A Hard Day’s Night is a film in which the Beatles always seem to be on high alert to provide the next copious outlay of energy. The energy isn’t forced, but it palpitates, comes at you in waves with scant distance from crest to crest—that is, there’s not much in the manner of troughs. The Beatles’ music was always this way. The higher the energy quotient, the better it was.
There’s an energy to “Twist and Shout” the same as there is to “Yesterday.” It’s not a matter of tempo or volume—rather, the discernible and obvious surge of life that a piece has.
In the movie, Beatles are riding along on the train in a car far off from the rest of the traveling crowd, with boxes and baggage stacked around them, flirting with some girls, when we get a jump cut—while remaining in the scene—and all of a sudden, the lads not only have their instruments out, but appear to already be deep in a song that in actuality has only just started.
That song is “I Should Have Known Better,” which to my ears best represents the sound of the early Beatles. This is them: the hooks, the harmonies, the thrilling lead vocal—complete with two examples of John Lennon’s falsetto (the first gloriously single-tracked)—the melody, the verve, that energy.
Lennon plays a harmonica on the track as euphonically as you will hear someone play the instrument—it’s the unclouded horizon version of the borderless golden sunshine of the major key. The harmonica provides the bounce and the hook. The setting is appropriate—this ramshackle, quaint, loosely-organized back corridor of the train. The playfulness of the jump cut, the instant appearance of the instruments, has an element of French filmmaker Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, but the rest of it smacks of skiffle. Anyone can do it, anyone can join, so join us, the Beatles of this scene seem to gesture and indicate in a manner which we cannot miss.
A Hard Day’s Night is the one Beatles LP on which skiffle is in ample evidence. Please Please Me was the covers album, an approximation of the nightly live act, topped with several original compositions. With the Beatles acted as a foray into English rhythm and blues. But when John Lennon and Paul McCartney had to write a record comprised of only their own songs, they turned back to skiffle roots.
The songs of A Hard Day’s Night have a built-up, even blocky sensibility of being made to possess myriad parts, composited together. Lennon’s acoustic guitar drives the band as if it were a lustily-strummed washboard.
The record begins with the most famous chord—and one jolted through with electricity at that—in all of popular music, but the “Do we have any instrument in the shed we can play?” attitude, expressed in an accompanying acoustic tonality, is the sound of A Hard Day’s Night. The ex-Quarrymen members must have heard something of their rougher racket in what these globe-conquering Beatles were now doing.
There’s a homemade aspect in the sound, if not the actual songwriting. We also have a lot of harmonica, which itself is a very skiffle-centric type of instrument. I believe the harmonica provided a degree of comfort to the Beatles, as well as serving as a reminder that they were being their true selves. Theirs was a self-made sound, without musical schooling or formal lessons beyond those provided by the records of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Carl Perkins, among many others, of which the Beatles were rightly proud—proud and protective.
It’s for these reasons that I’ve always had a special affection for their first single, “Love Me Do,” which was released in October 1962, and was what would have been much on the lips of the Beatles during their conversations of the last portion of that year.
They beamed that it was their first hit—reaching number 17 in the charts, largely because manager Brian Epstein bought up so many copies—and regretted that they were missing out on the action back home—the presumed afterglow of landing a hit—by having to go to Hamburg for a final time.
Those Hamburg recordings are to be treasured. I’m often taken aback by how few people—even Beatles people—appear to realize that we have a lot of music of the Beatles playing a club at Christmas, referencing the season, hanging out, cracking jokes, and showing—now that Ringo Starr was in the drummer’s chair—that they had arrived as the band that was going to rock the world. Starr had only been with the group since August; that last Reeperbahn stint helped make them what they needed to be to have the impact they did.
