I grew up listening to the Beatles in real time as they hit the United States, and I learned to play Paul McCartney-style left-handed guitar and bass from their records and chord books. But I have to admit that I did not hear the best Beatles album until I moved to England in 2000 and bought the remastered compact disc of their July 1964 album A Hard Day’s Night in its original British version on the EMI label. This release was very different from the United Artists U.S. version bearing the same name, so you likely never heard it in its original context.
The U.S. release of this album, purchased by my brother at the time, actually beat the U.K. release by a couple of weeks, and coincided with the premiere of the great Richard Lester film of the same name. However, the version we heard contained only eight songs sung by the Beatles, with the rest of the album filled with syrupy soundtrack orchestral music from the movie. The British version contained a whopping thirteen original songs written for the film, although several of them did not make the final film cut. Capitol Records, the usual U.S. label for the Beatles, would never release a thirteen-song LP in those days; most of the early Beatles U.S. releases were limited to ten or eleven songs. The tracks “missing” from the U.S. release eventually found their way onto later albums, but, like the other early Capitol U.S. releases, they were scrambled “out of time” in Beatles’ recording history.
So why do I call this the best Beatles album?
This was the first album comprised completely of original Lennon-McCartney compositions, all written and recorded in an incredibly short period of time while they were also touring and filming the movie. In fact, “Can’t Buy Me Love” was written and recorded in Paris during an 18-day concert run there, in order to get a single out ahead of the movie, which had a very expedited production.
The songs were recorded on four-track tape (and some on two-track) with minimal overdubbing or other in-studio production, but with producer George Martin occasionally filling in a piano part. This gave the tracks a very “live group” sound, working well with the pseudo-live performances in the film, and you can hear several of the songs re-recorded in very similar arrangements on the Live at the BBC compilation album released in 1994. This record was a “live” as we could hear in those years without the screaming and bad sound systems of the concerts, and not like the crude lip-syncs that were so common on American Bandstand and other shows featuring British Invasion groups. As old tapes begin to emerge on YouTube, it is easy to see that some of these bands, especially the Beatles, were incredible live acts, while others struggled outside the studio.
Second, the album freezes in time the iconic instrumentation of “Phase Two” of the Beatles (Phase One being the rough-hewn cover band playing Little Richard and Motown songs). George Harrison played his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar on many of the songs and in the film, which inspired Roger McGuinn of the Byrds to adapt that unique “jangly” sound to Bob Dylan songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Paul McCartney played his iconic left-handed Höfner viol-shaped bass, while John brought in a Gibson acoustic guitar for songs like “If I Fell.”
Third, there is no greater opening chord on a record than the ringing introduction to “A Hard Day’s Night.” This has been my iPhone ringtone for at least a decade. You can find lots of analysis of this tiny slice of music online, but the consensus seems to be that this is an Fadd9 chord, with George Harrison playing F-A-C-G on his 12-string Rickenbacker, doubled by George Martin on the piano, and with Paul McCartney throwing in a D bass note. Here is that great chord:
Finally, while other “best” commentators commonly point to the later experimental innovations of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, this earlier album was, in my view, the apex of the era of two-and-a-half-minute pop songs, recorded mostly in mono and really intended for 45 RPM “singles,” which still had a much bigger market than the higher-priced (and beyond my meager allowance) 33 1/3 RPM albums. Has there ever been such a burst of songs, all memorable six decades later, composed and recorded in such a short time? I may be wrong, but I think not. John Lennon was likely at his songwriting prime here, said to be the primary writer on nine of the thirteen songs and dominating the lead singer role as well. Paul McCartney has been quoted as this being the height of the “A-side – B-side” competition between him and John to quickly write hit songs, even though by contract all songs were attributed equally to “Lennon-McCartney”. George Harrison gets no writing credits on this disc, and has the lead vocal on just one song, “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You.”
You can play the entire album of thirteen songs in just over 30 minutes. The longest song, “I Should Have Known Better,” clocks in at two minutes and 43 seconds, while the shortest, “I’ll Cry Instead,” is a brief one minute and 44 seconds long. Here is a Spotify playlist of the original running order never heard in 1964’s United States. How many can you sing from memory?
I consider the two-and-a-half-minute pop song to be a unique art form in itself, too often exiled these days to country radio. This is one reason why I follow the great group Lake Street Dive, who have frequently cited their love of Lennon-McCartney short-song writing as a creative inspiration and common bond that drew them together.
Now, what ever happened to all of my 45 RPM record inserts? They are apparently selling for good money on eBay these days.