No rules, just rock: The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night was a revolution in black and white

The parade of Beatles 50th anniversary celebrations have barely begun, and fans have yet to revisit some of the group’s most momentous achievements — many centered around their musical breakthroughs. As these events are recalled, reexamined and reanalyzed, there are those of us who lived through those times and are already well acquainted with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr (actually Richard Starkey).

If in reading that last sentence you thought, “Yeah, I knew Ringo’s true name,” consider that alone proves the point: The Beatles are so well known that, this while fact alone would be a trivia question for anyone else, it was only one of mind-boggling many for what is inarguably the most famous band of musicians since rock and roll began — a fact not likely to change in the future, foreseeable or otherwise.

In this regard alone the Beatles broke the rules, having so many events in their career where they defied convention. What could be considered their single biggest milestone was the release of their first film A Hard Day’s Night, which has been out of print in the USA since its Miramax DVD special edition many years ago and rereleased in time for this week’s anniversary. But that film might not have come to be if not for the events that preceded it, moments which ultimately led them from being a regional success to becoming the four most famous names in the world.

In 1962, Decca allowed the Liverpool group to produce a demo tape and, based on what was recorded, the label rejected signing the group. After the Beatles exploded onto the scene, Decca was ridiculed for having turned down what at that time was simply a huge sales phenomenon. In Decca’s defense, the songs the band chose to record weren’t good indicators of their capabilities. Overall, the Beatles were probably a bit too gritty and raw at the time when rock was more pop. Instead of being slick and safe, they appeared out of place in an era where “pretty boys” were groomed to make the girls swoon and purchase the bland, homogenized singles being produced.

Unimpressed, the Decca executives told the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein that “groups with guitars are on the way out.” This might have been more of an insincere explanation for not seeing a way that the group could be successful — and that was Decca’s actual folly.

When Epstein came to producer George Martin at EMI, Martin was also unimpressed by the Decca demo. In one way this is where the Beatles’ legend and legacy truly began. Martin was already a big producer at EMI, and he could have easily dismissed the Beatles out of hand based on the demo alone, as Decca had done. But Martin, who had become successful at EMI by producing comedy and novelty records, recognized that the band had some potential.

He asked Epstein to bring the group to EMI to put them “through the paces,” as Martin put it in his autobiography All You Need is Ears.

At that session, Martin flexed his producer’s muscle, deciding that Pete Best wasn’t going to cut it due to inconsistencies in the drummer’s timing and approach. Epstein was informed by Martin that a session drummer would be performing on the recordings and that the listener wouldn’t know who was actually playing on it anyway.

While one might conclude that Martin’s authority alone was the reason behind Best’s untimely dismissal, it’s unlikely that the other three members would have replaced Best just to appease Martin. Various sources (including Martin’s autobiography and Hunter Davies’ authorized biography of the Beatles) indicate that at this critical crossroads in their career John, Paul, and George were ready to replace Best with someone they thought would be more suitable to both the group and the music. At the very least, Martin’s considerable opinion justified their own.

Unfortunately, this was a one-two punch to Best. His “mates” later rationalized that adequate (let alone “good”) drummers were hard to come by, and that keeping Best around had more to do with the complacency of keeping the status quo — for the time being, at least.

Although the Beatles told Martin that Ringo would replace Best, it was too late as Martin had already followed through on hiring session player Andy White for the Fabs’ first single, “Love Me Do.” As Ringo was an unknown to the producer, he wasn’t going to risk that the new drummer was no better than Best [no pun intended]. But in an attempt to be fair, Martin compromised by having Ringo perform on one take and would play tambourine on the take with White on drums.

Ringo’s take was the one ultimately released. This would be the last time a session player would record an instrument that was the within the capability of a Beatle, something that wasn’t (surprisingly) true of many of their contemporaries, including the Byrds and the Beach Boys.

Martin revealed in his book that initially he was also guilty of falling into the mindset of deciding who was going to be the main singer in the band.

