A Hard Day's Night
Driving through Colorado during a road trip in early 1964, Bob Dylan heard a rundown of the country’s Top 10 singles, more than half of which were by The Beatles. By then, the band had saturated America with the same bizarre speed they’d saturated England, first broadcast on American radio about a week before Christmas 1963 by a Washington, D.C.-area DJ whose friend—a flight attendant for BOAC—had brought a copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” over in their luggage, essentially unplugging the last finger holding back a transatlantic flood.
Whether or not Dylan liked the band’s music was unclear. (We’re talking about Bob Dylan here.) What he did acknowledge was that their sound—the energy, the harmonic language, the combination of universally appealing but unprecedented—was somehow inevitable; that they pointed the direction of where music had to go.
At the time, folk—Dylan’s province—was considered part of a vanguard; in jazz, composers like John Coltrane had already signaled a move toward abstraction; in visual art, pop had happily unseated the macho hugeness of abstract expressionism; independent filmmaking was developing a momentum. In other words, where other cultural avenues had taken new directions, pop music had mostly stayed the course.
Released in summer 1964 (only a year and change after Please Please Me), A Hard Day’s Night was arguably the first glimpse of our modern idea of The Beatles: safe but a little strange; warm but with shades of bleakness; a band that experimented tirelessly without ever leaving the mainstream. Famously, it was the first time that Lennon and McCartney had written all of the album’s songs, a gesture that set the precedent for the then-new idea that pop (and, by extension, the musicians who made it) wasn’t just a vehicle for a good show, but art that revealed some otherwise inexpressible part of the artist’s soul—something personal.
The music was more evolved too. What had, on their first couple of albums, been borrowed from R&B and soul covers became baked into their own compositions: the workaday relief of the title track, the blues morality of “Can’t Buy Me Love” (covered, almost immediately, by Ella Fitzgerald). Lennon’s “I’ll Be Back” was the moodiest song they’d ever recorded, McCartney’s “And I Love Her” the most nakedly open-hearted, capturing a shadow-and-light quality that was warm but stark—contrasts new not just for their songwriting, but for ’60s pop in general.
That the album had originally been conceived of as a soundtrack for a United Artists movie designed to capitalize on The Beatles’ fame in England (Capitol had been famously reticent to release their albums in the United States) is an illustration of just how swiftly the machine’s gears were turning; that the band managed to make not only the album but also the movie as charming and sneakily creative as they did is—well, you see where they got their good reputation.