Music reviews for music that was released in 1964.
1. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (10/10)
2. The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night (10/10)
Like the first two Beatles albums, it’s tough for modern ears to grasp the revolution that was A Hard Day’s Night. It practically invented folk rock, though the Beatles weren’t exactly writing straight up folk songs and then using rock instrumentation and rhythms to perform them. But the Beatles did bring in a country instrument, and they wrote their first folk-influenced songs. More importantly, they gave folk-rock its sound, even if they didn’t cover any folk songs while doing so. The band that would become the Byrds, the Jet Set, were so influenced by this album that Jim “Roger” McGuinn, the band’s leader and lead guitarist, took up the 12-string guitar as a direct result of hearing this music and they started playing rock music instead of the folk music they had previously played. David Crosby, an early songwriter-guitarist-singer for the Byrds, is reported to have said that the film and album changed his life. The Byrds would go on to become the definitive folk-rock band in no small part due to the Beatles influence on them.
With this album, the Beatles set the new standard for rock acts. They had written every song in a number of styles and created – or at least helped to create – a brand new one. This was the first time rock and roll musicians had mixed an outside genre – a genre that didn’t belong to the roots of rock and roll in the first place, that is folk – with rock and roll music. That change in itself brought about something altogether new that would come to define “rock” music: the mixing of non-rock genres with rock music to create new rock music genres; the next major innovations in rock music would involve such mergings of disparate genres. And they had no real peers in this new genre at this point. Dylan had yet to go electric, and was still a folk artist; and the Byrds hadn’t recorded yet – they hadn’t even named themselves the Byrds yet – so it seems fairly safe to say that this is either the first album to feature folk rock or the proto-folk-rock album.
Lastly, A Hard Day’s Night is perhaps the great early statement of one of the great British songwriters; Lennon wrote the vast majority of the songs on this album and co-wrote another. Though Lennon had yet to reach his full maturity as a songwriter – his best songs were still to come, starting later this year – this was the most dominant role Lennon ever had in the band. One major reason why this was the birth of folk-rock is because Lennon was the Beatle most attuned to folk music in 1964. Had McCartney been producing more, it’s liable this album would have had a very, very different style.
“A Hard Day’s Night” has one of the most famous opening chords in history and its notable, of course, because it was played on that brand new 12-string. That same 12-string plays the solo, another rock music first. In one of their earliest uses of “the studio as instrument,” Martin played a piano out of time with the song that was then sped up to sound like a harpsichord, doubling Harrison’s 12-string solo. This is one of the earliest known instances of such a trick on a rock and roll recording – though such
things had been happening in the world of musique concrete for nearly two decades. The song also ends differently than any previous Beatles song, which had all previously ended with strident chords; “A Hard Day’s Night” ends with arpeggios. This one song is perhaps the biggest sign on the album – and really to date – that the Beatles were doing something nobody had ever done before. There was really nothing else like it in 1964 popular music or before. It was utterly revolutionary even though it is hard for us to tell at this remove, when every one of us has heard it a million times, and its imitators as much or more.
“I Should Have Known Better” is one of Lennon’s first attempts to write more like Dylan. Obviously based on that ambition alone it fails – as Lennon is still singing about girls even though he is singing about regret in general – but it was the first time that Lennon was really trying to stretch his style. It is notable for being the last Beatles song with a harmonica intro, which was a common early device to distinguish themselves from other British bands. It features the unique form of three verses then a bridge.
“If I Fell” is a little more interesting and unconventional: it is the first Beatles song with an intro that never gets repeated, and it also lacks a chorus. That’s right: no chorus ; the hook is in the verse. Surprisingly for a song without a chorus, it was released as a single just before Christmas of that year. It is, again, proof of Lennon’s growing lyrical maturity, wondering about the consequences of actions in this case.
“I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” was written for Harrison to sing, since Harrison didn’t get to contribute a song to the album. The composers have dismissed it but it has some wacky parts: it opens with part of the bridge rather than an intro or the verse, and it features an “African drum” played by Starr, an instrumental device that was becoming more and more common in their music. Despite these interesting touches, it is probably the weakest song on the album.
