Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Hard Day's Night

Last night me and the hubby finished cleaning the entire freaking apartment in preparation for some friends from out of town coming to visit this weekend. This might not sound like that big a deal. But it was. Oh, ye gods, it was a crazy big deal, because we are both gigantic slobs, and even though I'm perfectly happy to say that we're slobs here in blogland, we try to hide all evidence of slobdom when people come over. And we don't exactly do a good job-- I mean, there are always closets on the verge of vomiting up their contents in my version of a "clean" room-- so we're not fooling anyone. But everyone politely pretends not to notice. I have really nice friends.

Anyway, my apartment is "clean," but I am completely exhausted. It has indeed been a hard day's night, and the day is just getting started. Of course, it hasn't been as much of a hard day's night as the Beatles have in their first film, A Hard Day's Night. Check it out. Even the opening sequence is a little exhausting, in an exhilarating kind of way.

This was the best clip I could find of the opening sequence, but it goes straight through to the scene with the old "I travel on this train regularly-- twice a week" guy and cuts off in the middle of that, so if you don't want to get sucked into the whole movie, make yourself turn it off after the opening. You have been warned.

So anyway, "A Hard Day's Night" is obviously the theme song to the movie, which was named after a bit of nonsense that Ringo said at least once. There are a lot of different recollections as to who came up with the idea to use Ringo's malapropism, which he'd said after a long day of recording (or possibly a long concert, or something), as the film's title-- it might have been John, or director Dick Lester, or producer Walter Shenson, or any number of other people depending on whose memory you trust. But someone came up with it, and in the nick of time, because no one had been able to come up with a title, and time was running out. As soon as it was final, John absconded to write this song, and he and Paul were able to play it for the filmmakers the next morning. Because they were geniuses.

A Hard Day's Night (the film) showed the world that the Beatles were far more than just the teenybopper idols they seemed-- they were clever and likable and hilarious, the kind of people with whom it is a pleasure to spend an hour and a half in a movie theater. "A Hard Day's Night" (the song) acts similarly. It opens not just the movie, but the Beatles' third album, which was made up entirely of Lennon-McCartney songs (an amazing feat in 1964). And they were some of the most sophisticated Lennon-McCartney songs the world had heard. "Can't Buy Me Love," "If I Fell," "And I Love Her"-- it's just a level of greatness not necessarily foretold in the two albums that had come before. "A Hard Day's Night" itself is one of the greatest of them all, for at the very least one reason: the opening chord.

The opening chord sounds like nothing else in pop music up to this point. Now, you have to imagine: It's July of 1964. You have been waiting for what feels like forever to finally see the Beatles in this, their first movie, and the moment is finally here. The room goes dark. Walter Shenson's name fades off the screen. Black. And then:


It's that chord, and all of a sudden the Beatles are running AT you out of the screen. Both the chord and the band seem to come from nowhere. The effect is AMAZING. This is why girls screamed like maniacs even just seeing the movie in theaters.

The opening chord is so strange, so musically sophisticated, that it continues to defy attempts to identify it. Music theorists have argued for years about what the chord is: Is it a G7sus4? An Fadd9? Is it actually a combination of simple d minor, F major, and G major chords, the solution offered by my favorite musicologist, Alan W. Pollack? In 2004, a computer science professor in Halifax thought he had cracked the chord after 6 months of painstaking research, but his results are still inconclusive. Seriously. It has to be the most flummoxing chord in pop music history. It breaks the entire diatonic system. If you are as amused by this level of geekery as I am, you owe it to yourself to read the Wikipedia article on this song (subhead "opening chord"), which sums up the various arguments.

Whatever the chord is, what it does is cast a feeling of tension and excitement and suspense about where the heck it's going to resolve to. (It settles on G major.) But the chord doesn't blow your mind through its harmonic content alone. The entry is so bombastic and sharp, it seems to go right through you. George is playing most of the chord (with bass and probably piano underneath) on his new Rickenbacker 12-string, which has this rich, resonant sound that would have also sounded quite newfangled in 1964, and still sounds pretty fantastic. (It inspired the Byrds, who weren't yet well-known, to go get Rickenbackers, and look what happened to them.)

Anyway, after the opening chord, we still have the whole song to get through. And it's a practically perfect song, to my mind. George and his Rickenbacker are on fire-- the guitar solo here is one of George's most famous ones for a reason. I'll bet you can hum it without even thinking about it, can't you? Listen, too, to Ringo. He loves this song. Even the parts that aren't fancy just brim with a ton of life-- on the bridge, under Paul's vocal, Ringo's bongos take center stage, and all he's doing is hitting them on the beat, but it's that kind of Beatley detail that just makes the song. By the way, I love that John and Paul take turns on the vocal here-- Paul is given the bridge mainly because he can hit higher notes than John can, but it's a great effect anyway. In fact, "A Hard Day's Night" sounds like a song on which the entire band is so engaged, so enthralled with the joy of making this kind of music together, that it feels like a supernatural force is at work. You know? Sure you do.

Live versions of "A Hard Day's Night" abound-- it was a gigantic hit the second it was released-- but I don't love any of them as much as I love the studio track, just because of all those details. But the live versions are still fun. Here's one from Paris in June of 1965, almost a full year after the song was originally released. They are still having a blast playing it. Watch George in the first several seconds-- he plays his part so crazy fast, and seeing it just makes it that much more unbelievable.

"A Hard Day's Night," released in the U.K. side A track 1 of A Hard Day's Night, July 10, 1964 and simultaneously that day as a single b/w "Things We Said Today"; in the U.S. side A track 1 of United Artists' A Hard Day's Night, June 26, 1964.


  1. Warning ignored, Megan; i watched the movie clip to the end. Good thing you didn't post the whole film, I'd not get any work done this morn. Don't you just love the sound of a 12 string Rickenbacker? Although, the cuts you posted, the movie track and the live performance, bail out on the song early, eliminating one of my favorite parts of the song --- the gorgeous Rickenbacker ring out. Oh well, back to work, but not before a quick visit to NetFlix to add A Hard Day's Night to my queue. Might even have to dig out the CD and listen to the ring out!

  2. Shoot, you're right! I didn't realize that on the Paris clip. The ring out is, of course, an arpeggio of the mysterious opening chord-- which makes for an amazing and mysterious ending. Another fantastic Beatles moment.

    Also, I deeply, deeply love this movie. Wish I were watching it right now, too.

  3. BTW, Megan, you continue to amaze me with your postings. Baby, I'm amazed. Sorry, couldn't resist a "Paul" moment. You offer such a terrific blend of history, music analysis, and enthusiasm. It is quite fun following your blog.

  4. I think that scene with the guy who takes that train regularly is my favorite of the whole movie.

    Also, have you seen this?


  5. Yeah, that scene rules. "I fought the war for your sort." "I'll bet you're sorry you won." CLASSIC.

    And thanks as always, Frank! :)