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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Hard Day's Night

By the time The Beatles landed at JFK airport in February of 1964 they had already ridden the wave of mounting British Beatlemania to the tune of two bestselling records and six Top Ten singles. In the US they had only “I Want To Hold Your Hand” which had been released against the fears of their record company, Capitol Records, because of a massive grassroots groundswell of support, yet when they landed they were hailed as the saviors of rock and roll and were met with the same screaming, hysterical crowds they’d come to expect in the UK. Over the next six months the backlog of Beatles releases finally hit American shelves and they were snatched up as quickly as they could be restocked. Beatlemania had finally reached the US.

So it was that when The Beatles went into the studio to record their third LP there was significant pressure to produce a major hit. The success of their previous output had reached around the English-speaking world and into mainland Europe but George Martin and crew needed to capitalize on The Beatles newfound fame if they wanted to launch the band into the stratosphere. They had the momentum; all they needed was the next big thing.

Little has been written about what a gamble A Hard Day's Night was in hindsight because no one involved seems to have viewed it that way. It was just the next logical step. Yet, considering their foothold on fickle American and European audiences was tentative at best, and also considering The Beatles had made a name for themselves with albums that were half covers, the release of a feature-length film portraying the nascent Beatlemania and a soundtrack featuring all-original material may have seemed a bit presumptuous. But the gamble paid off in spades, both the film and accompanying soundtrack album were smash hits on both sides of the pond and The Beatles were rocketed into even greater heights of stardom.

The success of A Hard Day's Night highlights perfectly the bizarre mixture of opportunism and creative drive that made The Beatles a unique venture in all of Rock History. All around this group hovered vultures and marketing gurus who found new and more insidious ways to make a buck off of them. Beatle wigs, Beatle magazines, Beatle boots, Beatle aftershave, anything and everything that could be sold with The Beatles name on it went into production. The marketing machine around this group was like nothing that had ever been seen before, and the kids reacted in droves, spending millions of dollars on memorabilia. It would have been enough in an age even half as naïve as that which existed in 1964 for all this wanton capitalism to sour the public on the group, yet what kept the machine going was that, stripped of all the bulls**t, the music was really good.

At the center of the madness were four excellent musicians and their incredibly talented producer, who kept going into the studio and producing sonic gold, which only spun the madness even harder. That is why no one considered A Hard Day's Night a gamble, because they were having too much fun making excellent music; they never stopped to think that the well might dry up.

It didn’t, of course, at least not for a long time. From the opening CLANG! of George’s 12-string guitar to the infectiousness of “Can’t Buy Me Love”, A Hard Day's Night is an impressive leap forward for the two young songwriters, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. There isn’t a bad song on the album and they are arranged with deft simplicity, bringing out the inherent catchiness of the melodies. The first side of the record is loaded with classics (“A Hard Days Night”, “If I Fell”, “And I Love Her”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”), many of which were actually used in the film, but the second half only suffers from comparison with the first. It is in its own right an incredible side.

With A Hard Day's Night The Beatles harnessed the power of their growing stardom and transformed it into an indomitable force that would carry them through the rest of the 1960s as the reigning Gods in the Pantheon of Rock. And for Lennon/McCartney, this was the album that made them realize they could carry an entire record on their own, a development that would have dramatic consequences down the road.