The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

A Hard Day's Night

In response to Eddie’s Beatles blog, he needs it explained to him why A Hard Day’s Night is the best Beatles album.

I’ll also try to explain why without denigrating any of the other albums, that’s a crap way of arguing in favour of something, and besides, all the Beatles albums are excellent. Well, apart from Beatles For Sale, Help! and Let It Be, obviously.

So, reasons why A Hard Day’s Night is great and why it’s the best.

1. For the first and only time on a Beatles album, all the songs are by Lennon and McCartney. And although there are songs which are clearly Lennon or McCartney, most of them are true Lennon and McCartney collaborations, combining Lennon’s sense of rhythm, sardonic lyrics and rough-diamond straight-from-the-docks vocals with McCartney’s harmonic inventiveness, heart-on-sleeve romance and vocal range.

It’s a surfeit of riches. And a game-changer for the music industry, a bar-raiser. Up until this point, you’d be lucky if an album contained fifty per-cent new songs, and you’d be lucky if fifty per-cent of those new songs were written by the artist. After A Hard Day’s Night the expectation would be that every album would consist of nothing but brand new songs by the artist themselves. Pop music stopped being about Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building, it became about direct, unfettered communication between artist and fan. With A Hard Day’s Night, you’re not getting Lennon and McCartney singing someone else’s words, you’re getting what Lennon feels about love – ‘I’ll Cry Instead’, ‘You Can’t Do That’, 'I'll Be Back', what McCartney feels about love – ‘And I Love Her’, ‘Things We Said Today’. From now on, you’d always be a little bit disappointed if an album contained a cover version or a new song written by somebody other than the artist.

2. A Hard Day’s Night is more-or-less the last Beatles album which wasn’t recorded as an album, but as a compilation of songs written and recorded as potential singles. Okay, so the ballads were only intended for the album/movie soundtrack, but apart from those, every song off of A Hard Day’s Night could easily have been a number one single for The Beatles – or the Rolling Stones, or Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas. Every song grabs you from the first second BANG and is full of musical and lyrical hooks, is catchy enough for you to be singing along before it’s half-way through, and has all sorts of quirky, unique-selling-point ideas – think of the ‘whoa-I’s from ‘When I Get Home’ or the falsetto bridge of ‘Tell Me Why’. Being an album full of potential hit singles it reminds me of Suede’s ‘Coming up’, Erasure’s ‘The Innocents’, Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’.

3. It has the best Lennon and McCartney songwriting. It’s one of those thing about songwriting that it’s very easy to write a complicated song; it’s incredibly difficult to write a simple melody. The songs on A Hard Day’s Night are at just the right point where Lennon and McCartney are still learning their craft, of getting excited because they’ve managed to work in a new chord, but where they are knowledgeable enough and are confident enough to start doing musically interesting things without losing that simplicity. It’s a hugely disciplined album, every song a refined and finished piece of work. And it has no bloody awful George Harrison songs, which is a bonus.

4. It has the best playing. At this point, The Beatles are the tightest band they will ever be. They’ve still got the energy and slickness from the Cavern and Hamburg days, and the perfunctory we-can’t-hear-ourselves-because-of-the-screaming Beatles has yet to take over. George is determined to get his 12-string guitar all over every record, but always serving the song. Paul’s bass is beginning to do more interesting things than to just bounce between the root and fifth. John’s guitar provides the driving rhythm of ‘You Can’t Do That’. And Ringo’s drumming, bloody hell Ringo’s drumming. People always talk about ‘Rain’ or ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ but listen to what he’s doing on ‘Tell My Why’ and ‘When I Get Home’ – each drum fill sounds like an expertly-timed drum kit falling down a flight of stairs.

Which leads me to mention that, in an ideal world, A Hard Day’s Night would include the Long Tall Sally EP as bonus tracks, as it was recorded at the same time, and at least two of the tracks on the Long Tall Sally EP were intended/considered for A Hard Day’s Night. More incredibly tight playing, phenomenal vocals from John and Paul, a weird reggae bit in 'I Call Your Name', and the Ringo track that’s conspicuously absent from A Hard Day’s Night. (I have a theory that 'I’m Happy Just To Dance With You' was written for Ringo.)