It’s unlikely that the Beatles would have gone along with that plan, but ultimately the point was moot: In working with the group and finding that he liked them as people, Martin decided that it would have been a disservice to who they were — that if retaining the core fabric of the band flew into the face of convention, it wouldn’t have been the first time in his career he made unpopular decisions. (Martin’s book lists earlier examples of breaking conventions including battling EMI on his efforts with Peter Sellers.)

So, Martin wisely abandoned the idea of one frontline singer. The Beatles were not mere ciphers who cared nothing about musicianship, or what material they were given, and in all likelihood would have resisted the idea to the point of risking losing the much-desired contract.

However, when it came to songwriting Martin wasn’t yet impressed. In his book, he admits that from the Beatles’ first attempts at songwriting, he felt that their songwriting would have “no saleable future!” (That explanation point is his, indicating that in retrospect he humorously acknowledged how his prediction failed miserably, but happily.)

Martin’s original estimation was probably in part due to the fact that the first Lennon-McCartney penned single “Love Me Do” didn’t even crack the Top 10 on the British charts, peaking at No. 17. With that disappointment — and the added ridicule from EMI colleagues, who laughed just at the mention of the name of the group — Martin felt he needed to take the reins and demanded that the band record “How Do You Do It,” an unremarkable, cloying pop tune written by up-and-coming songwriter Mitch Murray that flew against the Beatles’ more roots-based sensibilities.

The result was a slick piece of work, but uninspired in execution: instead of a delivering a powerhouse Lennon-esque vocal, John’s singing is understated and practically dripping with boredom (and with a hint of venom). After it was produced the Beatles, still feeling it went against their grain, resisted its release. But rather than tell them, “tough” Martin instead challenged them to come up with something better, and they did: “Please Please Me.”

They had already presented that tune to Martin with a slower tempo, but speeding it up did the trick. In stark contrast to the lackluster Murray tune, their second single was infused with energy, inventiveness, and some soaring vocal harmonies. After the session, Martin congratulated the band on what he predicted was their first No. 1 single — and, when it shot to the top of the British charts, the Beatles were off and running.

Eventually, the Beatles conquered Europe and, of course, the USA with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and their historic Ed Sullivan Show appearance.

While the Sullivan show was already a popular Sunday night fixture in American households, the Beatles’ appearance was still a much-anticipated event. I had just entered my teens prior to that seminal event, and I watched with everyone else in America. I was entertained, but didn’t understand why the girls at school were all a’chatter about them. To my immature mind, they just were ugly foreign guys with some OK songs.

I recall discussing them at the schoolyard with other boys my age, which reflects the level of our conversation: Who was the ugliest Beatle? (I chose Ringo.) Shortly after the Sullivan broadcast, I convinced an older kid to enter a talent show with me, where we performed some silly vignette I cooked up and ended it with my throwing an actual lemon meringue pie in his face, then closed the segment with a verse of “We Hate You, Beatles.” (“We Love You, Conrad” from Bye Bye Birdie was revised and recorded by the Carefrees resulting in “We Love You, Beatles.”

I recall how a red-headed, freckled older girl (who was a well-known huge Beatles fan at school) shot daggers at me with her eyes, bristling with anger at my derision of her heroes.

While baffled by others’ reaction to the Beatles, I had already spent years avidly listening to the L.A. rock stations on the radio, and as my older siblings Jerry and Dorothy bought hit singles I was already immersed in popular music. I was especially a fan of vocal groups that included the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys — the latter providing my first concert where they performed in an outdoor setting at a Los Angeles department store.

However, if there was anything that rivaled my burgeoning interest in popular music it was going to the movies, and when my family moved to Inglewood in the early 1960s, I hit the jackpot: Not far from where I lived were four theaters, two first run (the Fox and the United Artists across from each other on Market Street) and two second run (the Ritz on Market and the Inglewood Theatre on La Brea). Each theater had a double feature that would change every Wednesday with few exceptions.

The United Artists had recently undergone a major construction job that modernized the theater, with features that included deluxe cushy seats and a booth in the back where parents could attend to their noisy babies while viewing films without disturbing the other patrons.

