, irresistible. In part because, in the film, though they are a multi-million selling pop band already getting thirtyish, they look like schoolboys on a lark. To me, personally, they were the first image of some attainable ideal of maleness: cuteness! Lord knows, at nearly five when this song came out or six or seven when I saw the movie on TV, I was cute enough. But one quickly sussed that the cuteness of The Beatles was a badge of honor, a defense, a pretense, a calling card. It was cheekiness raised to a stance!

Sure, I knew nothing about all that as a kid, except that, as a kid, one is ever vigilant in seeing what works and what doesn’t. Eventually that would be “what works with one’s objects of desire,” but initially it’s “what works with figures of authority and older kids,” and so forth. Wit! Wit works wonders. And John, Paul, George, and Ringo had that. Gifted with wit, as well as musical know-how. It’s the combination that made them better than all the others, yes, even the happy-to-be-zany Monkees, who had a TV show.

I don’t want to overstate claims to critical thought as a kid, but . . .  There were all sorts of bands coming at you in the wake of The Beatles’ breakthrough “over here.” But what made The Beatles better was the quality of the recording itself. Hearing their songs on 45 did to my ears what no amount of Phil Spector on the radio ever did. You felt the presence of the music. You coveted your connection to it. It became part of you, so you became part of it. I have no doubt that if I hadn’t been smitten to some degree by this song, very early, and that film as well, I would have ignored a lot of music. Who knows?

A couple things about the song that make it one of my favorites of the many great songs from Lennon-McCartney: That opening chord, of course, for starters. It became synonymous with electric guitar rock, it announced it. There was no going back after that (witness Dylan going electric and Simon & Garfunkel having electric instruments added to “The Sounds of Silence”). The unison singing, and the way McC steps forward for the “feeling you holding me tight” verse and packs so much thrill into “tight, tiiiight, yeah” (see this video of the boys live and see how much the chicks dig it); that guitar bit from Harrison which, if I could play, I would play, but at least can whistle; the hitting on the wood block during the “when I’m home” part (at 0:46 the first time); the Lennon scream; the vision of domesticity that is so quaint—I work like a dog but “it’s worth it just to hear you say you’re gonna give me everything” (rawr!); Lennon’s delivery on “so why I love to come home” (“lurv ta come mome,” 1:36); the fact that the whole thing is there for you (but for the guitar break of course) within the first minute then just plays out again; the title which, as a phrase, is so distinctive—and which sounds like the very thing you want (if it’s been a hard day you’re going to make the most of its night); and probably the top feature: the drop from “things that you do / Will make me feel” and the way they string out the drop with “y’know I feel alright” and then sustain it and send it higher: “You know I feeeel alllright!” with those strums at the end like the aural equivalent of “. . . .”

And here, just for the fun of it, is the opening sequence of the film, with the lads on the run, laughing all the while, and McC sporting a Trotskyish beard and stache as a disguise. It would be irritating silliness if The Beatles themselves didn’t seem to find it all laughable. Yup, I've got me a copy of the spanking new Criterion Collection version . . . .

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