You Learn Something New Every 'Hard Day's Night': The Beatles' Classic Turns 50

Chris Willman
Yahoo Music
July 3, 2014
photo: Janus Films
photo: Janus Films

It's been a hard day's semi-century. But the passage of 50 years since the debut of A Hard Day's Night hasn't robbed the Beatles' first and best movie of any of its youthful zest or Fab-ulosity. In honor of the anniversary of the July 6, 1964 opening night, here are some facts about the film and its wildly successful soundtrack you probably didn't know:

The famous weird chord that kicks off the album and film is… well, what is it? For five decades, guitar-strumming Beatlemaniacs have gone in search of the lost chord. The book All the Songs declared it was a D major 7th sus 4. In 2012, a mathematician made news by declaring that it involved a bit of trickery with George Harrison playing "a straightforward Fadd9 on his 12-string electric Rickenbacker guitar" but curling his thumb around the neck of the guitar to press down the bottom E string. But for many fans, the mystery was solved in 2011 when Randy Bachman (of Guess Who and BTO fame) filmed a lengthy explanation of how it was done, after being allowed to visit Abbey Road and listen to the master tapes. His conclusion was that it involved Harrison and John Lennon striking chords and Paul McCartney hitting a bass note simultaneously. But even that doesn't allow for the presence of a piano that some say is subliminally audible in the sacred chord.

The solo on "A Hard Day's Night" was a special effect that could not be reproduced onstage. For the instrumental break, music producer George Martin sat down at the piano and doubled Harrison's guitar part, which they played at half-tempo and an octave lower, before the inventive producer sped the tape up.

Legend has it that the lack of a love interest in the film was contractually mandated. Some source have claimed there was a clause in the movie's contracts ensuring the lads didn't woo any women, so as not to make any female fans insanely jealous. This may be apocryphal, although it does strike some viewers as odd that John Lennon sings "If I Fell" to Ringo Starr while young ladies are only allowed to look on.

The original lyrics of "If I Fell" revealed a seemingly crueler John. Originally, Lennon wrote, "I hope that she will cry/When she hears we are two," seemingly reflecting a growing disdain for his first wife, Cynthia. The line was eventually softened to eliminate any "hope" that the spurned woman in his life would end up in tears over discovering his new love.

The soundtrack was the only Beatles album ever to consist exclusively of Lennon-McCartney compositions. On previous records, the band had recorded cover material, and subsequently, Harrison and Starr would contribute as songwriters. "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You" marked the last time Lennon and McCartney would write a song for Harrison as a lead vocalist; Lennon suggested that the song was too formulaic for him to sing it himself.

"I'll Cry Instead" was written for the film but jettisoned by the director for lacking pep. The number was intended to be used for a scene where the Beatles escape from the back of a theater and run into a field, but director Richard Lester wanted something more joyful, so he substituted "Can't Buy Me Love," which had already been a hit before the movie's release.

Peter Sellers had a hit covering the title song. Sellers's Goons comedy troupe was a big influence on the movie's style of comedic filmmaking and the Beatles themselves. And the homage went both ways. In 1965, the actor had a top 20 hit in England by recording "A Hard Day's Night" in the style of… Lawrence Olivier playing Richard III.

Lester and Martin had "a nasty split" that ended their professional relationship. In his memoir, All You Need Is Ears, Martin writes of being "hardly on speaking terms" with Lester after a bad row during the scoring sessions. Martin recalled that Lester liked to play jazz piano and "he gave me the impression that he considered me inferior to him musically." One day when Martin was recording a cue for the instrumental score, Lester confronted him in front of the musicians about the "crap" and "absolute rubbish you'd written." Their antipathy ensured that Martin was not re-hired to do the score for Help!. Meanwhile, Martin expressed pride that he got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Score, while Lester went unrecognized by the Academy. Lester, in turn, griped that Martin actually only wrote about "45 seconds" of music for the movie.

None of the Beatles's original tunes were nominated for Best Song. Even the title theme for Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte was better liked by Oscar voters than any of the classics the Beatles came up with. Other than the Academy's nod for Martin's adapted instrumental score, the only other nomination came for Owun's original screenplay.