A Hard Day’s Night premiered in Inglewood at the refurbished UA, with no second feature. At the time, the price of admission for those under the age of 18 was fifty cents but, for this “special engagement,” the theater charged the then exorbitant price of one dollar per seat, which was too much for me with my meager allowance. I wouldn’t have enough to buy candy at the nearby Sav-On, where nickel candies were three for a dime. (And to add insult to injury, no second feature?!? Unthinkable!)

While the movie ran only one week at the UA, an unprecedented event occurred: the following week A Hard Day’s Night moved to the Fox across the street at regular prices, supported by a second feature: Bikini Beach, the third film in the “Beach Party” series that starred Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. As a fan of the series, that was the film I was eager to see, with the first Beatles film more of a curiosity than something essential.

Those of us who saw A Hard Day’s Night in its initial release will remember that the girls would actually scream at the theater screen, but it was a minor annoyance to me: It was at this showing when I became a believer. While earlier they were just a two-dimensional object of my juvenile ridicule, the Beatles had transformed into human beings — and the result was undoubtedly the same for many others who weren’t already under their spell. (Another unprecedented event, in my experience at least: The movie was held over at the Fox for a second week, and I was all too happy to go see it again. Ultimately, the movie played in all four of the Inglewood theaters.)

After viewing A Hard Day’s Night, the Fab Four were no longer just voices on a record, or singers on a TV screen, or pictures in a magazine — or even just a collective called “The Beatles”: The film solidified that these were individuals named John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and no set of names (or set of people, for that matter) have been so ingrained in the global consciousness before or since. They were no longer four young men whose similar haircuts made each of them appear interchangeable. AHDN made them actual individuals with distinct personalities.

While that was contrived by the filmmakers, it wasn’t really that far off the mark, perhaps just more exaggerated. It was partially done out of necessity, as those outside looking in included the filmmakers, who saw four very interconnected people and felt that for the sake of the film each needed some traits that would make them stand out from each other.

For those who enjoyed the film on a purely visceral level, it was a huge example of how the Beatles broke the rules, even if indirectly. Prior to AHDN, movies that featured pop and rock stars usually followed a formula: the young singer (either solo or as the leader of anonymous bandmates) falls for a local girl, on occasion being bullied by a manager/sheriff/insert-authority-figure-here and/or deciding at some point the film’s location was where to put on a show.

In the late 1950s, pastors across America were screaming “fire and brimstone” at Elvis Presley’s suggestive swiveling hips but in stark contrast Presley’s movies followed the formula. Most of the time he portrayed a nice boy with a guitar who was misunderstood, who had that one special girl who alone had his affections and helped keep him pure. Behind the scenes, Presley was at the mercy of the filmmakers and, when he was drafted into the Army, Elvis found himself away from the spotlight at a critical time in his career — losing the momentum that might had made him be more vital to the evolution of rock and roll.

After his Army stint, Elvis’ music took a back seat to the films, which became increasingly less interesting and featuring a slew of forgettable songs.

The Beatles were well acquainted with the rock musical formula and its pitfalls, and with Richard Lester brought on board as director, they found a kindred spirit. The Beatles were fans of The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film which Lester directed — and just as they accepted George Martin for his association with the Goons on vinyl, Lester had the edge for directing the Academy Award-nominated short. (It is included as an extra in the new Blu-ray release of A Hard Day’s Night.)

Lester also genuinely enjoyed the music, which probably added to the success of the way the songs were incorporated into AHDN, resulting in his later receiving an MTV award for being the “Father of the Music Video.” (Lester quipped on more than one occasion that he demanded a blood test.)

The documentary-like plotline was born out of necessity for a number of reasons. The executives at United Artists were more interested in securing the rights to the music and wanted the film completed quickly, as they thought the Beatles were just a passing fad. So, a day in the life faux documentary-like plotline was conceived. As the Fabs weren’t professional actors, there was a high probability that there might be some difficulty in getting matching retakes, so two or more cameras would provide any necessary coverage — another rule smashed. Multi-camera setups for motion pictures were usually reserved for epics or difficult shots, though not unusual for true documentaries.