5. The lyrics. Possibly this is the same point as number 3, but whatever, this is the album with pun-laden Lennon lines like ‘Everybody’s green, because I’m the one who won your love’ plus the brilliant shock twist in ‘If I Fell’ – which, for the first half, sounds like an appeal from a boy who has had his heart broken to a new girlfriend to be understanding – only for him to reveal that he’s only going out with this new girl in order to make his ex jealous. It’s going ‘this is a soppy, corny love song – and he’s faking it’. It’s that bittersweet, bruised, melancholic quality of Lennon’s lyrics that makes this album, he’s jealous, he’s aggressive, but it’s all brutally honest and ‘gritty’ and real.

6. Half of the album can be heard in the brilliant film A Hard Day’s Night. I’m going to quibble with Eddie that it’s a failing of the film that the songs aren’t incorporated into the storyline. That’s the whole point, that’s the great innovation. A Hard Day’s Night isn’t doing the thing of having Jeremy Bulloch or Melvyn Hayes asking Cliff Richard, ‘But if we don’t raise a hundred pounds by the end of the week, Cliff, they’re going to knock down our youth club!’ ‘Well boys, we can do it – but only if we put on our Dancing Shoes!’ Instead it’s inventing the pop video. The songs are used as the soundtracks to action montages. And the film is about a band – a band which is very similar to The Beatles, but which is never named as such – so it’s entirely cool to have them rehearsing a song to groupies in the luggage carriage or doing a run-through for the TV cameras and Victor Spinetti. It’s not a ‘film musical’, it’s a musical film.

Basically, A Hard Day’s Night is the greatest work of the ‘moptop’ incarnation of the Beatles, the point where Lennon and McCartney began to seriously kick-arse as songwriters, the point where the band was hottest, but where everything is still vivid, exciting, energetic and fresh and still has the rough edges and blokey scouse attitude. It’s an album I love and it’s the one I listen to more frequently than any of the others.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Alice What's The Matter

Sorry I haven’t blogged for a while. Truth is, I’ve been living a dull life, with my ‘could this be of interest to anyone else’ filter placed on its highest setting.

But I saw a terrible film today and thought I should warn you.

Don’t go and see Alice In Wonderland. It’s ghastly.

If I had to sum it up in a word, that word would be ‘incoherent’. ‘Ah’, you might say, ‘but the original books by Lewis Carroll are incoherent’, to which I would reply, ‘Yes, but the problem is that it’s incoherent in a different way. Not least, the fact that a lot of the dialogue is, literally, incoherent.’

It’s an exercise in missing the point. The original books are strange, haunting stream-of-consciousness pieces, with a unique musty, Victorian, nightmarish atmosphere, populated with remote characters; a child lost in a world of fusty academics, where nothing makes emotional or logical sense.

The film, however, has had its plot passed through the Disney family sausage machine. It’s now about Alice becoming friends with a bunch of wacky misfits who help her on a quest to defeat the evil Red Queen. Which I wouldn’t mind so much – one expects these things - except it’s all done so very, very badly.

To begin with, it’s extremely choppy. Characters, situations and settings are given no time to be introduced properly, it’s all rapid-fire, all-silence-between-lines-removed. There’s no variation in pace or tone. The storytelling is non-existent, there’s no narrative tension or sense of progression, purpose or threat. Stuff happens, stuff happens, chase sequence, stuff happens... no room for atmosphere, for character, or for the viewer to have any reason to emotionally engage with the material. It’s also devoid of humour.

It’s a mess. The design work is interesting but gaudy, some special effects are startling, but it’s all clamouring for attention screaming ‘look at me, look at me’ and working against the story. Johnny Depp has no character to play so tries to disguise it by riffing his favourite Fast Show characters – plus Tim Nice But Mad, while Bonham-Carter gives a pantomime Queenie from Blackadder.

The dialogue – what little can be made out - is awful. Carroll’s wordplay has been pared-down into wisecracks and catchphrases. Characters don’t have conversations, they trade wacky non-sequitors. ‘Six impossible things before breakfast’ is now Alice’s superhero mission statement. There’s a shoe-horned flashback to the young Alice in Wonderland, some ‘Underland’ nonsense and a half-baked attempt at a framing device.

So disappointing after Tim Burton did such a marvellous job on Sweeney Todd. But this film just smacks of desperation, of flinging the kitchen sink against the wall to see if it’ll stick. It’s a wasted opportunity and does the source material a disservice.

The 3D effect also made me feel nauseous. It still has that ‘Viewmaster’ feel of watching lots of flat things at different distances away from you.

But I liked the Cheshire Cat disappearing. And Matt Lucas was the best thing in it.