A Hard Day’s Night: 50 Years on, You Know It Feels All Right

HARD DAY'S NIGHT, AGuest writer Greg Altum comments:

John Lennon once said, “The blues is a chair. You sit in it. We didn’t sound black because we weren’t black. We were building our own chairs.” Around 1961, perhaps, the difference between The Beatles and other British bands was not as great as it would get. But while Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, and The Rolling Stones were doing the hard-core stuff like “Little Red Rooster” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” the Fab Four were throwing in items like “Besame Mucho” and “Til There Was You.”

It made sense. I think I wrote before that when they did Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” they did not sound too comfortable with it, though the enthusiasm was there.

Anyway, we’re talking about The Beatles here, folks. Could anyone stand up and just request THAT much fame and fortune? Whether they liked it or not, by the middle of 1964, they were “the toast of about eight continents,” as writer Greil Marcus put it.

A fellow named Walter Sheron noticed how well the boys did when they were on some “Live at the London Palladium” TV show in late 1963 and saw some potential. Alan Owun wrote the bouncy, even-handed, easygoing script (but, according to the imdb web site, never did much of anything else as noteworthy). The boys were supposed to have done something like a recording session somewhere, and when they stepped outside, Ringo is supposed to have said, “It’s been a hard day…night!” after noticing the sky. So the idea grew into a song.

David Crosby–just getting started with his group The Byrds–said he swung from a lamppost after seeing the movie with the others in the group. Pretty understandable.

Well, Jack Bruce and Dave Mason and Eric Clapton would all be associated with a more “serious” era in rock music and they probably wouldn’t have executed A Hard Day’s Night as well as The Beatles ended up doing. When all is said and done, I’d have to say the main concepts conveyed in the work are innocence and speed.

Yeah, really. Right from the start.

First, we hear that classic “wham” on the guitar that starts the title track (Number One in the U.S., of course). And there are the boys at far left running from a bunch of girls. Not a smile-free face to be seen.

Hmmmmmm. In 1969 you would have that schtick about Paul being dead (when actually it was the band, for the most part). People looked for clues of Paul being separated from the others. And at the start of the movie, he is separated from the others, sitting with his grandfather (played by Wilford Brambell).

HARD DAY'S NIGHT, AThere may be nothing less important than the plot or storyline for the film. I’m reminded of reading how ole Don Kirshner had the idea for a TV series in which every episode would be as much like A Hard Day’s Night as possible. That turned into The Monkees.

The band runs to a train station, gets on a train, gets to a hotel, then a TV studio to do a show. The ending is naturally reminiscent of their performances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the 50th anniversary of which was celebrated back in February.

It can feel funny trying to write serious, “arty” things about the work when the whole thing is pretty much an indictment against seriousness itself. It is traditional to figure that the Beatles lifted spirits that needed lifting after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Toward that end, the movie is admirably careful not to stray into serious territory. Distinguished Brit actor Richard Vernon sits in the compartment with the boys. He tells them to turn a radio off. He also comments, “I fought the war for your sort.” And John says, “I’ll bet you’re sorry you won.”

HARD DAY'S NIGHT, A 3That reminds me. I said before how the 1960 film The Entertainer, featuring an Oscar-nominated turn by Laurence Olivier, showed why  The Beatles were “needed” in our culture. The two films would make a great double bill.

Well, shucks, folks, the term “zany antics” has been used before and it certainly describes what you get here. The band comes across a couple of gals sitting at a table. John says, “Look at the talent.” By George, one of the two ladies is Pattie Hansen, who went on to become Mrs. George Harrison.

Perhaps the film has special meaning for each member of the group. I remember the Rolling Stone Record Guide saying how Ringo Starr (the drummer, if you don’t know) was easily pigeonholed in the film. He was the new kid on the block. After Paul’s grandfather tells him he needs to “parade” more, Ringo gets up and leaves and walks around London just when their performance is about to start.

George (lead guitarist) Harrison once said he thought The Beatles were at their best in their early, “Rabelaisian” days (Rabelais was a writer who wrote of the carnival days of medieval England). After all these years, it seems to me George was the member whose commitment and dedication to the band was the weakest. In three years, the group would try to learn some wisdom from the Maharaji and would quit–except for George. He was also the first to do a solo recording (“Wonderwall Music,” the soundtrack album to the psychedelic 1969 drama Wonderwall). His independence may be noticed in the film when–as the band strikes the acoustic number “And I Love Her” (a Number 12 hit in the U.S.)–George plucks a few notes on his guitar and then quits.

Paul may the coolest one in the film. Seems like he had to be the member of the band most fascinated by the possibilities of music. He randomly hits a few notes on a piano in the hotel room, and there’s that scene he holds a hair dryer and turns to the camera and says, “Zap!” Quietly, he may know better than anyone what’s going on. Always was that way, wasn’t it?

HARD DAY'S NIGHT, A 6But really, the film may be important in the development of John (Lennon, that is). Seems like he was the Beatle who would pick a fight the easiest. But as the Beatles found international success, seems like he had little reason to be malcontented. He traded the restlessness of Liverpool streets for the insanity of celebrity life. The movie is all fun and innocence. But in real life, John had gotten Cynthia Lennon pregnant and then married her. It wouldn’t be long he divorced her, and also made his controversial remark about the band being more popular than the Almighty. He would sing “Help!” the following year, and probably meant it.