This also allowed Lester to capture the first take where the Beatles’ reaction would appear more spontaneous, whereas retakes might have made them more self-conscious and unnatural. In addition, the dialog had to be as natural to them as possible. After screenwriter Alan Owen spent some time with the band, he tailored each Beatle’s lines to how they actually spoke (at least in the manner), further making the process easier for them.

During filming, setups were mostly done on the fly as the script lacked key details that were part and parcel of scriptwriting, and the actual spoken dialog would also deviate from the shooting script in favor of better and/or more natural-sounding lines. Nevertheless, this was a new experience for the Beatles, who were slightly suspicious of what they saw as the actors’ phony mannerisms.

The one exception was co-star Victor Spinetti, a veteran actor and Tony award winner for Oh, What a Lovely War! on Broadway. In his entertaining biography Up Front…, Spinetti recalled how in his first meeting with the Beatles on the theater set, he didn’t want to gush over them so he approached them his character, the haughty director.

“I am the director — you’re late for rehearsal,” Spinetti barked. John instantly retorted: “You’re not a director; you’re Victor Spinetti playing the part of a director.” At this point, Spinetti became aware that the cameras were rolling, and didn’t break character. Surprisingly, the Beatles followed suit, and the subsequent banter put the band at ease.

In making the process easier, Spinetti also gained their respect, and quickly became good friends with the four. He would become their go-to actor of choice, appearing in their subsequent films Help! and Magical Mystery Tour, and assisting John in mounting a stage production of In His Own Write.

A big consideration was how the songs in the film would be incorporated into the plot: performed on stage, heard as a backdrop to the action (over the credits, at a local club, in the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequences), or in a quasi-fantasy sequence (“I Should Have Known Better” performed during a card game in the train’s baggage hold).

The shooting script (which can be found at this link) reveals that in the scene following the credits, the Beatles are being chased by the screaming fans when they reach a place where their instruments are waiting for them to grab and start playing. (Shake, the roadie, is handily standing by with a generator to provide power to their mics and amps.) This instantly stops the mob from pursuing them, as they instead seek a place to sit and watch them perform (!).

It’s unlikely they filmed that scene, as it stretches credibility to the point of silliness, and if it had actually been included it would have been a major misstep.

There would also be no one suddenly singing a song in place of dialog, though that musical concept is spoofed in the scene where Ringo gets upset with a crew member who messes with his drums. Upon learning what occurred John says, “I’ll show him,” and begins “If I Fell” singing it to Ringo, though the song obviously doesn’t address the situation as it would have in a traditional musical. (In the script, the other three Beatles grab drumsticks and get into a drum battle with Ringo before starting a song but, in what became a common occurrence during shooting, if something didn’t work then it was wisely dropped.)

Similarly, John jokingly yells the “let’s do the show here” cliché at the studio prior to the band launching into “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” and that’s all it is — a joke, not an actual revelation, and whether or not the slight on the formula was intended, it’s nevertheless humorous.

While those may have been playful ways the film broke the rules, there was one dramatic change from the rock-music formula. Unlike the genre’s innocent pop stars wooing the nice girl who could probably bring him home to dinner to meet an accepting mom and dad, the documentary format touched on the Beatles’ actual lives.

Instead of staying put in their hotel room to answer fan mail as instructed by road manager Norm, John easily convinces his mates to get out and have some fun. What occurs may not have been obvious to the female viewers, but even on a subtle level what happens might not have been lost on them either.

Rather than treating the sweet girl to a milkshake at the malt shop, the Beatles head to a nightclub where they are dancing, smoking cigarettes, drinking booze, and carousing with the girls there. To hell with mom and dad! –the girls in the audience probably wanted to sneak a Beatle in the back door, have a smoke and a few drinks (not soda pop), and screw his brains out. These were masculine guys they could actually have sex with, and the humor infused in the plot indicated they would be fun as well.

Later, when they discover that Grandfather (portrayed by Wilfred Brambell) had appropriated a waiter’s outfit after swiping Ringo’s invitation to a gambling club, Paul has a line about how the elder McCartney is probably in the middle of an orgy. The shooting script has John saying “What are we waiting for,” and Shake agreeing, saying something about how Grandfather is worse than “you lot.”