The existence of those Star Club recordings always hits me like a reality that’s just too good to be true save that I can listen and experience that reality, whereas “Love Me Do” is the song that is more than it ought to be. Consider the title. Love me do? The language mirrors a crisp, highly class conscious, English form of conversation, more the province of an older woman in society than a Beatle. “Please pour me some more tea, do,” is the construction. The Beatles merely omit the comma. "Do" is not a play on “too”—it’s a polite directive. Not exactly hell-for-leather rock and roll stuff.
There was a lot of Mitch Murray in the air for the Beatles during the period of mid-1962, until they nailed the peppier version of “Please Please Me,” an improvement with readily apparent hit potential over the slower, Roy Orbison-style original version. Murray was the writer of “How Do You Do It,” the number the Beatles begrudgingly cut at producer George Martin’s request. He wanted that polish; they wanted to be true to themselves lose face before they’d even started.
The Murray song would have been like a particularly slick ghost haunting the Beatles, who wished to be their own men on the march, not representatives of someone else’s polish. Gerry and the Pacemakers would have no problem accepting the Murray offering—and it is a sprightly tune—but Mr. Marsden and crew were a different kettle of Irish Sea fish than the Beatles, who were a band with a distinct code of aesthetic duty and conduct.
They had strictures about not selling sell out, nor allowing themselves to be perceived as what they thought of as soft, insofar as their music went. Whether they sold out by exchanging their leather garb for matching suits and playing the somewhat-cheeky but mostly-cute teenybopper icon roles isn’t relevant to a band for whom the music was everything. Or perhaps I should put it this way—without the music, there was nothing.
You do something that you were born to do for the first time—in an official capacity—and you want it to matter as both a work and an indication of what you, the artist, are about. Be it book, film, single. The Beatles were chauvinists during their time together, products of how men thought about themselves as men in the post-war north of England. They were carrying forward traditions of expectations that didn’t exactly advocate for balanced, equitable human advancement in which men and women were equals.
One wished to appear tough, but what was Beatles-based toughness really? In their personal lives, women had a lesser role, with marching orders of subjugation in ample evidence, but these same men loved girl group music and covered a great deal of it. There is a huge divide between Beatles beliefs as carried out at home, away from the recording studio, and the human beliefs that the Beatles espoused in their music.
They had no problem, for example, with the pronouns of the Shirelles' “Boys,” which you couldn’t very well change if you were to cover the song, and if someone wanted to cite the homosexual overtones of the Beatles’ version, I’d not quibble, and I think it’s rather neat. I don’t think they would have cared—they just loved the music.
So traditional attitudes of male toughness weren’t what the Beatles thought of as actually being tough in their art. Rather, Beatles-based strength was a matter of being one’s authentic self. Liking what one truly liked and without pause or second guess, and celebrating that affection.
They had to do “Love Me Do” over “How Do You Do It,” because “Love Me Do” was who they were as the young men who rode on buses, cut school to smoke and listen to Elvis, played in skiffle bands, taught themselves various instruments, and applied an amateur’s approach to music-making as they were evolving into autodidact wizards of songwriting. But first, there was this initial single, which is tantamount to a statement of identity. We cannot overstate its importance. A law was laid down, from the first commercially released musical expression.
The lyrics are sub-banal. We make jokes about lyrics heavy on moon-in-June folderol, but “Love, love me do, you know I love you,” makes the former look downright Keatsian. This matters not a jot, because that weird, wonderful Beatles alchemy is at play here from the very first.
The lyrics are less words and more part of a sound design, for “Love Me Do” is a considered—and considerable—sonic statement. We are beholding sound as the persona of a collective put in audible evidence. As more than a song. You can call it a single, but it’s also a way of being, musically-speaking.
The nominal subject matter—which is twee—is ancillary, the way that the loosely adumbrated bridge you’re looking at in a work of Abstract Expressionism isn’t the point of the painting or the time you spend with it. The Beatles are paradoxically representing themselves by treating a song as an exercise in nonrepresentational art. Look past the bridge, and behold how the colors play off of each other, what the lineal tracery reveals in its dialogue with negative space, a creased vein of impasto, a rough square of exposed blank canvas.