In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It’s the single most iconic image of the Beatles’ early days, or maybe of the band’s entire existence. Four young men — grinning and bemused, slightly nervous but mostly pleased with their own ability to whip up this kind of reaction — go careening down a city sidewalk. A tidal wave of hormones follows. Most, but not all, of the fans who go chasing them are girls. They scream and cry, and they’re just as happy and bemused as the actual Beatles. The point doesn’t seem to be catching the Beatles. Because what would they do if they caught them? Instead, it’s to take part in that same moment, that same generational feeling of excitement. The Beatles are there to summon that feeling, to channel it. They’re almost incidental to it.
The reason we got to see that moment at all — or at least, that we got to see it captured with such clarity and energy — comes down to a whole string of backroom machinations. The Beatles wanted more money, and they were also pissed at Capitol Records for taking so long to start releasing their records in America. There was a contract loophole that they could release soundtrack albums on another label. So United Artists signed the band to a three-movie deal. The movies existed just so that United Artists Records could sell the soundtrack albums. That first movie, A Hard Day’s Night, was only made as a technicality; there had to be a movie for there to be the soundtrack album. It’s the same mentality that leads studios to crank out shitty superhero movies these days, just to keep the rights to the characters.
Of course, A Hard Day’s Night surprised everyone by being a classic fucking movie. Director Richard Lester captured the excitement of that initial wave of Beatlemania, and he also captured the personalities of all four Beatles, putting them through silly comedic routines and letting them react to all the insanity erupting around them. The movie itself has the same energy as the records. Ringo Starr unexpectedly does a lot of the dramatic heavy lifting, but the drama isn’t the point. It’s a movie that’s content to bask in its stars, at the moment when they were suddenly at peak cultural saturation point, when their charm was enough to dim the sun.
The movie had a title before the song did. “A hard day’s night” was a goofy thing that Ringo had said after an all-night recording session — a sort of Yogi Berra malapropism that the rest of the band thought was funny. Richard Lester made that the movie’s title, and he told John Lennon that he needed a song with the same name. So Lennon knocked it out in a single day. (It’s credited to Lennon and McCartney, and McCartney may have contributed a bit, but it’s mostly Lennon’s.) And the song fucking rips. The Beatles scored six #1 hits in America in 1964, and they’re all great songs. “A Hard Day’s Night” is the best.
“A Hard Day’s Night” has complicated things going on, but they’re things you don’t necessarily notice when you’re hearing it. What you’re hearing is the hurtling, exploding energy. All the sharp little moments in the song are there to serve that energy: the echoing guitar chord that opens the song, the relentless cowbells, the doubled-up snarl in the vocals, the way McCartney hits the high notes on the bridge. The guitar solo — George Harrison playing chiming, alien notes on the brand-new 12-string Rickenbabaker — introduces a whole new melody and then gets out after a couple of bars. Even the ending is perfect: a spaced-out folk-guitar figure with nothing to do with the rest of the song.
The song — and that opening guitar note — is what kicks off the Beatles’ cinematic career, and the images of the band running away from those fans are totally inextricable from the song itself. The best thing you can say about the movie — which is basically an accidental masterpiece — is that it manages to keep that same energy for 87 minutes.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Otis Redding’s feverish live cover of “A Hard Day’s Night”: