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notes on ...

Notes on "A Hard Day's Night"


Notes on ... Series #49 (AHDN)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: G Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Verse | Bridge | Verse |
                  | Verse  (solo) | Bridge | Verse | Outro (fade-out)
        CD: "A Hard Day's Night", Track 1 (Parlophone CDP7 46437-2)
  Recorded: 16th April 1964, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 10th July 1964 (A Single / "Things We Said Today")
US-release: 26th June 1964 (LP "A Hard Day's Night")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note Though much less directly blues-derived than either "Can't Buy Me Love" or "You Can't Do That", "A Hard Day's Night" bears close comparison to both of those songs. At the very least, all three of them share the same long form, with two bridges and an instrumental break. Of course, the more interesting connection is the manner in which "A Hard Day's Night" takes one step further the concept, seen in the other two songs, of a style borne of the fusion between traditional blues elements and those more recognizable as the Beatles' own trademarks.
  Next note There's a bonafide trend to be charted here: "Can't Buy Me Love" had a verse section that was close to pure blues in form, chord progression and melody. "You Can't Do That" retained the blues form and the chord progression, but its melody already had wavered between the minor and Major third. In "A Hard Day's Night", only the twelve-bar length and AAB phrasing of the blues remains along with some of the minor third melodic flavor, but the rest had long since gone the way of Lennon and McCartney.
  Next note "A Hard Day's Night" is a particularly forward-looking song as well. Aside from several innovations in the area of harmony and arrangement, its rhythmic resources make an especially strong contribution. As we'll see during our walk-through, behind the generally energetic and syncopated bustle that appears on the surface, there is also a great deal of forward thrust generated here by the way the music, on an almost subliminal level, toys around with surprising stop-and-go contrasts of pace and activity.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The verse features notable emphasis on the bluesy melodic flat seventh, but with the exception of the closing phrase ("feel allright"), the melodic third is clearly Major, rather than minor. By contrast, the bridge is entirely in the Major mode. All this, by the way, is very similar to what we saw in the melody of "You Can't Do That".
  Next note Overall, the words are patter-scanned with one note per syllable. However, in contrast, there are many long-sustained notes which jut out of the tune on a paradoxically frequent but irregular basis. The verse, in particular, contains an unusually large number of different rhythmic values, all the way from half to sixteenth notes, and a steady stream of syncopations; I'd spell it out further but without music paper it's just too tedious.
  Next note The song is firmly in the key of G Major, though the bridge presents a short-lived and weakly established excursion to the unusual key of iii (b minor).
  Next note With the obvious exception of the opening/closing sonority, the choice of chords is familiar. Although the Beatles had already used the flat-VII chord on few songs that pre-date this one (e.g. "P.S. I Love You", "Don't Bother Me", and "All My Loving"), its appearance here is still a notably early example of its employment.
  Next note A couple of dissonant clashes between the tune and the chords are continually reiterated. In the verse, the melodic note D appears first as a ninth against the C-Major chord (as on the word "days" of the opening line) and later as an added-sixth against the F-Major chord (as on the syllable "wor" in "working", and on the word "like"). Similarly in the bridge, the melodic note A clashes as an added-sixth against the C-Major chord on the word "tight" (you should pardon the expression.) These all pass you by quickly, but on a subtle level the very casualness with which such dissonance is used adds a characterizingly "slang" flavor to the song's overall musical vocabulary.


  Next note Alas, even the mono CD mix of this song has a fake-stereo-like high level of fuzziness to it, though it does have the curious property that if you turn it up loud enough, it begins to feel like a wall of sound. For those who have ever bemoaned this fact, the roughly executed but clearly recorded early outtakes are a revelation.
  Next note The wall of sound effect is partly the result of the drumming style being kept unvaried throughout. With the minor exception of some added four-in-the-bar beating on a cowbell during the bridges, we have wall to wall thumping on drums and cymbals in place of the sort of drum fills and texture changes we're more used to hearing Ringo employ to differentiate formal sections. Instead of creating a "problem", this monolithic approach to percussion here actually adds to the steam-rolling thrust of the song.
  Next note Joking aside, this is very much the song in which the characteristic sound of George's twelve-string guitar would establish itself. Its appearance in the opening and closing chords, as well as the manner in which it is doubled with electric piano in the solo section are among the more instantaneously recognizable sound bites in all of popular music.
  Next note John and Paul's vocals employ the familiar double-tracking throughout, but their arrangement itself features a novel gambit. John takes most of the verse as a solo, and ditto for Paul with the bridge. The first half of the verse's closing phrase, though, is done up as a duet in parallel thirds on an unusual downward chromatic run; a gesture that mediates nicely between the alternating solo passages.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note That chord, (bang!), eh? Its great effect is not only related to the pitch content, but to the sudden, crisp attack as well. Wake me up from the dead of sleep many years hence and play it for me by itself out of context, and not only do I trust I'll be able to identify it immediately, but also summon with close to total recall just how it shot through my consciousness the very first time I heard it as a mere not-so-pimply adolescent.
  Next note I've seen better people than myself argue (and in public, no less) about the exact guitar voicing of this chord and I'll stay out of that question for now (what a cop-out, Alan!), and merely state that its sonority is akin to a superimposition of the chords of d-minor, F-Major, and G-Major; i.e. it contains the notes D, F, A, C, and G — to my ears, only the B is missing. Even if you don't know a thing about harmony or musical dictation, you can at least hear the G as a suspended fourth over the D on the bottom. Hullaballoo aside, this chord functions as a surrogate dominant (i.e. V) with respect to the chord on G which begins the first verse.
  Next note As a formal section, this intro is precisely two measures long and is played "in tempo"; check out take 7 before which John explains to the others how he'll "tap toe" through the long pause that follows the opening chord so the others know when to come in. This pause, by the way, is the first example here of how suspense and a sense of rising expectation is created by a change of pace. A large part of this specific effect is the surprise factor, especially as you experience it at the beginning of the film or the album. When the song is literally announced as in a concert ("and now we're gonna play "A Hard Day's Night" ...") the effect simply doesn't work as well.


