The third album by The Beatles is a massive leap forward for the band in all areas. Gone are the covers, gone are the fillers, and what remains is their first pop rock masterpiece. Their penchant for melodic commercial songs are never better than on this and Help and while they have not yet entered their experimentation phase their songwriting and playing are top quality. From the opening chord (perhaps the most famous ever) the band never look back and have now entered the realm of greatness. While not every track is a joy, they are all perfectly listenable, probably all essential, and there are a few all time classics. Although For Sale is seen as a step backwards I usually consider it part of a trilogy with the first two albums, and that A Hard Day’s Night is the true beginning. The album was a huge worldwide success and paved the way for the influx of British bands into the US, Europe, and Asia. In only a few years the charts would be dominated by The Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, and Led Zep amongst others, and this album can be seen as a stepping stone.
`A Hard Day’s Night’ kicks off the album in memorable style with a single chord; a chord which when played to anyone around the world will be recognizable as the intro to the song. It is probably their most well-rounded song so far and everything fits together so well. The lyrics are simple as they always were for this period, but the harmonies and melodies were never better. The song is about being so bedazzled by someone that even though you’re exhausted and skint you will do anything for the person in the knowledge that they will make it all better. They continue their style of throwing in an unusual mid section which spices up the song, and the outro is also interesting.
`I Should Have Known Better’ is a typical Beatles rocker featuring a harmonica intro, but Dylan’s influence on Lennon is beginning to show with more personal lyrics. The verse melody is on of the most catchy of the period and the minor shift to the chorus is brilliant with the vocals almost reaching breaking point. Some of the guitar is a bit too distant feeling, but this may have been more of a production issue.
`If I Fell’ is the best ballad the group has written so far, more intelligent musically and structurally while the lyrics are touching and idyllic. The structure is experimental with an interesting introduction which is separate from the rest of the song. The main bulk of the song features a lovely repeating melody which expands and extends every time it is played. The dual vocals have never been so sublime and it sounds similar in parts to The Beach Boys and the guitar playing is gentle and does not intrude.
`I’m Happy Just to Dance with You’ is an up-tempo Harrison number and one of the weaker songs on the album. It’s good, but nothing special.
`And I Love Her’ is a McCartney ballad, not as strong as If I Fell, but a worthy addition. It has a Latin and almost downbeat feel due to the acoustic picking and the minor chord progression. The middle section as with most Beatles songs is the key to lifting it to a higher status than a usual 3 minute pop song. The guitar solo is simple and echoes the central melody. The lyrics are simple yet appropriate, and the repeating riff is memorable. It is also noticeable for the ending chord which goes against all the ones before.
`Tell Me Why’ is a fast paced Lennon song which sounds like a typical happy song while the lyrics are about a relationship going badly wrong with arguing, deception, and confusion perhaps reflecting reality. The middle section is ok apart from the `anything I can do’ line in which Lennon becomes a eunuch.
`Can’t Buy Me Love’ is the best song on the album and the best song the band had written so far. Immediately catchy with a great singalong feel. The verses and chorus blend together immaculately and it is one of those songs that when written you wonder why no-one had written it before. The music takes a background stand to the vocals, yet the guitar chimes in perfectly with dual chords and the screech midway through is the best so far. It is the archetypal McCartney song, although depending on which way you take the lyrics it can mean anything from the price of fame on relationships to prostitution.
`Any Time at All’ is one of the best early Beatles rockers with a high energy similar to songs on `Please Please Me’. The recurring guitar riffs are catchy, the piano middle section adds a different flavour to proceedings and Lennon shouts the lyrics with an almost grungy edge. It doesn’t have quite the melodic quality of their best songs and just misses out on being a classic.
`I’ll Cry Instead’ is another introspective Lennon song about loneliness and the alienation which comes with superstardom. Of course there is humour and irony due to the upbeat sound of the song which flies along at a fair pace and finishes in under two minutes. He may sing about not being able to talk to people he meets, but also sings of coming back in the future to break hearts in two. A good song with a slight country lilt to it.
`Things We Said Today’ is notable for the change from ballad to rock and back halfway through, almost giving birth to the quiet heavy quiet of future bands like Nirvana. The verse melody isn’t one of my favourites, the chorus is better and I like the guitars. The only part that annoys me is McCartney’s `on and on..nah’ dubbing mistake two-thirds of the way through, but I’m being picky.