On page the dialog comes across as tame but on film when Paul mentions an orgy the others (including Paul) repeat the word in glee, and they all happily grab their jackets and bounce out of the room — with Shake’s line replaced by one recited by the waiter whose clothes were “borrowed” by Grandfather. (The waiter says, “What about me?” referring to his unclothed state, but John, carrying the orgy joke forward, says, “You’re too old.”)

In fact, A Hard Day’s Night is practically dripping with sex throughout, something that wouldn’t have even made the shooting stage of the rock musicals that preceded this — at least in America. In a scene on the train at the start of the film a sexy, well-heeled woman (yes, woman — NOT a girl) beckons Ringo to come into her, er, compartment, but Ringo decides against it for fear of being rejected — Ringo was given an inferiority complex for the sake of the script — despite encouragement from George, who gives the woman a wink as he and Ringo exit the scene.

A short while later, the four go looking for Paul’s missing grandfather and run across the girls they had been flirting with in an earlier scene. (One of them was Pattie Boyd, George’s future wife.) Their previous efforts had been thwarted by Grandfather’s cries that the Beatles are actually prisoners (“Get out ladies! Get out while you can!”). John then jumps into the fray, pretending he is a prisoner and as Paul tries to pull him away he says, “I bet you can’t guess what I was in for!” with a very lascivious expression on his face.

Subsequently, Paul finds his grandfather is with that same woman who hit on Ringo in the earlier scene. (Grandfather: “Congratulate me boys, I’m engaged!” Paul: “Oh no, you’re not!”) After the aforementioned “orgy” scene, Grandfather is seen gambling at the club, apparently accompanied by a woman whose substantial cleavage leads Grandfather to say, “I bet you’re a great swimmer, aren’t you!” Later, when George is discussing the disappearance of Ringo with the others, he is fiddling with the strap of a dancer’s costume (suggesting he wants to pull it down to expose her breasts), but she’s demonstrates that she’s not going to let that happen, reaching for the strap to keep it in its place.

One rock musical cliché noted here was the romance between the star and a local town girl. A well-known deleted scene finds Paul running across an actress alone rehearsing lines, and Paul gives her his opinion of how it could be better. The scene may have slowed the movie down, but there might have been other reasons for its exclusion — including the absurdity of Paul (as scripted) advising the thespian on the art of acting. (In the DVD extras, actress Wendy Richard joked that that if her character had actually taken Paul’s suggestions, the actress’ performance might have been much worse.) Another reason might have been that, while the other Beatles had their own solo pieces, Paul’s was the only one where there might have been a hint of romance — and that somehow wouldn’t have been fair to the others.

Beyond pacing, however, the single best reason for its elimination may have been not perpetuating the cliché of a handsome star and the local lass — to the earlier point of fairness why did Paul “get” the girl and the others didn’t have that opportunity?

Authority figures suffered as they never had before in past rock musicals. These included those intolerant of the Fabs due to stature (Spinetti’s TV director), class (the businessman in their train compartment), age (the teen show director in the “dead grotty” scene with George). While there are many more, they are all dwarfed by Paul’s grandfather, as portrayed by Brambell. While his performance was certainly effective, there was probably an ulterior motive for his getting the part: he was hugely popular on “tellys” across the UK as the main character in Steptoe and Son (later adapted in the USA as the Red Foxx vehicle Sanford and Son).

The character of Steptoe was grimy and low class, but Brambell’s colleagues divulged that the actor was immaculately well groomed and impeccably dressed, much like the character of Grandfather. But it isn’t a stretch to assume that by hiring the actor, the filmmakers weren’t hedging their bets: Those adults who didn’t understand their kids’ infatuation with the Beatles might be enticed to see one of their favorite actors on the big screen.

Whatever the reasons behind Brambell’s securing the role, the Grandfather character is so pivotal to the film that he is as important to the plot as the Beatles are themselves. It’s not hard to imagine that if the Beatles were less of a music phenomenon, less confident in their performances, and less popular than Brambell that they would have been more akin to extras in their own film — which is, in fact, how they ultimately felt about their participation in Help!.

