Look back at The Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Double Fantasy’

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The U.S. version of “A Hard Day’s Night” was among the albums re-issued this year by Apple Records as part of a 13-disc box set commemorating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ firs appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” — and the Beatlemania that ensued.)

By John M. Borack

Every Beatles album and John, Paul, George and Ringo solo record has many interesting and varied stories behind it; here’s a look at the “A Hard Day’s Night” album and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Double Fantasy.”

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT – 1964

By mid-1964, the frenzy known as Beatlemania was in full force. The band had conquered England, invaded America and the rest of the world was quickly following suit. With two well-received full-length albums and a handful of groundbreaking singles under their collective belt, the band was poised to take the next step towards securing their spot as the world’s preeminent pop music act.

For the Beatles, that next step was to star in a motion picture. The band’s initial cinematic venture, A Hard Day’s Night, was a highly pleasurable romp that found the Beatles’ charm, wit and personality fairly leaping off the big screen.  The film was released to overwhelmingly positive reviews and remains a classic nearly 50 years on.

The accompanying soundtrack album was released in two different iterations: the US version included seven songs from the film, along with the country and western-inflected “I’ll Cry Instead,” which was excised from the movie at the eleventh hour.  It also featured rather soggy instrumental versions of four Lennon and McCartney songs arranged by producer George Martin and performed by an orchestra, including “Ringo’s Theme (This Boy)” and the title track.

The UK version, however, is where the real gold is to be found (as we’ll discuss in a bit), and where the Beatles began taking a bold step towards taking control of their own musical destinies. Gone were the covers of Motown and US rhythm and blues tunes and slightly twee numbers such as “Till There Was You” and “A Taste of Honey” that had populated their first two UK releases; instead, for the first time, a Beatles album contained solely original material written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

A Hard Day’s Night was also a milestone for another important reason: it was the first Beatles record that found them using four-track tape machines during the sessions. As the recording notes for the 2009 CD reissue of A Hard Day’s Night explain, this allowed the band to have greater flexibility in the studio and led to further sonic exploration. (For example, on the title cut, the extra two tracks were used for additions such as Lennon and McCartney’s double tracked vocals, bongos, cowbell and piano.)

And the songs were across-the-board fantastic. Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting continued its steady maturation on A Hard Day’s Night; both McCartney’s “Things We Said Today” and Lennon’s “I’ll Be Back” were masterfully written compositions, with sets of lyrics dipped in previously-unheard melancholy. And McCartney’s “And I Love Her” has stood the test of time as a gold-standard ballad, or as Lennon called it, “his first ‘Yesterday’.” McCartney explained George Harrison’s major contribution to the tune to Mojo: “I brought [it] in pretty much as a finished song. But George put on do-do-do-do [sings the signature riff] which is very much a part of the song. Y’know, the opening riff. That, to me, made a stunning difference to the song and whenever I play the song now, I remember the moment George came up with it. That song would not be the same without it.”

The gorgeous “If I Fell” was fueled by Lennon and McCartney’s close, Everly Brothers-styled harmonies, while Lennon indulged his love of Wilson Pickett-like, four-on-the-floor chugga-chugga with the vaguely threatening “You Can’t Do That” (a lyrical precursor to 1965’s “Run For Your Life”). Lennon also began what was to become his practice of penning autobiographical lyrics on “I’ll Cry Instead,” where he declared, “I’ve got a chip on my shoulder that’s bigger than my feet.”  “Anytime at All,” a Lennon shouter that recalled the previous album’s “It Won’t Be Long,” was a case of a seemingly tossed-off album track that would have left most acts’ singles in the dust.

Another interesting – and important – note regarding the album is that it very nearly comes across as John Lennon’s first solo record, as he wrote (or had the major hand in writing) 10 of the 13 tracks here – everything except “Can’t Buy Me Love” and the aforementioned “And I Love Her” and “Things We Said Today” were Lennon compositions.  A Hard Day’s Night showcased a young, hungry Lennon at his competitive best, writing up a storm so as to outdo (in a friendly manner) his songwriting partner Paul McCartney.

A Hard Day’s Night is also historically significant thanks to the recording debut of George Harrison’s Rickenbacker 12-string guitar (a Rick 360/12), which was gifted to him by the Rickenbacker company in February 1964 during the Beatles’ first US tour. This 360/12 was the second Rickenbacker 12-string ever made, and its splashy, jangly tone is all over the album, from the signature chiming outro to “A Hard Day’s Night” to the lead break on “I Should Have Known Better” and the rhythm part on “You Can’t Do That.” Harrison’s exciting new sound went on to influence countless musicians in the mid-‘60s and beyond, beginning with groups such as the Byrds, the Turtles and the Hollies, and continuing with Raspberries and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, to name a few. (Although he went on to own several Rick 12-strings, Harrison allegedly brought his original guitar out of retirement and used it during the recording of his 1987 comeback album, Cloud 9.)

Although Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road are both more revered by the general public today as archetypal Beatles records, A Hard Day’s Night is a joy from beginning to end, and started the Beatles down the path to becoming the most creative and vibrant musical act of our time.

