Of all the reasons to remaster The Beatles‘ catalog, there is really only one: the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night”.
Within that gobsmacked gasp of 12-string Rickenbacker, Gibson acoustic, Hofner bass and Steinway grand lives the exact moment when a counterculture was conceived. It is a three-and-a-half-second sustain poised on the brink of bursting, a clarion of desire, hope, uncertainty, self-awareness and longing, an iconic pop-music moment whose only parallel is the calamitous E-major death knell sounded at the end of “A Day in the Life”.
Now, polished to the brightest of sheens, it is downright phantasmagoric.
“A Hard Day’s Night” the song opens both A Hard Day’s Night the album and A Hard Day’s Night the film (the latter being an on-the-cheap, exploitative jukebox musical that happens to be one of the greatest movies ever made, but anyway). As The Beatles’ third full-length UK release, debuting in 1964, the album’s 13 tracks tend to get columned into the seemingly simplistic, “pimply hyperbole” (that’s a line from the movie), early-Beatles side of things. But if historical hindsight has not been particularly generous to A Hard Day’s Night, the remastered version’s brilliance and clarity offer an overdue opportunity to witness the band’s initial strides towards experimental complexity. (Worth noting: A Hard Day’s Night is the only Beatles album comprised solely of Lennon-McCartney songs.) What Rubber Soul gets all the credit for, A Hard Day’s Night thought up in the first place.
Melancholy creeps in on A Hard Day’s Night in a way it hadn’t on previous releases. Even when concerned with such unfulfilled wants as unheld hands or please pleasing them, the boys sang in chirpy tones and played sunny chords. A Hard Day’s Night — especially its title track — introduces blues-inflected sevenths and harmonies. Regret, rockabilly-style, infuses “I’ll Cry Instead”; a Latin beat is styled into a studied contemplation on “And I Love Her”. None of that even comes close to “If I Fell,” a remarkable Lennon composition (with an assist from McCartney) in which the opening measures’ descending barre chords embody the narrator’s gun-shyness: “‘Cuz I’ve been in love before/ And I found that love was more/ Than just holding hands.” Really, it’s a kind of quiet masterpiece.
Speaking of quiet, Starr doesn’t sing on A Hard Day’s Night, a rarity among Beatles albums, but his percussion arrangements may just be some of his career best — and make for terrific listening on the remastering. On “A Hard Day’s Night”, not only does the cowbell you once barely heard now pop through beautifully on the bridges, but the bongos you never before noticed provide a surprising and smooth extra layer of texture underneath the verses. The crisp, syncopated claves on “And I Love Her”, played in a nontraditional timing, likewise sound more pristine and pronounced than ever. And throughout many of the soundtrack’s classic-Beatles charmers — “Tell Me Why,” “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Any Time at All”, “You Can’t Do That” — Ringo’s signature striking of his hi-hat in a constant, shimmery stream of eighth and sixteenth notes is what makes them standards as much as John and Paul’s yearning lyrics or George’s plucked arpeggios.
Only the seven songs that make up the A-side of A Hard Day’s Night were actually included in the film. The B-sides were put there so as to have a B side. Meanwhile, the numbers from the film’s dance sequence (“Don’t Bother Me”, “I Wanna Be Your Man”, “All My Lovin'”) plus “She Loves You” from the end-of-movie concert aren’t part of the soundtrack, having been released previously. This might bother movie purists but only slightly lessens the overall impact of the album. The A-side exhibits a much wider range of musical influence, while a few of the B-side tracks (“Things We Said Today”, “When I Get Home”) tend toward that early-Beatles sameness. “I’ll Cry Instead”, cut from the film at the last minute, is certainly the B-side’s artistic high point; the simple line of Lennon-penned wordplay, “I got a chip on my shoulder that’s bigger than my feet,” a sentiment he delivers with lingering pathos, possesses an emotional weight bigger than the sum of its parts.
I have probably watched A Hard Day’s Night more than 200 times, but only in the remastered soundtrack is my ear finally able to suss out how Lennon and McCartney deftly trade off lead vocals between the title track’s verses and bridge, as Lennon couldn’t reach the high notes on “When I’m home, feeling you holding me tight, tight, yeah.” That bit of fan folklore about “Things We Said Today” — McCartney’s piano was removed during post-production, except it wasn’t a clean wipe and could still sort of be heard in the background — is now easily audible. And yet still, I have no idea what the Fab Four are singing in that one ridiculous line of falsetto towards the end of “Tell Me Why”. And if I end it for my in you-ou-ou? To me they still sound like wheezing kazoos.
Of all the reasons to remaster the Beatles catalog, plenty are evident on A Hard Day’s Night. It is a joyful, feels-like-the-first time re-entry into the band at the height of Beatlemania, a time that ought to be remembered for more than just screaming fans, and a collection of songs that can now be heard distinctly above the fray.