Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Hard Day's Night Remastered: Scream Thy Last Scream

CLANG! That chord (G eleventh suspended fourth, if you're taking notes) and we're off. The Beatles are running. Running for their lives all the way down Boston Place towards Marylebone Station and a place in cinema history. It's been said many times before but it bears repeating again, A Hard Day's Night isn't just an evocation of Beatlemania, to all intents and purposes it is Beatlemania, made flesh. Flaws, screams, damp knickers and all. It has become fashionable over the last twenty years or so to dismiss the Beatles early music as mere generic pop. Beautifully crafted, of course, but with little inherent artistic merit, certainly when compared to their later output. Which has a small degree of truth in it but, as my old mate Jeff Hart always used to tell me, all the intellectualisation in the world means absolutely nothing if you don't shake your head and go 'Woooo' when 'She Loves You' comes on the radio. Definitively.

The first LP composed entirely of Lennon/McCartney songs, A Hard Day's Night (or, Songs From The Film A Hard Day's Night to give the LPs its never-used 'proper' title) was recorded between 29 January and 2 June 1964 (the sessions also produced the Long Tall Sally EP and, concluded a day earlier than anticipated because Ringo got tonsillitis). A Hard Day's Night is an often-overlooked gem next to some of the band's later works. Besides two massive hit singles (the title song and 'Can't Buy Me Love') it includes some of Lennon and McCartney's most introspective, difficult and personal songs (Lennon's deeply-felt 'If I Fell' and McCartney's near-torrid 'Things We Said Today') and some very adventurous musical experiments (the fade-out on the sublime 'I'll Be Back'). Some of the first side songs have a faux-naïf charm about them with their simple boy-meets-girl lyrics that wouldn't have seemed out of place on Please Please Me, but on the second side we're encountering the sound of a bunch of young men (the oldest of whom was still only twenty three, remember) who are, rapidly, growing up. Growing up, and getting wise about the much-changed world they are now a part of. Given that the LP was, by design, a film soundtrack, it's even more remarkable that it includes so few outright fillers ('Tell Me Why' is probably the main offender). Lennon's 'I'll Cry Instead' shows the band's first overt flirtations with country music (Ringo's influence, chiefly), whilst the plaintive 'And I Love Her' provided every bad folk-trio in the Western world with three new chords to play with.

The film, of course, was only made in the first place because United Artists discovered a loophole in The Beatles' deal with Capitol in the US that didn't cover movie soundtracks. The company's thinking was that, even if the movie was a flop, they could recover their costs in record sales. The chosen scriptwriter was Alun Owen, a superb TV dramatist (McCartney had particularly admired his 1959 kitchen-sink teleplay No Trams to Lime Street). Owen accompanied the Beatles for a few days in Ireland in November 1963 and quickly picked up their personality traits. Lennon would, subsequently, accuse Owen of being 'a professional Liverpudlian' to which Owen memorably replied 'it's better than being an amateur one!' Subsequent to the LP's release, a generation of guitar bands based entire careers on the ringing arpeggio'd Rickenbacker-drenched chords and block harmonies of A Hard Day's Night. It's an LP that - quite literally - says to everyone working in a factory, or an office, or sitting in class at school 'Listen, you can do that, or you can do this.' Million were inspired and chose to do the latter. The Byrds, for instance, were essentially a folk/bluegrass band until they went to the movies one day and saw A Hard Day's Night. Dave Crosby remembers coming out of the cinema buzzing and swinging round a lamp-post, Beatles-style, in sheer joy at the opportunities presented by pop-music. 'Sorry we hurt yer world, mista, but it's ours now...' More acoustic and varied, musically, than its immediate predecessor, With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night has many claims to being the definitive early Beatles' sound. A palate of Rickenbacker (with a bit of Gretsch), Hofner, Ludwig and Vox. A sound, not of 'eighty thousand crumbling houses and thirty thousand people on the dole' as some miserable old Red suggested in the Daily Worker, but the discovery of pure, unadulterated freedom.

The remastered CD doesn't disappoint. The title song smashes its way out of your speakers with all of the subtlety of a flying brick. Ringo's cowbell in the right-hand stereo channel during the 'when I'm home' middle eight is like a steamhammer. Nagging. Insistent. Bloody loud. In fact, the percussion track (including previously deep-buried bongos) is possibly the biggest revelation here, even taking into account just how amazing Lennon and McCartney's voices sound on this. God, it's good. And, then comes the biggest surprise I've had listening to a Beatles record in, probably, decades - a sudden, wholly unexpected, never previously noticed harmonica drop-out in 'I Should Have Known Better'. Where'd that come from? The creation of space and depth which I talked about yesterday on Rubber Soul is evident here too, most notably on a suddenly technicolour 'If I Fell', previously only heard, if you will, in monochrome shades. There's a similarly synesthesic quality to 'I'm Happy Just To Dance With You', a tiny bit of reverb on George's voice (or, is it double-tracking?) giving a feeling of slight, edgy melancholy to a song that had previously sounded sun-bright. Ringo gets a starring role, again, in 'And I Love Her', with a delicate and tasteful use of counterpoint percussion to the triple-bank of acoustic guitars. Alas, 'Tell Me Why' is still a stinker, albeit one that sounds much cleaner here. One of George Martin's beloved pot-boilers that's, in this case, been badly overcooked.

The big talking point concerning 'Can't Buy Me Love' is the stinging quality to Lennon's guitar frills, playing off Macca's boogie bassline, something it shares in common with both 'Anytime At All' and 'When I Come Home.' The latter, never a particular favourite of mine (chiefly for the wasted opportunities of a mostly good lyric - 'I've got no time for trivialities' is one of the best lines Lennon ever wrote - spoiled by vernacular cliches) is the song that probably most benefits from remastering. Previously it sounded like a not-particularly-distinguished mid-tempo rocker with a good vocal. Now, frankly, it sounds like a sweaty powerhouse performance dragged from the memory of some dank night in the Cavern (but, again, hindered by that dreadful 'love her till the cows come home' bit).

Most of the songs on A Hard Day's Night were written in January 1964 in Paris but, ironically, its two of the songs that weren't which make the LPs reputation as the first, proper flowering of Paul and John's emerging confidence as songwriters. 'Things We Said Today' sees McCartney finding his muse in Jane Asher and beginning a temperamental, awkward train of passion and sulking that would lead through 'Every Little Thing', 'I'm Looking Through You' and 'We Can Work It Out' all the way to 'For No One' two years hence. The sombre, cool detachment of the lyrics (and, indeed, the song's general sentiment) really makes one wonder what the hell went on during that holiday in the Bahamas in May. The crisp, autumnal nature of the guitar, snare/tambourine interplay is the most striking thing about a song written on what you'd imagine to be a hot, steamy Caribbean night. And then it fades, dramatically and with an ominous lack of finality. Just drifting away, in exactly the same way that relationship itself eventually would.

'I'll Be Back' pulls the same trick and it's even more special and breathtaking. A pleading, almost desperate, song about heartbreak with a vocal that sighs genuine hurt amid its mixolydian intervals. The two second space between 'You know' and 'if you break my heart, I'll go' is one of the most thrilling in The Beatles' entire catalogue. Abject defeat at the end of an all night party, the tonal ambiguity achieved by another fade-out signaling a fast arriving maturity. This, almost in one song, is the sound of a band thinking about where they're going next. And, that's A Hard Day's Night, in a nutshell. Onward, and upwards. As the advertising chap in the movie tells George concerning his 'grotty' shirts, 'you'll like this, it's fab.'