The first sound that comes from all of this is the first sound of pop music. The opening chord of the whole thing. One twelve-string Rickenbacker 360 guitar played by George Harrison. One Hofner violin bass played by Paul McCartney. A Gibson J-160 six-string guitar played by John Lennon. Somewhere a drum played by Ringo Starr. Even a Steinway piano chord played by George Martin. All at once. One big, bold, brash chord.
Well, there is no word for it. It just is. Three seconds of isolated music that project repressed energy, bursting into the open world with one joyous push. Everything before it was preparation – the Beatles’ early records, which were attempts to master old standards and set new directions from those launching points; Phil Spector and his loud but clean Wall of Sound; Elvis and his fake blackness strutting around in a not-so-free society; and all the blues and R&B and hokey rock ‘n’ roll left in the dust. What the Beatles did with three seconds, with one chord, one stunning, shimmering, angular chord, was create an entirely new world.
This is a world your father loves. This is the world that has Bowie and Zeppelin, Michael and Madonna, and Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. All of it points to the moment the Beatles played one magical chord, something like a G7sus4/A.
“Great,” you’re saying. Then again, you’ve just been born, which means you’re not saying anything. But stay with me on this.
“Great,” you’re saying, “my dad is one of these people, always waxing his weak philosophy on everything he can handle.”
Yes, true, that is me. It’s a curse. I believe we should learn and explain things. Probably too many things. So, in advance, because I won’t do this again: I’m sorry.
You’ve just been born. You’re beautiful. I’m overcome with elation because you’re here, and I can look into your eyes and watch you blink and fidget and know that your mother and I made you, that you are a product of our everlasting love for each other. There is nothing in this wide, wonderful world like you, and there never will be anything like you again. Welcome.
Each year, for the first fifty-two years of your life, you will read a new letter from me. I am writing these letters over the course of one year, 2016, with the hopes that you better understand why I find certain pieces of music necessary to the human condition. So for each year there is a new album.
(And just to define this, in case this starts too late and the word is defunct: an album is a collection of songs from a singular musician or artist. Originally albums were fit on vinyl records, which allowed for a specific amount of music before it couldn’t handle anymore. So earlier albums only had maybe ten or twelve songs. Audio recording improvements meant we could hear music in new forms: the 8-track player, the cassette tape, then the compact disc. I was born during the age of the cassette and collected many compact discs as a child and teenager.
Chances are albums will still be around when you’re old enough to read these. So the point is this: the finest albums ever made had a lot of great songs on them. Sometimes musicians would write songs with a singular theme. Sometimes musicians would release albums of multiple vinyl records or compact discs, simply to have more songs on the album. Those things are double albums, even triple albums. More on those later.
In 2016, as I’m writing this, the album is still in vogue but not as necessary. Musicians now release songs by themselves, usually over the internet, sometimes on streaming services. But most musicians still release albums, as they’re a great way to get many songs in one place.)
What I hope to do is, with each year of your life, introduce to you a new album that echoes or responds to some of the feelings you may have at that moment. But the very early albums I choose to write to you about will be more about sound, and how it can bring happiness to you. Your mother and I want to surround you with wonderful, happy music as a young child. “A Hard Day’s Night,” by the Beatles, is one of the most wonderful and happy albums I know. And I simply adore it.
So since you are young and may not know the score here, the Beatles are one of the greatest things to ever happen to music. Of all the musicians that play guitar and drum, and that sing pop songs, the Beatles were and still are the best. They began in the early 1960s and ended in 1970, which means they predate me and your mother. But you will hear the Beatles quite a lot. Everyone knows the Beatles, and just about everyone loves the Beatles. Hopefully you will love the Beatles, too.
“A Hard Day’s Night” was their third proper album, after 1963’s “Please Please Me” and “With the Beatles,” both released in the Beatles’ home country of England. In the United States the Beatles’ albums were a little different. But “A Hard Day’s Night” for both England and the United States has most of the same songs. I’ll write about the England version here, though, because that’s the accepted popular version.
Also, “A Hard Day’s Night” was a soundtrack, which means it featured music included in a movie. In this case it was the Beatles’ first movie, also titled “A Hard Day’s Night.” The Beatles were immensely popular worldwide by 1964, so having them act in a movie was a smart decision. The more the Beatles are seen and heard, the better.
The movie opens the same way the album does: BLAEEEEEEEEEEE!
That chord again. In the film it blasts the Beatles onto a London street, where they’re running from screaming girls who want only to be near the band. To see the four electric boys galloping madly in black-and-white is absolutely incredible, and it’s a landmark scene in filmmaking. In music, that chord is even bigger.
