Arts/Literature

A Hard Day’s Night…in search of the lost chord

One chord can change your life.

The Fabs tormenting the posh gent in A Hard Day’s Night (image courtesy Neatorama)

“There was no reason for Michael to be sad that morning, (the little wretch); everyone liked him, (the scab). He’d had a hard day’s night that day, for Michael was a Cocky Watchtower.” – John Lennon, In His Own Write (published March 1964)

“I was going home in the car and Dick Lester suggested the title Hard Day’s Night from something Ringo’d said. I had used it in In His Own Write but it was an off-the-cuff remark by Ringo. You know, one of those malapropisms. A Ringoism, where he said it not to be funny, just said it.” – John Lennon (1980 interview)

“”Well, there was something Ringo said the other day’… He said after a concert, ‘Phew, it’s been a hard day’s night.’ John and I went, ‘What? What did you just say?’ He said, ‘I’m bloody knackered, man, it’s been a hard day’s night.’ ‘Hard day’s night! Fucking brilliant! How does he think of ’em? Woehayy!’ So that came up in this brain-storming session, something Ringo said, ‘It was a hard day’s night.'” – Paul McCartney (1997 interview)

They began filming the movie A Hard Day’s Night only ten days after returning from their frenetic, triumphant first visit to America.

Frenetic. That’s probably the most accurate word to describe the lives that John Paul, George, and Ringo were leading as the spring of 1964 came on. They’d already endured a year of British Beatlemania (as well as Swedish, German, and French versions). Their lives, accurately chronicled in that epochal film, consisted of planes, trains, cars, vans, hotel rooms, theater dressing rooms, and stages.

As one of the movie’s characters, Paul’s grandfather (played by Wildrid Brambell), observes sourly:

I thought I was supposed to be getting a change of scenery. But so far I’ve been in a train and a room, a car and a room, and a room and a room.

The frenetic schedule the Beatles kept in those days is best explained visually:

The Beatles working schedule 1963-66 (image courtesy visual.ly)

The nearly relentless touring schedule of those early years meant that The Beatles had to write in “a train and a room, a car and a room, and a room and a room.” They also felt pressure to turn out work quickly to keep up with the relentless demand for new material for their ravenous legions of fans.

There was the additional pressure they put on themselves to move the music forward. Remarkably, “A Hard Day’s Night,” written hurriedly, recorded in one quick session in nine takes, moved their musical development forward. That leap forward was, of course…

The Chord.

Musicians have been struggling to figure out perhaps the most famous chord in pop music history for over 50 years now. Besides the video linked above (click to hear Randy Bachman’s experience working with Giles Martin, Sir George’s son and a noted producer in his own right, to break down what the Fabs – and Sir George – did), the fabulous Beatles Bible offers a full explanation of how to play The Chord.

Having The Chord explained is technical knowledge – interesting enough to know, but not the point. What is important is what The Chord means.

First an anecdote: in the summer of 1964 I was a 12 year old and, like most of my generation, a rabid Beatles fan. I was hanging out at the local Boys Club, talking to friends, playing a little ping pong, passing the time before heading home for supper. The game room was a noisy place with 20 or 30 guys milling around and the snack bar radio tuned to the local Top 40 station blaring full blast. I vaguely remember talking excitedly with my friends because the DJ had been announcing all afternoon that he was going to play the new Beatles record.

Then that epic opening clang rang through the room as “A Hard Day’s Night” came on.

Every guy in the place froze where he was. A room that had been alive with chatter and the sound of ping pong went silent as the song played. When it ended the room erupted in cheers and whistles as the guy who ran the snack bar frantically called the radio station to ask them to play it again – as did many others, I’m sure, though at the time it seemed that we in that room were the only people in the world.

The station did play it again. During that second playing all the guys were crowded around the snack bar listening as hard as they could. We yelled and cheered and whistled again after it ended.

Walking the block home to supper all I could hear in my head was The Chord.

At supper I told my parents I wanted a guitar for Christmas. It was June.

I got my guitar, a Silvertone acoustic that I still have. Then, a year or so later, I got an electric guitar and amp. Then a really good amp, then a really good guitar. Then I switched to bass. I started playing in bands at 13. I wrote my first song at 14. By the time I was in my early 20’s I was in a band good enough to write and play our own songs, to tour regionally, and to be approached by record companies.

I didn’t become a star, but I came closer than many. And I still play the guitar or bass almost every day – because of The Chord.

Whenever someone talks music with me, I almost always hear about an album or a song that “changed my life.” Until now, I’ve only told those I recognize as real musicians, as fellow travelers, the above story.

They understand that one chord can change your life.

(You can hear that chord here.)

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