Next order of business for the biggest band in the world (not including the US)?
Well, obviously, become the biggest band in the US as well. To achieve that, two things were needed: for the various record companies and publicists over there to get their finger out and stir up some interest, and to make a film. The former was just cranking up when the band had the most extraordinary stroke of luck. Ed Sullivan, the king of US primetime television, happened to be passing through Heathrow as the Beatles arrived from Sweden. Seeing the crowds and the screaming, he decided that he should get these four on his show. He offered a single, highly paid, headline spot. Brian Epstein negotiated a much lower fee, but – crucially – three appearances.
As Capitol Records finally got their act together and churned out some publicity, so Vee-Jay finally remembered they were sitting on some Beatles music as well. The Ed Sullivan appearances provided the catalyst for the perfect publicity storm which followed.
In the age of everything being instantly available on demand and in replay, it’s hard to grasp the impact of the Ed Sullivan shows. There was – as far as anyone knew – only going to be one opportunity to see the Beatles perform on TV, so people – an estimated one third of the entire US population – stopped what they were doing and watched. Most of them had genuinely never seen anything like it, and the band went overnight from being a curiosity to everyone’s favourite British band. They then repeated the feat the following week for all those who had missed it the first time round, then went home to make a film so that everyone living in places the band could never reach on tour could also see them. The moment appeared to have passed for the Beatles in America the previous November, but in fact everything came together in February of 1964 and the musical landscape shifted because of it.
At this point it will be apparent to anyone who has read up on this period of Beatles history that I’m simplifying quite a bit. During the first half of 1964, the band played shows in the UK, in Europe, in the US (although only a select handful), recorded radio sessions in all those places, made a film and wrote an entire album’s worth of new material for use in the film. Oh, and also kept churning out hit singles with all the attendant publicity demands that implied.
The film came about as a direct result of the Ed Sullivan shows. United Artists offered them a three movie deal partly so that their record label could have the rights to any new songs which might come from them. At this point, still very much aware that this could all go away as quickly as it had arrived, the band and their management just said yes to everything. The film was completed by the end of April, by which time the band had seemingly taken over the US charts all by themselves.
First up was ‘Introducing… The Beatles’, a collection of most of the songs on ‘Please Please Me’ which were still (sort of) licensed to Vee-Jay. Because for some reason US audiences expected 12 tracks per album, this wasn’t a straight copy of the first UK album. Ten days later came Capitol’s response (released accompanied by the threat of lawsuits aimed at Vee-Jay) ‘Meet The Beatles’, which contained 11 Beatles originals plus ‘Till There Was You’. The cover image is based on ‘With The Beatles’, although tinted blue. Oddly, although it is in many ways a butchered and incomplete version of the original releases, it stands up pretty well as a first album in its own right, perhaps even giving a clearer picture of who the Beatles were than either of the UK releases.
Capitol followed that up with “The Beatles’ Second Album” in April. Capitol had access to a couple of dozen songs as yet unreleased in the US, but chose a strange hodge-podge of covers and older material while they waited for a resolution to the Vee-Jay situation. To add to the confusion, two entirely different albums came out in Canada at the beginning of 1964 – ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’. Feel free to look those up; I think any more detail from me will only confuse matters more…
All the albums competed at the top of the album charts, but that was nothing compared to the situation in the singles charts, where in the first week of April, the Beatles occupied the top five positions, thanks to competing labels and people buying up copies of older releases. The following week, there were 14 Beatles songs in the top 100. It appeared shambolic (and it was), but it was fantastic publicity, and simply fanned the flames when it came to anticipating new material.
There are two separate albums called ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ – the UK release, which I’ll come back to in a moment, and the US ‘soundtrack’ version, which was released by United Artists with only the songs which actually feature in the film, plus some George Martin orchestral arrangements from the incidental music. This was the fourth Beatles album to come out in six months; the fifth, ‘Something New’, features all the missing songs from ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ which belonged to Capitol, and was rushed out a couple of weeks later. Four whole months would go by before any more Beatles LPs were released in the US, but by then, almost anything with the Beatles name on it would sell, as we shall see….
Meanwhile, what of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’? If you haven’t seen the film and you’re intrigued by the album, or even if you’d just like a snapshot of the 1960s just as things started to change, I highly recommend seeking it out. Of the four, only Lennon appears properly at ease with acting, but the whole thing just barrels along full of irrepressible energy and dry Liverpool humour, leaving no time to reflect or pick holes in anything. It’s great fun, and the joyful spirit of it all is reflected in the album, which is the sound of a band properly hitting its stride.
You can argue all you like about the best opening track on an album, but the correct answer to ‘what’s the greatest single opening chord on an album’ is – well, I’ll let Randy Bachman try to explain just what’s going on:
More than fifty years on, that opening is still jaw-dropping. This is not your average pop album; this is not like anything you’ve ever heard before. Freed from the demands of a record label which thought it knew best, Lennon comes up not only with a tremendous melody, but a set of lyrics which give the first real insight into where he’s going to be taking us in the next few years, and the arrangement allows us to clearly hear that he’s done with skirting around with metaphorical hand-holding. Whatever ‘the things that you do’ are, they go way beyond making his tea and bringing him his pipe and slippers.
And that’s just the start. You don’t even have to listen to this album – just look at the song titles on there, especially on side 1. Of the ones which are perhaps marginally less well known, ‘If I Fell’ is simply gorgeous, ‘Tell Me Why’ rocks out without the awkwardness of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, and I think ‘Things We Said Today’ is as close to perfection as these early albums come – the constant shifting from major to minor keeping the listener off balance while whistling along.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the album tails off, given how well-known the film tracks are, but I think it maintains its quality all the way through – the first Beatles album to be an unqualified success in my mind.