Understand that before that chord, the Beatles mostly presented great but structured, original pop songs like “Love Me Do,” “All My Loving” and “She Loves You.” The songs certainly had energy, but the energy filled the space of the rhythm instead of breaking through it. Their covers allowed them to experiment a bit more, but the wild “Twist and Shout,” maybe their best cover to date, was a demand for respect. “A Hard Day’s Night” is visceral. It knocks down the door.
And before the Beatles the music was straight and tidy. The girls who sang above Phil Spector’s dizzying rhythms never outshone the rigid template the crazy producer laid down. Even Elvis Presley, who appropriated black rhythm and blues for a broader white audience, kept a relatively homogenized sound. So to hear an opening chord like that of “A Hard Day’s Night,” to ingest the jarring nature of the moment, juxtaposed with the rollicking, rambunctious rhythm of the song, is to hear a seismic shift in youth’s influence on music. And thus, pop music is born.
Now I understand that the entire analysis above is probably voluble, but again, that’s me, your father. And I also understand, again, that I’m giving you this ridiculous essay when you’re a newborn. Come back to the words in a few years. You can hear the music now.
Hear the rolling drums of “Tell Me Why,” coupled with the song’s parallel harmonies and the shuffle beat’s quick turns. This song always makes me smile. I especially love when John and Paul climb the ladder and sing “If there’s anything that I can do!” I plan to sing this song to you, including the challenging falsetto, during playful moments. It kind of reminds me of your grandfather singing “mashed potato!” to me when I was a toddler.
And I’m sure your mother and I will be singing “Can’t Buy Me Love” to you frequently. The band just kicks! And Paul – who you’ll be learning is your father’s favorite musician ever – sings this perfectly bopping vocal with tons of spirit and soul. Plenty musicians in the 1960s could sing, but few rock ‘n’ roll musicians could sing with the kind of gravelly soul that Paul kept in his chest back then.
The key to “A Hard Day’s Night” is that nearly every song clocks in at under two-and-a-half minutes, meaning they’re short, simple tunes that pack plenty of punch. There’s a real shuffle to a lot of the songs (the harmonica of “I Should Have Known Better”!), so you can dance to them or just bob your head from one place to another. The songs keep a smile on your face. And yet, despite the brevity of the music, and despite the temptation to fit into very rigid templates throughout the album, the Beatles ensure each song has its own spirit and image. I mean, I suppose “When I Get Home” and “You Can’t Do That” approach repetition, but you can easily separate the two. And they’re still good songs.
“A Hard Day’s Night” has a couple quieter songs, which is nice because a newborn needs some down time.
I don’t know if I’ll ever sing “If I Fell” to you, but I hope that when you get older, you listen very intently to the vocal harmonies between John and Paul. Paul sings the melody, then leaps to the high harmony in the important spots, while John sings the countermelody and plays morose. That’s the two of them at their restrained best, singing this very fragile love song. It’s quite gorgeous.
As is “And I Love Her.” With George’s 1964 Jose Ramirez Guitarra de Estudio classical guitar, and Ringo’s bongos and claves, it has an obvious Latin sound. But it’s not showy. It’s a very brittle song about a very new and explorative love. And Paul’s vocal is very strong and in front, but also tender. Such a complex song in such a short running time.
“Things We Said Today” is a more literate, moody song, but the bridge – which comes twice in the song – is superb, exploding in a space that quickly dissolves back to the verse. It’s a masterclass in changing dynamics – from minor to major – in less than three minutes. It’s one of my favorite songs, though I’ll say that about a lot of songs through the years.
And “I’ll Be Back” is too mature for you right now, but it’s such a beautiful end to the album. Switching between minor and major chords, it’s a melancholy folk rocker with strong harmonies and a yearning vocal from John. But it’s so very pretty. Store this away for later in your life.
Now, one note on a few of these songs – most specifically “A Hard Day’s Night,” “You Can’t Do That,” and less specifically many of John’s early songs: he clearly struggles with how to show respect to women. This actually manifested itself in John’s real life relationships, so it’s important to know that not everything he (or anyone by that matter) sings is gospel.
Like many of the Beatles songs, I heard some of “A Hard Day’s Night” as a kid, on the radio or in public or wherever the Beatles may have been playing. They’re ubiquitous. Sometimes you’ll think the song is something completely different, but it’s actually the Beatles. And here’s a confession: I didn’t really like the Beatles early on. Then a high school classmate of mine would sing the Beatles to me all the time. At first I found it grating, but she endeared herself to me and I started liking the Beatles a lot, too. At some point during my high school years I listened to all of the Beatles albums, and “A Hard Day’s Night” was always, consistently, one of my favorites. Later, I bought the movie “A Hard Day’s Night.” When you’re the right age, we’ll all watch it together.
Maybe you’ll know all the songs by then. Hopefully you’ll like them, and find them as perfectly joyous as I found them so many years ago.