  Next note Although the twelve-bar blues chord progression is not used here, this verse in section is still twelve measures long and built out of three phrases equal in length that form an AAB poetic pattern (actually, quite similar to "I Want To Hold Your Hand"):
   mm. 1 - 4, 5 - 8
        ------------------------- 2X --------------------------
       |G     C      |G            |F            |G            |
    G:  I     IV      I             flat-VII      I

   mm. 9 - 12
       |C            |D            |G     C      |G            |
        IV            V             I     IV      V

   [Figure 49.1]
  Next note The overall harmonic shape is closed and rather static. The appearance of an "official" V -» I cadence is delayed until the third phrase, but well before then, the G chord has been confirmed as the I of the home key several times over by the gentler, less formal means of the IV and flat-VII chords. The manner in which the first two phrases of the tune seem so firmly centered on the note D provides an additional source of stasis.
  Next note A couple of factors work at pleasing cross-currents to the static harmony and melody and help lend some shape and sense of direction to the verse; e.g. the syncopated stress and sustained duration given to the melodic F-naturals in measures 3 and 7, and the holding out of the melodic climax until measure 10 where it is embellished by the brief duet of the two singers.


  Next note The bridge is eight measures long and built out of two phrases equal in length and parallel in melodic shape:
      |b      |e      |b      |-      |
   G:  iii     vi      iii
  (b:  i       iv      i??)

      |G      |e      |C      |D      ||
       I       vi      IV      V

   [Figure 49.2]
  Next note The first phrase presents a half-hearted modulation to the key of b minor. The new key is never formally established by any kind of dominant -» tonic (V -» I) cadence but for an instant, one surely hears the b -» e -» b chord progression as though it were i -» iv -» i in the key of b. Of course, all this is all straightened out in the second phrase where G is quickly re-established as the home key via one of our favorite rock cliché chord progressions.
  Next note Some free associations with "You Can't Do That" are unavoidable. Note the way in which the bridge opens with a dramatically sustained melodic note (on the word "home" — the longest single duration in the whole song) that is followed by a resumption of a chattier rhythm. The heavy emphasis on B and E chords in both bridges is also striking though it should be pointed out that in the each of the two songs, the chords are to be interpreted in the opposite ways. In "You Can't Do That", the modulation was to e and the B-Major chord sounded like its V chord; here, it is b-minor that sounds like the key to which the modulation has taken place, and the e chord sounds like its iv.
  Next note As ever, we continue to find new examples in the active avoidance of so-called foolish consistency in the creation of small variations: here, the completion of Paul's solo and the return to John's vocal at the end of the first bridge is neatly spliced end-to-end but with virtually no overlap, whereas in the repeat of the bridge, John goes out of his way to create a small spontaneous-sounding overlap by coming in a beat or so early moaning the phoneme, "Oh ..."; I call it spontaneous sounding because the effect appears as early as takes 3 and 7.


  Next note The solo is melodically unconventional yet very bluesy at the same time. The nervous and frequent changes of rhythmic values seen earlier ripen into what borders on the spasmodic at this point. Indeed, am I the only one who hears the execution of measures 3 and 7 of this solo as sounding "impossibly" fast?
  Next note Formally, we have the sort of "semi-solo" we first saw back in "From Me To You", where the instrumental is abandoned in the final phrase of the section in favor of a refrain-like reprise of the vocals heard in other iterations of the verse.


  Next note The outro starts of with their trademark powering-down triple-repeat of the last half-phrase of the final verse, but it ends off enigmatically on virtually the same chord with which the song began. This parallelism by itself provides some unity to the song overall, but still, the use of a non-I chord ending is unusual, and at the time, was virtually unprecedented in a rock song; indeed, non-I openings, while by no means nearly as rare, were themselves still unusual.
  Next note Although the chordal outlines played gently into the fade-out by the lead guitar have none of the commanding impact of the opening chord, the effect at the end is, in its own way, just as suspenseful as the opening. In the film it effectively bridges the gap between opening credits and first scene.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note The lyrics are far from epochal or even merely profound. As touched as you might allow yourself to be by the hero's profession of loving gratitude and affectation of the working class hero, you just as easily might be made a little uneasy by his faint air of condescending chauvinism.
  Next note Beyond a point it doesn't really matter, though. Based on "only" music and exuberant mood alone "if necessary", the song "A Hard Day's Night" arguably holds a place within the uppermost echelon of the Beatles' catalog. And in contrast to the historical subtleties of the "Long Tall Sally" EP, it is very much along what I've described as the indigenous stylistic path of the group.
  Next note Even if you had somehow missed them on Ed Sullivan, or if perhaps you had seen them on Ed's show yet their impact somehow missed you (you dour old curmudgeon), it would have become increasingly, if not impossibly, difficult to ignore the Beatles once the likes of this song and its associated film came on the scene.
  Next note Even my neighbor Fred (yes, that Fred) confided to me once in a moment of exquisite vulnerability that although his parents had taken him abroad on holiday during the summer of 1964, a vacation during which he was protectively sheltered from the deleterious influence of Top-40 AM radio, that when he returned to our shores in the early fall, upon hearing our title song, even he now knew the Beatles were onto Something New.
  Alan (021792#49)
Copyright © 1992 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.