This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night; to celebrate, a newly restored version is playing in select theaters and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray. The soundtrack album, released in the UK on July 10, 1964, featured a double-sided treat for fans: side one included songs that were in A Hard Day’s Night, while side two offered tracks written during filming but ultimately dropped from the movie.
At the surface a superb pop/rock album, A Hard Day’s Night also signals an early turning point in the Beatles’ career. It marks the first time they issued a disc featuring all original material, and it shows signs of their evolving musical experimentation. The title track crashed onto the nation’s consciousness with that resounding opening chord, while “And I Love Her” further explored Latin rhythms in creating a classic ballad.
The songs included in A Hard Day’s Night have become ingrained in fans’ memories, due to their astounding quality and enduring accompanying images. Who could forget the Fab Four romping on the field to “Can’t Buy Me Love,” or John Lennon jokingly singing to a pouting Ringo Starr during “If I Fell”? The songs left out of the film, however, deserve just as much attention for their innovative qualities. For the next few columns, Deep Beatles will explore these lesser-known Hard Day’s Night tracks; while “Any Time at All” has already been discussed, several other songs remain unjustly buried. This Deep Beatles salute kicks off with the moody “I’ll Be Back,” a classic example of how the Beatles were growing as songwriters and musicians.
Proving that ideas come from interesting places, “I’ll Be Back” has roots tracing back to Del Shannon. In 1980, Lennon explained that the song was his reworking of the chords from Del Shannon’s hit “Runaway.” In Barry Miles’ Many Years from Now, Paul McCartney recalled that “I’ll Be Back” was mainly Lennon’s idea, although he contributed a few lines. As usual, Lennon later criticized the track: “A nice tune, though the middle is a bit tatty,” he said in a 1972 interview with Hit Parader.
Recording commenced on June 1, 1964, and took 16 takes before the group and producer George Martin were satisfied. As evident on Anthology 1, Lennon originally conceived of “I’ll Be Back” as a waltz. He and the band quickly abandoned the idea after Lennon complained that the lyrics were too difficult to sing at that tempo. By take three, the Beatles decided on a more manageable 4/4 rhythm. This version, however, featured electric guitars rather than the acoustic guitars that dominated the album cut. Ultimately, the first nine takes recorded the rhythm track, and the last seven laid down double-tracked and harmony vocals as well as an acoustic guitar overdub.
Musically, “I’ll Be Back” illustrates the Beatles’ rapidly developing sophistication and willingness to abandon traditional pop song formulas. Essentially the song contains no chorus; instead, three bridges anchor the track. Second, the chords alternate between A major and A minor, lending a melancholy tone that reflects the emotional words (for a thorough analysis of the chord structure, read Alan Pollack’s entry in his excellent “Notes On” series).
Lennon’s grittier vocals reveal the narrator’s inner conflict and despair over a faltering relationship. His acoustic guitar drives the song’s rhythm, although George Harrison contributes lead acoustic as well. McCartney and Harrison supply harmony vocals, with McCartney also playing bass. As usual, Starr contributes drums, displaying his ability to play subtle patterns as well as pounding, straightforward rock.
Lyrically, “I’ll Be Back” contains some of Lennon’s most introspective and mature lines up to that time. He vows that he will always return to his lover, even if they fight. “‘Cause I told you once before goodbye, but I came back again,” he sings, executing perfect harmonies with McCartney and Harrison. The chord changes dramatize the fragility of the relationship, even though Lennon’s voice increases in volume, power, and confidence when he sings “I love you so; I’m the one who wants you.” Interestingly the narrator’s girlfriend serves as the aggressor in the next lines, when Lennon argues that “you could find better things to do, than to break my heart again.”
His tone and perspective changes in the next few verses, focusing more on his own misdeeds. He sings that next time he will prove that he is “not trying to pretend,” and that she would soon realize her mistake if he walked away from the relationship. Before the song ends, Lennon suggests that the road to romance is never smooth: “I wanna go, but I hate to leave you,” he bemoans. Unlike the pure, idealistic romance expressed in “And I Love Her,” or “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You,” “I’ll Be Back” reveals the underside of love, perhaps closer to the ambivalence omnipresent in “If I Fell.”
Lennon would further explore complicated themes on the Beatles’ next album, Beatles for Sale, and even more on Help! “I’ll Be Back” can be seen as a precursor to such tracks as “I’m A Loser,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and “Help!,” as they all address complex themes of love and loss, idealism and cynicism, innocence and maturity. An inexplicably underrated Hard Day’s Night track, “I’ll Be Back” foreshadows later Lennon-penned masterpieces — and signals the beginning of the end of the early “Fab Four” era.