`When I Get Home’ is a good rocker with nice growly vocals but I can’t help cringing on the `cows come home’ line. Musically and lyrically this is fine apart from the cow bit, and I enjoy the `wow oh I’ parts.
`You Can’t Do That’ is another personal Lennon penned track about jealousy, anger, cheating, and paranoia making it one of the darker Beatles songs along with `Run For Your Life’ and other later songs. Again it has a slightly country feel mostly due to the tone of the guitar. It features an unusual Lennon scream, the sort of thing usually left to McCartney, is less upbeat musically than other album tracks, and has some nice Harrison work in the middle.
`I’ll Be Back’ closes the album, another downbeat feeling Lennon song about the darker side of love. Of course it ends up being hopeful as Lennon admits that he will return to the person who may continually break his heart. He says he be a better partner this time even though the split may not have been his fault. While some of the album tracks have darker lyrics and sound pleasant, this one sounds doleful and has almost uplifting lyrics even though they are ironic. It has a Spanish feeling which adds to the tragic feel and for a 2 and a half-minute pop song it lacks a chorus so has the feeling of a statement of intent. The most interesting thing is the rather sudden ending which sounds chopped, as if there is more to come. The feeling is one of exasperation, of leaving in the middle of an argument, of trying to explain something but being overcome, turning, and walking away. It is a fitting end to a great album.
Overall it would be hard to disagree that this is the first classic Beatles album. It came with their first film, it heralded the start of their revolution and uber-fame, and is filled with songs known around the world. They would continue to mature musically and lyrically until the reached perfection and descended into experimentation to find a new outlet.
As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments section.
Updated with Nightman Scoring System(c):
Sales: 5 (Another smash hit)
Chart: 5 (Another smash hit)
Critical: 5 (The first truly great Beatles album, loved by all)
Originality: 4 (The signs of originality in playing, recording, and writing make sudden, small leaps on this record. There are no covers, giving the band the chance to show off their own abilities in full flight, though they are still finding their direction. Here they move away from the blues laden tracks on the first two albums, and make a selection of pop hits instead but give new twists and flavours on the sounds and content of such songs.
Influence: 5 (Like most of the Beatles albums, this is a huge influence on everything that came after, but this was the first album which showed that a band could do everything themselves without relying on exterior input. The variety of styles, the look and feel, the sound, the lyrics, everything here has influenced countless works since)
Musical Ability: 5 (Not only do the band solidify their playing, but they expand with new ideas, instruments, and they cement their ability to play as a group)
Lyrics: 4 (Although most of the songs still are based on love and romance, there are the odd moments and perspectives which eschew conventions and show that the writing was greatly improving)
Melody: 5 (There is a huge leap here from the first couple of albums, possibly by moving towards a more pop oriented sound, and by having free rein to write whatever they wanted. The harmonies shine through meaning that depending on whose voice you choose to listen to, each song can be heard in completely different ways)
Emotion: 4 (The band step up the emotional content bravely here by baring themselves like few groups had before, not only showing their cynicism but their unabashed love)
Lastibility: 5 (Again, almost 50 years later it still sounds better than much of what is around today, more vital, more important, and will still be discussed in another 50)
Vocals: 4 (Each member excels again, while there are a few moments which drag my score down from maximum such as John’s eunuch moment)
Coherence: 4 (The band’s first fully original album holds together wonderfully, nothing sounds out-of-place, and the overall sense of a romantic chase and the ups and downs within is potent)
Mood: 4 (The record makes you want to dance, to sing along, to write, to pick up an instrument and play along)
Production: 5 (This is the first Beatles album which sounds like a unique Beatles album – no other band could have made these songs in this way. Everything is just right)
Effort: 5 (A lot of effort went into this, especially considering the film was being done around the same time, as well as continual writing and touring, and the mix of breathless endeavor and weariness is apparent)
Relationship: 4 (Fits nicely with the previous albums, stands on its own, and blends seamlessly into the next)
Genre Relation: 4 (It’s pop, it’s rock, it sounds like many of the bands of the time, but more importantly it sounds like it is improving upon, and almost making a mockery of those other bands)
Authenticity: 5 (It’s the sound of a band coming into their own, throwing off the shackles of convention, embracing expectation and confidently acknowledging that they will surpass all expectation)
Personal: 5 (Not my favourite Beatles album, but it can’t be anything less than a 5)
Miscellaneous: 5 (Great stories from the recording, an oft-imitated cover, a film which should have won several Oscars, a classic)