Though he received no credit, Harrison apparently came up with the riff for “And I Love Her,” a ballad McCartney included with the intention of preserving the show-tune-style number on each previous album – only this is much more subdued than those covers. This song along with “This Boy” show how the Beatles were starting to forsake covers for their originals in those styles that they had covered on previous albums. But though the Beatles were ostensibly trying to preserve their successful commercial formula, they were adding things to these styles that subverted or overturned the conventions: unusual key changes, unusual forms – two verses, a bridge and then three verses in this case – and wholly unexpected chords. (Maybe this is the song Dylan was thinking of when he called their chord changes “ridiculous”.)
“Tell Me Why” is comparatively far more raucous to McCartney’s ballad; it is basically a hard-for-the-time rock-and-roll version of a doo-wop song, without the doo-wop; further evidence that genre rules and conventions didn’t apply to the Beatles’ songs, and that they were willing to try anything. It contains evidence of Lennon’s increasingly misogynistic attitude towards women.
“Any Time at All” is the one song of the album that is built like a folk song, even if it doesn’t sound like it; perhaps the closest they got to authentic folk rock on the album. (Not that such a thing was possible, given that the genre didn’t exist.) The “middle 8,” written by McCartney, is claimed to have
been hugely influential on people like Bacharach, though I can find no definitive source to back up that claim. The song is the second one on the album to feature the piano-guitar matching trick in the solo, though it is less pronounced this time. But imagine that you were a musician listening to this in the summer of ’64: would you have been utterly amazed to learn that tapes were being manipulated to double instruments? Interesting to note that the ending chords almost sound like they could be an intro to another song.
“I’ll Cry Instead” is another lyrical change for the Beatles in that it is another of their songs from this period featuring lyrics about rejection instead of the usual fluff about finding teenage love and holding
hands. It is practically the first Beatles original to attempt traditional country, a genre that would be far more prominent on the next two albums. (Funnily enough, country would be rather prominent in the catalogues of a number of folk rock bands.) So even as they subtly embraced the influence of folk they were also expanding to other genres – in this case a genre that had been common for some early rock and rollers. Note the increasing bitterness in Lennon’s lyrics.
“Things We Said Today” is another McCartney ballad which again features different lyrics for a pop song at the time, as it is about looking back to the present from the future. It is, for McCartney, relatively free of the things he was normally writing about at the time (teenage romance, etc) and a clear sign that he too was growing lyrically. Musically, it is one of the few Beatles songs so clearly in a minor key, it is also in a mode – perhaps the indication of a jazz influence – and it features nontraditional chord changes.
“When I Get Home” is a somewhat unconventional rock song in that it jumps keys. It is fairly easy to imagine that, had the Beatles had a different, less forward-thinking producer, this kind of thing would have been nixed for being too weird or too radical. This kind of device is now commonplace in popular music but at the time is was practically unheard of and defied most rules about proper pop songwriting. The chorus begins the song and each verse which is a pretty unconventional structure.
The final song on the album, “I’ll Be Back,” also jumps keys, but this is a slightly flamenco sounding ballad, rather than a rock and roll song. Again: no chorus. No chorus. The Beatles attempted something really wacky with this one: trying to sing it in 6/8 time something just unheard of for 1964 popular music. But Lennon couldn’t do it – on the Anthology you can hear him complain about how hard it is. Even though they didn’t get the idea on record, it is proof that they were thinking bigger and bigger. In this one case the idea outstripped their talent.
