Monday, April 7, 2014

Turn Left at Greenland, Part 4: ‘A Hard Day's Night' and 'Something New’

In this monthly feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been looking at how The Beatles were presented on long-playing vinyl in the United States.

How long could Beatlemania possibly last? Like most fads, not long…right? For every enduring hula-hoop there were 50 coon skin caps; for every Elvis Presley, 100 Fabians. Was there any reason to believe John, Paul, George, and Ringo would be the lucky four? Why believe those novelty wigs patterned on their absurd moptops would last any longer than the coon skin cap? Best not to waste a second cashing in or The Beatles’ moment would surely be up. A cash-in flick must be rushed into production. Get those Beatles up on the screen before they go the way of the Watusi.

Expectations were low. Elvis Presley’s movies certainly weren’t especially memorable. Directed by Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame, King Creole had a good degree of panache, but more recent pictures like Fun in Acapulco and Kissin’ Cousins weren’t exactly endearing Elvis to the greasy delinquents who’d crowned him the King of Rock & Roll.

Of course, The Beatles were not four Elvises. They didn’t seem to have it in them to make subpar product. The talent behind A Hard Day’s Night was first rate: the vibrant and experimental young American director Dick Lester, who’d so impressed the incorrigibly hard-to-please John Lennon with his short “Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film”, writer Alun Owen, who’d also won over the Fabs with his Liverpudlian teleplay No Trams to Lime Street, and a strong cast of British comedic actors. There was Wilfrid Brambell of “Steptoe and Son”, Norman Rossington of gritty dramas like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the daft Carry On comedies, and the wonderful Welsh multi-talent Victor Spinetti, who’d enjoy a fruitful relationship with The Beatles on film. And let’s not underplay The Beatles’ contributions to a film that ultimately rested on their shoulders: Paul, ever charming and expressing a degree of sneering cynicism at odds with his good boy persona, George, whose shrugging naturalism makes his meeting with a smarmy ad man one of the film’s most memorable scenes, John, whose flashes of signature madness (“My name’s Betty!”) make the whole thing seem spontaneous, anarchic, and Ringo, whose underplayed pathos raise the film above a mere larf, imbue it with genuine emotion, and signal that he might be the Beatle with a real film career ahead of him.

The apparently effortless brilliance of The Beatles’ screen work extended to the accompanying soundtrack. Released on July 10, 1964, A Hard Day’s Night was their first true masterpiece, housing thirteen wonderful new Lennon/McCartney tunes undiluted by the R&B covers that filled out their first two LPs. It is one of pop’s most thoroughly joyous records even as Lennon fully allows his cynicism to come to the fore of numerous tracks. The sounds, however, are consistently exhilarating. Several years before the LP became the primary Rock & Roll conveyance with the boys’ own Sgt. Pepper’s, they had already made a record that demanded to be left as is.

Not a chance. In fact, The Beatles’ finest early album received the shabbiest treatment imaginable. Please Please Me had merely lost a couple of tracks when Vee-Jay pruned it down to Introducing… The Beatles. With the Beatles was altered with a much heavier hand, but the resulting two albums—Meet The Beatles! and The Beatles Second Album—both had genuine merit in their own rights. The record released in the United States as A Hard Day’s Night was a completely different story. United Artists pictures distributed the film, and therefore, the company had dibs on the soundtrack. Whereas Parlophone’s album was split between the seven songs newly composed for the film and six additional fresh tracks, the UA record offered only the movie songs (plus an extended edit of “I’ll Cry Instead”, originally intended for the climactic romp scene, but Lester found it too grumpy and used “Can’t Buy Me Love” instead). Four pieces of George Martin’s incidental music occupied the rest of that valuable vinyl real estate, which meant legions of American Beatlemaniacs were left with a bigger drag than Susan Canby, that posh bird who gets everything wrong. Instead of receiving what was arguably the best pop album anyone had yet produced, they had a record that required a bit of needle lifting to get to the good stuff.

 The extended edit of “I’ll Cry Instead” was reinstated into A Hard Day’s Night on VHS over a newly created introductory montage.
Martin’s music isn’t terrible, but it is terribly dated. Each of his four soundtrack tracks are adaptations of Lennon/McCartney songs, each performed in a slightly different—though very un-Rock & Roll—style by a studio band. The title track is done as a sort of Dave Brubek pastiche with bursts of big band bombast. That latter style runs all the way through “I Should Have Known Better”. “This Boy” is the most egregious version, an exercise in elevator muzak retitled “Ringo’s Theme” because of its use during the drummer’s debauched “parading” in the film. When issued on 45, it managed to hit #53 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—and more appropriately #7 on the Middle-Road (now Adult Contemporary) one. The best of these road bumps is a loungy, moody, Nelson Riddle-esque take on “And I Love Her”, but it isn’t likely that many were happier with this than a proper Beatles song.

Just as the vinyl inside UA’s A Hard Day’s Night contained less Beatles than the Parlophone original, the cover was also comparatively Beatle deprived.

Depending on how you look at it, fans were either allowed a more appealing option or ripped off again less than a month later when Capitol decided UA had its fun and released Something New. This was quite an ironic title considering that half its tracks had been issued on A Hard Day’s Night. As inept as that album had been, it still went to number one and stayed there longer than any other album in 1964. Something New just missed that top spot, held at bay by—you guessed it—A Hard Day’s Night. This must have been one of the only times in Billboard history that the top two albums had so much material in common. One can imagine the disappointment of the kids who excitedly grabbed Something New out of the bin, plopped their five bucks on the counter, raced home, and dropped it on the turntable only to discover they already had most of these tunes.

The cover of Something New depicted The Beatles in their decisive cross-Atlantic moment: performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show”.

For those who hadn’t contributed to A Hard Day’s Night’s zoom up the charts, Something New was unquestionably the LP to get. Yes, it had to be augmented with the “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” singles to truly replace the United Artists album (both of them were #1 smashes, so this was a done deal for a lot of people anyway), and “Komm Gib Mir Deinde Hand”—“I Want to Hold Your Hand” sung in German—was pure filler, but the all-Beatles Something New was still an easy winner. In fact, it was the third non-compilation Beatles album I chose to buy (the first two being Sgt. Pepper’s and Abbey Road, incidentally). I convinced my mother—an original Beatlemaniac who’d seen them at Shea and passed her copy of Meet The Beatles! down to me—to give me a ride to the Pathmark supermarket, which had a small but decent record department, by agreeing to release a garter snake I’d caught in our backyard. She was scared of snakes, and I was a little shit.

Who knows which record purchases this garter snake assisted?

For the record buyers of the sixties, Something New was also overkill. Released a bit beyond 1964’s halfway mark, the year had already seen four new Beatles albums before it. Beatlemania was in danger of bankrupting the kids who saved their pennies and dimes to purchase every new record. Fortunately, theyd get a breather, and a new real Beatles album (as distinct from the cash cow that was Capitol’s double-disc documentary The Beatles Story) would not appear until so late in 1964 that it’s title portended the year to come.
Aside from a plethora of A Hard Day’s Night tracks and a song recorded to thank Germany for being such a primo audience in the Hamburg days, Something New contained the two tracks from the “Long Tall Sally” EP that had not already found a home on The Beatles’ Second Album: “Slow Down” and “Matchbox”.
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