The A Hard Day’s Night DVD/blu-ray package now available should probably be recommended before any Beatles’ recording. We get Phil Collins narrating a documentary about the movie. He says how the bandmates were “prisoners” of their fame. He should know about that to some degree (he was an extra in A Hard Day’s Night). Most likely, the boys did not argue or try to call the shots as the movie was made, and it worked out.

But of course there is the music. In the title track, they sing, “Why on earth should I moan, ‘cause when I get you alone, you know I feel alright.” Hmmmm. Pretty suggestive, ain’t it? But it comes at you fast, and the Beatles’ whole existence was perhaps testimony to how the whole world had speeded up (for what reason, who knows).

During the movie, in an effort to cheer Ringo up, the group breaks into the romantic “If I Fell.” It’s a cozy little setting, the train storage compartment. They play cards, too. Once they do that song, things seem to fall into place and the film has a natural intensity.

Unforgettable gags and happenings just emit themselves naturally. Norm their manager (played by Norman Rossington) brings in an armload of fan mail and tells the band to answer it all tonight. Is he kidding? In a scene near the end, he tells John, “You’re a swine.” I guess that’s a mild insult that the British would know better than anyone.

Really, the Beatles came along at just the right time. You can go to web sites listing the No. 1 box office films in the U.S. every weekend for years. In 1964, most of them either starred someone from England or were made by a Brit: Dr. Strangelove, Marnie, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Goldfinger…

But really, The Beatles knew how to keep their heads above water. Their sound and existence was hammered into place. When you get the British version of the soundtrack (as you should), you’ll notice two extra songs, “Things We Said Today” and “I’ll Be Back.” Those two tracks may be neglected as Beatle tracks go. They show how they were truly creating a new sound. They seem to show how they were ready for more responsibility than the film perhaps shows. Whether or not they were right to get more serious is another matter.

The addition of Wilford Brambell to the cast as Paul’s grandfather was a brilliant touch. It’s hilarious when he is pouring champagne for a lady and says, “Congratulate me, boys, I’m engaged.” They say, “Oh no, you’re not,” and then he is shown locked up in a gated area. In another scene, he is playing cards and a woman with a prominent chest leans over, and he says, “I’ll bet you’re a great swimmer.” It’s probably the film’s real achievement how it avoids vulgarity or excess of any kind. Interestingly, while easily being the most senior member of the cast, Brambell had quite a future ahead, starring in the British series Steptoe and Son, the inspiration for Sanford and Son.

Peter Sellers was not in the movie, but his spirit seems to be there. If you buy the DVD/blu-ray set, you will get a 10-minute item from 1959 called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, starring Sellers and former The Goon Show colleague Spike Milligan. It has been called a favorite of the Beatles. In one A Hard Day’s Night scene, the band jumps up and down and rolls in the grass while “Can’t Buy Me Love” is playing. That scene was directly influenced by the earlier short (both films were directed by Richard Lester).

HARD DAY'S NIGHT, A 5Oh yes, we must mention Lester. Maybe he is far and away the magic ingredient that sets it all ablaze. If so, the whole film is a masterpiece of “selfless” moviemaking. It really can be called egoless. Lester went on to make Superman II and  Superman III, and immediately before and after A Hard Day’s Night he helmed The Mouse on the Moon and The Knack..and How to Get It, both fine comedies. However, his 1968 film Petulia, featuring George C. Scott and Julie Christie (and a performance by Big Brother and The Holding Company with Janis Joplin), is a must. Do see it.

As is usually the case with The Beatles, once you hear the music, you quit wondering what the big deal about them was. Just before they do songs at the end, the noted stage actress Anna Quayle looks at John and says, “You look like him.” “No I’m not him,” says John. Hilarious. See for yourself. By the way, Victor Spinetti is ideal as the temperamental show director. The cast’s harmony matches that in the Beatles’ music, for sure.

It doesn’t miss a trick. We get the band being asked a bunch of questions by the press. One says, “What do you call that haircut,” and they say, “Arthur.” One asks, “How did you find America?” And John says, “I turned left at Greenland.” Someone asks, “Has success changed you?” And George says flatly, “Yes.”

Oh this is great stuff, folks. After 50 years, it seems like a question was being asked – would this film or the assassination of President Kennedy be the signpost indicating the future of the ‘60s? Kennedy’s assassination pretty much won. As the movie was a hit, you had the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the discovery of the bodies of three Civil Rights workers down in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The movie A Hard Day’s Night did not become the definition of the Sixties, but was like a medic always on hand.

HARD DAY'S NIGHT, A 4Again, it was all in all a definitive work for John Lennon, still the group’s leader at that point. One of the better songs in the movie has the group singing in all confidence, “I should have known better.”

Well, John, in spite of what the future held, when you and the boys did  A Hard Day’s Night–you did.

Greg has written for newspapers in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He has a degree in journalism as well as one in philosophy from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Greg began his column “My Back Pages,” named for the Bob Dylan song, in 1990 while working for the newspaper in Sweetwater, Tenn., where he resides.