The fans in the movie are all carefully controlled extras — except in one train shot at the beginning of the movie. For the most part, the production managed to stay a step ahead of hysterical Beatlemaniacs, but they somehow found out about the train station location on the first day of filming. Although it's shot from far enough away that you might think there are stand-ins for the Beatles, they really were chased onto that train, and Lester himself grabbed a camera to capture the unplanned moment. He remembered members of the band being furious, thinking security would be that lax for the entire shoot.

George Harrison found his first wife among the extras. Pattie Boyd, who years later became the inspiration for Harrison's "Something," was an extra playing one of the schoolgirls on the train. She was seeing someone else at the time, and only well after the movie was Harrison able to make good on his crush. Eventually Boyd became the obsession of Eric Clapton, in "Layla," and Harrison sang about how he "threw them both out" in his song "Bye Bye, Love."

A very young Phil Collins was an extra in the final concert scene. The Genesis singer-drummer hosted a documentary about the film in 1994, repeated on the new DVD and Blu-ray, and did a freeze-frame so you can spot his blink-or-you'll-miss-it appearance among the hysterical crowd. Another notable extra: Charlotte Rampling, playing one of the showgirls.

Ringo definitely came up with the movie's title. Unless, of course, it was John. The most commonly told version of the story is that the phrase was coined by the drummer some time around the start of filming in 1964. As Starr himself recalled in the Anthology book, "I seem to be better now [but] I used to, while I was saying one thing, have another thing come into my brain and move down fast. Once when we were working all day and then into the night, I came out thinking it was still day and said, 'It's been a hard day,' and looked 'round and noticing it was dark, '...'s night!'" Lennon recalled mentioning it late in the filming process to Lester, who instantly wanted to adopt Starr's near-malapropism, having already tossed aside generic titles like BeatlemaniaLet's Go, and On the Move. There is one problem with this timeline: Lennon had already used the phrase himself in his 1963 book In His Own Write. But in a 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon said that even when he used it in his book he'd borrowed it from Starr… just much earlier than commonly believed.

The elapsed time from when the filmmakers said they liked A Hard Day's Night as a title — and wondered if the Beatles could write a song by that name — until the band delivered the finished product? Less than 24 hours. Lennon didn't need much encouragement when the band was commissioned with coming up with a title theme. By some accounts, he was in a rush to write a hit himself, because he worried that too many of their singles were primarily penned by McCartney. Going home the night of April 15, Lennon immediately fulfilled his assignment (with a few missteps; his original line was the clunky "But when I get home to you, I find my tiredness is through"). In the daylight hours of April 16, the band went into the studio to learn and cut the brand-new tune. On April 17, a press release went out announcing the freshly minted movie title.

The entire process took place on a ridiculously accelerated schedule. The film was in production from March 2 through April 24 of 1964. The last day of recording for the soundtrack was June 2. The movie premiered at the London Pavilion July 6, just a little after four months from the first day of shooting. The soundtrack was released on July 10, and the rush-released album spent 21 weeks at No. 1 in Great Britain and 14 weeks at the top in America.

Despite the spontaneous feel, there was no ad-libbed dialogue. Or was there? Screenwriter Alun Owun made a point of decrying the popular belief that the Beatles invented their own patter. "If you go through the script, you'll see that no sentence is longer than six words, because they couldn't have handled any more," said Owun, clearly exaggerating about the six-word limit. "The only ad libs were made by John." However, Lester said that the entire press conference scene was improvised, using a combination of the band's own adlibs and jokes he fed the group himself.

Ringo hated wearing a cap in the subplot, late in the film, where he goes off on his own. Starr feared that the not-so-fab headgear would ruin his image, but a costume designer convinced him that the cap would make him more relatable. Meanwhile, the witty subplot where Harrison butts heads with a cynical marketing man was added late in the going, when George complained he wasn't getting enough screentime.

The name of the band is actually never uttered in the film. It's seen, in a drum logo and elsewhere, but in the dialogue, they are only "the boys," as if the filmmakers intended them to be Everybeatles.

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