JohnLennon-albums-doublefantasyDOUBLE FANTASY - 1980

As the ‘70s gave way to the 1980s, the Beatles’ solo records were becoming less and less significant to the record buying public.  Paul McCartney’s final album with Wings, 1979’s Back to the Egg, was his lowest-charting long-player in the US and the UK since 1971’s Wild Life, while neither US single from Egg came close to the Billboard Top 10. George Harrison’s self-titled 1979 release was his poorest-performing album to date (barely scraping into the top 40 in England), while Ringo Starr’s final two albums of the ‘70s didn’t even sniff the US Hot 100. John Lennon, of course, had been musically inactive since his self-imposed exile to raise his son Sean began in 1975.

Some might argue that the reason behind the palpable decline in the solo Beatles’ popularity was due to a corresponding decline in the quality of the music, but with the exception of Starr’s lackluster late ‘70s output, this isn’t necessarily so; rather, it was more of a case of times and tastes changing. New wave, punk and disco had all become popular and it seemed as if McCartney, Harrison and Starr were no longer considered “hip” or relevant (even though Paul had attempted to “go disco” on “Goodnight Tonight” and cranked up the guitar on some tunes on Back to the Egg and London Town, with fair-to-middling results). There wasn’t any Beatles reunion on the horizon, so some sort of major shift needed to occur to bring the four back into the forefront.

In the early summer of 1980, the beginnings of what would help push the Beatles back into the spotlight began to take shape as John Lennon sailed to Bermuda with renewed creative energy and began composing songs. “I wanted to be with Sean the first five years, which are the years everyone says are the most important in a child’s life,” Lennon told the Los Angeles Times in 1980. “When he was coming up on five, Yoko and I thought maybe it was time to record again.”

In August 1980, Lennon and Ono entered the Hit Factory in New York City (along with a passel of the East Coast’s finest session cats) and began recording the tracks that would eventually comprise Double Fantasy (and later, the posthumous Milk and Honey). The album was delved into in detail by the participants in Ken Sharp’s 2010 book, Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy, and by all accounts the sessions were upbeat, with Lennon in particularly high spirits and thrilled to be making music once again.

The Lennons began fielding offers from various and sundry record labels, including one from upstart UK indie Stiff Records for a whopping $5,000, which gave Lennon a good chuckle. Lennon reportedly wanted to better the record-setting multi-million dollar deal that Paul McCartney had signed with Columbia Records, but in the end, the couple signed with the then-fledgling Geffen Records. “I thought the way David got that deal was brilliant,” Double Fantasy producer Jack Douglas said. “He didn’t give John the same deal as Paul was getting at Columbia because Geffen Records was just a start-up company. But he said something absolutely brilliant that got him the deal: ‘I’m not only getting one great artist, I’m getting two’.  Brilliant.  And he absolutely believed it. The rest of the labels were only interested in John, and Yoko was a side thing.”

The album’s first single, John’s ‘50s-flavored “(Just Like) Starting Over,” was released in late October 1980, three weeks in advance of the album. Lennon pulled out what he called his “Elvis Orbison” voice for the tune and told Rolling Stone, “I’m a born-again rocker; I feel that refreshed, and I’m going right back to my roots.” He also told the BBC two days before his death that while other Double Fantasy cuts may have been stronger, “Starting Over” was the best way to, well, start over.

Upon the single and album’s release there was a blitzkrieg of press, including extensive interviews with Lennon and Ono in publications such as Newsweek, Rolling Stone and Playboy, with Lennon expounding on everything from the current state of music (“It’s okay to like the Beatles, but dig Queen or Clash and what’s going on now”) to his time with the Fab Four.  He sounded like a man who had made peace with his often turbulent past and seemed excited about the future, which made the horrific events of December 8, 1980 all the more heartbreaking.

What often tends to get lost in the tragedy, though, is how strong an album Double Fantasy is. Subtitled “A Heart Play,” Lennon and Ono’s tracks were alternated on the record, and quite often one song was an “answer” to the number preceding it (ie, Lennon’s stark, powerful “I’m Losing You” was followed by Ono’s howling “I’m Moving On”). For the most part it’s a kinder, gentler John Lennon, with loving odes to Yoko (the sweetly romantic “Woman” and the peppy, Buddy Holly-ish “Dear Yoko”) and Sean (the moving “Beautiful Boy,” which features echoes of both traditional Japanese music and swaying island sounds) among the album’s finest tracks.

Even the pundits who disliked the record’s “adult” themes (love, home, family) agreed that it was great to have John Lennon back in the game. And – to the surprise of many – Yoko’s tracks were quite strong and highly accessible, to boot. The danceable “Kiss Kiss Kiss” sounds not unlike something the B-52’s could have worked up, “Beautiful Boys” is a haunting ballad and “Yes, I’m Your Angel” could have leapt off the soundtrack to a Disney movie (and it bore a strong resemblance to the 1920s standard “Makin’ Whoopee”).

Although certainly not intended as such, it was a grand final statement from two true originals. Double Fantasy, already in the top 10 at the time of Lennon’s untimely death, went on to reach number one on the Billboard album charts and also spawned three top 10 singles in the US and two number ones in the UK. Paul McCartney’s first full-length effort following Lennon’s death, 1982’s Tug of War, featured a tear jerking tribute to Lennon titled “Here Today.” Tug of War went to number one on both sides of the pond, while George Harrison’s 1981 single “All Those Years Ago” (a loving, if somewhat clumsy tribute to Lennon featuring vocal and instrumental assistance from Paul and Linda McCartney and Ringo Starr) was his highest charting single in eight years.

Although assisted by a tragedy, Double Fantasy not only brought John Lennon back to the top of the charts, it had a trickle down effect on his former mates.

 

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