A Hard Day’s Night the film – and “A Hard Day’s Night” the song – is arguably the moment when The Beatles became THE BEATLES, when the band proved itself smart and imaginative and indisputably superior to its teen pop peers. The film in particular drew critical attention in a way that the band’s previous singles hadn’t. Rock journalism was in utero, and mainstream pop writers were still suspicious of Beatlemania. But film critics could easily position A Hard Day’s Night alongside other recent European imports: the clever absurdity of the Ealing Comedies, the cinema-vérité of the British kitchen sink drama, the fast cutting and low-budget panache of the French New Wave. In a landscape dominated by quickie teenybopper cash-ins and Elvis’s cinematic slide into self-parodic irrelevance, A Hard Day’s Night was Dada, droll, almost highbrow – “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals,” Andrew Sarris wrote in the Village Voice (Aug. 27, 1964). Even those initially reluctant to embrace The Beatles’ music were swayed. “My critical theories and preconceptions are all shook up,” Sarris added, “and I am profoundly grateful to The Beatles for such pleasurable softening of hardening aesthetic arteries.” No longer were The Beatles strictly fodder for teenagers and fad marketers. Now they had legitimate artistic cachet.
The Beatles’ newfound adult audience was paralleled by the band’s rapid lyrical maturation. Within a few months, The Beatles had progressed from holding hands to cohabitation. Mysterious adult impulses only hinted at by the harmonica in “Love Me Do” became explicit in John Lennon’s lascivious delivery of “make me feel aaaaaall right.” But “A Hard Day’s Night” also addresses the other thing separating adults from kids: work. The song’s setting shares little with the adolescent drag races of “I Get Around” or the noblesse oblige of “Rag Doll.” With just a few phrases, “A Hard Day’s Night” paints a realistic picture familiar to millions of listeners who slaved all day only to crash at home. It’s a lifestyle reflected contemporaneously in the literature of Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne, and it’s the kind of life The Beatles themselves would have been stuck in had they never left Liverpool. What it isn’t is a teen idol romantic fantasy.
Even discounting the lyrics, “A Hard Day’s Night” is an astonishing leap forward. George Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker and Ringo Starr’s cowbell invent the vocabulary of folk rock, long before the group’s dabble with Dylanate acoustic folk. Yet the record’s sound is also more aggressive than any previous Beatles single, propelled by the Lennon-McCartney vocal tug-of-war and George Martin’s taut, aerodynamic production. The record’s muscular sound complements the depiction of a worldview driven by work and lust. The lightning tempo, Lennon’s snarling vocals, that yowl right before the guitar solo – these would continue to be emulated by countless garage punk bands through the ‘60s and beyond.
Compared with the rest of the Hot 100 in 1964, the early Beatles singles were the proverbial breath of fresh air in a pop chart grown musty with toothless, overproduced rock and roll. But “A Hard Day’s Night” – and A Hard Day’s Night – is even more so. While their rock and roll peers courted the mainstream by looking backward and outward, The Beatles pushed their sound forward, both in terms of experimentation and forcefulness. It’s the overlap between the tough and the charming, the gritty and the cerebral, where The Beatles came to define themselves and invent a new kind of rock and roll. 10
Hit #1 on August 1, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
114 of 985 #1’s reviewed; 11.57% through the Hot 100