A Hard Day’s Night is leaps and bounds beyond what the Beatles had done the year previous, and so, according to Rolling Stone and others, they had set a new standard for rock bands. Now rock bands were expected to progress from album to album; now rock music was being afforded some of the same artistic merit as “higher” forms of music such as jazz and “classical”. The Beatles weren’t the only people trying different things. In July 1964 – i.e. around the same time the Beatles released A Hard Day’s Night – the Beach Boys included bars of silence in a song. But Wilson was still writing songs about cars and girls and the band’s internal dynamics were further harmed by Wilson’s desire not to tour – something the Beatles did constantly. The Byrds didn’t exist. Bob Dylan was still a folk singer, albeit the most interesting one in the world. The Kinks were a month away from their first hit. The Rolling Stones were just beginning their first tour of the United States where they were as yet unknown. And they were still mostly a cover band at this point. The Velvet Underground were basically a folk combo practicing in their apartments. The Who were moonlighting as the High Numbers. Frank Zappa was experimenting in the studio he had just acquired ownership of but with no music to show for it yet. In short: nobody touched the Beatles in the summer of 1964.
3. Another Side of Bob Dylan (10/10)
Dylan was a protest song singer-songwriter. Sure, he was possibly the best ever (in English) and there was the odd deviation into other formats, but that’s what he was to most people when this record came out. It’s what he was known and respected for. Presumably one reason this album exists is because I was frustrated with the perception that singing protest songs was the only thing he did, or the best thing he did, or what have you.
And so instead we get 1 (sort of) protest song and 10 songs that are more personal or are more of Dylan’s experiments with storytelling. The former songs helped establish the modern idea of a confessional singer-songwriter which would absolutely take off throughout this decade and especially in the 1970s. But it’s the other songs which are the real meat. As he had already started to do with a few songs on earlier records, Dylan violates basically every pop song lyrical convention and instead introduces poetic techniques that had basically no precedent in English-langue songs.
This is not his best set of songs but it’s probably his best set to date, or at least his most varied. And, more than his previous albums, this set of songs set a new standard in songwriting which songwriters who took their craft seriously felt they had to take seriously (so seriously in some cases that they would imitate Dylan to the point of parody).
4. The Great Concert of Charles Mingus (10/10)
5. Bob Dylan: The Times They Are a Changin’ (10/10)
Along with his previous record, this is the point at which Dylan basically killed protest song writing, both for himself and everyone else. For himself, he seems to have gotten bored and wanted to explore new avenues (which he had already hinted at with a few of his original songs on earlier records), or maybe he just didn’t want to be viewed as such an important “voice” in the US. For everyone else: if you are a budding protest songwriter how do you compete with these lyrics? What are you supposed to do now?
Obligatory mention: Dylan has stolen many of his melodies from other songwriters. This was extremely common in the folk and blues traditions at the time and few (if any) people called him out for it. We shouldn’t judge this record by our standards today. (We should judge him now, when he continues to do it, on the other hand.)
7. Beatles For Sale (10/10)
8. Herbie Hancock: Empyrean Isles (9/10)
9. Sam Cooke: Ain’t That Good News (9/10)
Basically a greatest hits collection. Read the review of Ain’t That Good News.
10. The Supremes: Where Did Our Love Go (8/10)
11. Bernard Herrmann: Marnie Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (7/10)
Marnie is considerably more traditional than Herrmann’s most famous works from the ’60s, but that doesn’t make it bad. The score is highly memorable (i.e. catchy) and features not just a compelling main theme but some other pieces that really get in your head.
There’s nothing innovative here. It’s just a pretty good score by one of the great American film score composers. Worth checking out if you’re into Herrmann, or Hitchcock, but certainly not among his very best.
11. The Rolling Stones (7/10)
In the context of the time, this covers record likely seemed totally original. Read the review of The Rolling Stones’ debut album.
12. Maurice Durufle: Méditation (7/10)
Another brief piece, one which we can assume was not intended for publication, since it was published after Durufle’s death. This is one of those brief musical paintings meant to conjure something. I’m not sure what, but it’s nice enough to listen to. I wouldn’t meditate to it, but I’m not sure that’s the idea.
14. John Coltrane: Coltrane’s Sound (7/10)
By the time this was released, Coltrane had already completely moved on from this music. If you are not evaluating it in 1960 terms, it would look pretty weak.
15. The Beach Boys: All Summer Long (6/10)
Well it’s better than a couple of their previous records. Read the review of All Summer Long.