When Grandfather is introduced, the running gag is that he is “very clean” (and, misleadingly, a harmless bloke), but it doesn’t take long for granddad to show his true colors (getting Norm angry at Shake for being taller), leading Paul to confess that the elder was a “king mixer.” We learn later he’s a bit of a rogue (the encounters with women), a con man (hawking forged autographed pictures), and cranky about being trapped in this Beatle nightmare. That latter attribute is important to note, as Grandfather appeared to be articulating in the film what the Beatles were probably thinking in real life — most tellingly the line of seeing nothing but the inside of cars and rooms.

Thanks to screaming girls and a largely unsympathetic press, they were restricted in where they could go, including the freedom to even eat: the scene with the press where they continually fail in their attempts to grab a snack from the many trays available (and the reporters become so involved in schmoozing with each other that they don’t notice the Beatles beating a hasty retreat) is followed by their entrance into the theater, where Grandfather gulps down the last of his jam buttie (though George successfully procures Shake’s sandwich).

Had the movie not happened until later in their career, the Beatles might have been less willing to show the world that they were victims of their success, but at this early stage this was all new to them: Maybe this is the way it is now, but with increased power comes freedom, so just accept the annoyances and things will turn around. Obviously that wasn’t the case, but for the time being they accepted that this isolation was the way it was, and at least figuratively there was always the possibility they could break out into a field as they did for the first “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence — though, even here, they are brought back to reality: “Sorry we hurt your field, mister.”

While their personal freedom was quickly diminishing, it was ironically balanced by the liberty they and the filmmakers had in eschewing the script as written and creating a film that was a huge success. It feels like a documentary and something very real, and film critics responded accordingly at that time (and again over the years including the late, great Roger Ebert), heaping much deserved praise on what could have been yet another formulaic film. (Though it didn’t win any Oscars, it was nominated for Best Screenplay by Alun Owen, and Best Score [Adaptation] for George Martin.)

The Beatles’ first film made us feel as if we actually got to know John, Paul, George and Ringo, made us think we had a good idea of what they might be like if you came to visit them in their dressing room with their individual personalities shining through any fuzzy notion of “the four moptops.”

John and Paul went into overdrive in writing new songs for the film, in addition to offering ones that they had already written and recorded. Here they broke one of the biggest rules of rock/pop music. In their native Britain the actual A Hard Day’s Night album was comprised of all Lennon-McCartney compositions, without the cover songs that they had been performing and were used to fill out the albums that preceded AHDN as the pair found their songwriting feet. (Eventually George — and, on rare occasions, Ringo — would contribute compositions.)

The genre’s standard operating procedure was to have the album contain the hits then fill it out with songs by others, including those that were recently recorded by contemporaries (as perfectly captured in That Thing You Do!) or building the entire album around a concept (e.g., The Supremes Sing Rodgers and Hart — Motown’s releases were among the many that epitomized this approach to making LPs). In the Beatles’ case, the two albums prior to — and the two following — A Hard Day’s Night contained only covers they enjoyed and by artists who were influential to them, and Rubber Soul and every album that followed all songs were penned by the four members themselves.

A Hard Day’s Night starts with the famous chord that opens the title song, followed by Beatles entrance by running towards us, and ends with the same song (sans opening chord, already having achieved its goal) playing over the group ending our shared journey with the helicopter flying away from the camera (and us) on the ground.

To movie patrons around the world, John, Paul, George, and Ringo came, they saw, they conquered and, after turning to dust the tired formulas of rock musicals past, they were gone. That left the filmgoer feeling that he or she had intimately gotten to know these remarkable individuals, leaving us even more willing and eager to see what other rules in rock’s short history would be broken through the real-life adventures that were in store for the Beatles … and for us.

(Editor’s note: In a future column Mike plans on revealing the talents behind the scenes who were also responsible for the film’s success.)

©2014 Mike Tiano. All Rights Reserved.

Mike Tiano

Best known for his work with the Yes-related fan page Notes From the Edge, Tiano launched the official website YesWorld and has written liner notes for several of the group's reissues. The Seattle resident performs regularly with Creetisvan, and as a solo artist. He is also a movie buff, ardent TV watcher, and savvy Beatles fan. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.