07/02/2014 04:50 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

A Hard Day's Night : From Loophole to Surprise Hit

The Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night, premiered on July 6, 1964 -- some 50 years ago. Because the movie's release came on the heels of the overwhelming success of the Fab Four in the U.S. in the first half of that year, many assume it was rushed into production to capitalize on the Beatlemania stirred up by the band's arrival in the U.S. in early 1964. There are many surprising elements to the story of A Hard Day's Night, however, not the least of which is that the contracts for the movie were signed before The Beatles had any hint of success in America, and that the movie itself was not initially considered the most valuable part of the deal. In fact, the entire project ended up paying off in unexpected ways, and far more richly and extensively than anyone involved in it at the start could have imagined.

In the late summer of 1963, The Beatles were quickly rising to the top of the pop world in England. After their first single, "Love Me Do," had made a respectable showing in the charts in late 1962, the next two records, "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You" had gone to number one in the first half of 1963. Released in late August, "She Loves You" gave the band its third number-one hit single in the UK, as the British press began to call the frenzy for The Beatles and their music "Beatlemania." Given the Liverpool lads' crescendo of commercial success, any record label in Great Britain would have loved to have had The Beatles under contract. Working for the UK branch of United Artists Records, Noel Rodgers somehow discovered that the band's seemingly exclusive contract with EMI covered singles and albums but did not mention soundtracks specifically. Figuring this omission might free the band to sign a deal directly with his label, he brought the plan to the head of UA's European division, Bud Ornstein; if they could sign The Beatles to a movie deal, they could get not only the soundtrack album but also a percentage of the publishing on the songs used. Ornstein liked the idea and pitched it to David Picker in the New York office. Picker gave the project a green light with the proviso that the film be delivered quickly and before the excitement for the band died out, as most expected it would. Ornstein contacted Walter Shenson to produce the film, and soon director Richard Lester and writer Alun Owen were on board.

At about the same time as the film team was coming together in England, Beatles manager Brian Epstein was frustrated with the band's lack of success in the US. Unable to convince the EMI subsidiary Capitol Records to release the early hits, producer George Martin had licensed several songs to Vee-Jay Records, a Chicago-based independent. By the end of the summer, Vee-Jay was in breach of contract for non-payment of royalties and Martin was forced to license "She Loves You" to Swan, a Philadelphia-based label with ties to American Bandstand's Dick Clark (Clark got the song on his show where it received a lukewarm response). Released on September 16, 1963, "She Loves You" flopped in the U.S. and EMI began to put heavy pressure on Capitol to take the next Beatles single. On December 26, after having initially rejected it, the Los Angeles-based Capitol nevertheless released "I Want To Hold Your Hand." In the meantime, Epstein had arranged for the band to appear on Ed Sullivan's show in February and perform a pair of concerts at Carnegie Hall, organized by promoter Sid Bernstein.

The Beatles got word that "I Want To Hold Your Hand" had hit number one in the American charts in late January 1964, while they were doing a series of only moderately well-received shows in Paris. In fact, Lester and Owen had been in Paris for some of these shows, watching the band interact and working on the script in preparation for the shooting slated to begin in March. As the band's tremendous American success broke out in the weeks that followed, it became clear that A Hard Day's Night was going to be a much higher profile film than anyone could have predicted when it had been signed months earlier. Still, United Artists wanted the film out according to the original schedule, concerned that The Beatles' popularity with fickle teen fans was no less likely to wane as quickly as it had erupted.

If the American success had not unfolded as it did, there is some possibility that the entire project might have ended badly. The accepted story is that United Artists signed the deal primarily to get the soundtrack music for the American market, but it is also possible that in the fall of 1963 UA's primary focus was on generating British sales. Had UA wanted the rights to The Beatles music in the U.S. at that time, they probably could have gotten an excellent deal from Martin and Epstein, given their recent and deep frustration with Vee-Jay and Swan. The idea for the movie deal came not from the film division, but from the record division of the UK branch. UA Records had enjoyed moderate success on the British charts, mostly releasing singles drawn from the catalog of the American division, including tracks by singer and songwriter Gene Pitney, a folk combo called the Highwaymen, and Baby Jane and the Rockaways, who recorded a funky cover of "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window," produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. According to the original plan, the movie could be a flop and UA would still come out ahead. So long as the record division got the soundtrack album, the English label could still turn a profit and get a welcome boost to its bottom line. EMI would likely have challenged UA's right to release Beatles music, however, arguing that the soundtrack loophole was invalid. The scheme was a risky bet.

When it became clear in early 1964 that the film itself was likely to be a financial success, UA seems to have been a little less worried about the music. A deal was made for EMI to release the album A Hard Day's Night in the UK, while UA would release a soundtrack album using only the songs in the film. Capitol was free to release those songs in the US as well, resulting in the Something New album. Everybody would benefit from the promotion the film would provide. UA rushed their album onto the American market, releasing it on June 26, before the film was in theaters and before the Capitol album came out on July 20. For several weeks in the summer and fall of 1964, the UA and Capitol albums were number one and two in the charts, despite the fact that they contained many of the same songs. Earlier that year The Beatles had also dominated the U.S. album charts, with Meet The Beatles (Capitol) and Introducing The Beatles (Vee-Jay) holding the top two spots--but at least these albums mostly contained different songs! Since UA did not have enough songs to make an entire album, the extra space was filled with George Martin's orchestral arrangements of Beatles music. This worked out so well that Martin ended up doing a series of instrumental singles and albums for UA, including his LP called Off the Beatle Track.

In retrospect, it seems like United Artists had a special knack for bringing things British to America. David Picker had been responsible for bringing the first of the James Bond films, Dr. No, to the U.S. in 1963 (interestingly, the guitarist who played on the famous Bond theme also played on Martin's arrangements of Beatles music). Picker also brought the film Tom Jones to the States in 1963. It might thus seem like someone at UA had a strong suspicion that The Beatles would be big in America. But it's almost certain that nobody really had any idea of how enormous the band's success would be. What started out as a scheme to get a soundtrack album ended up producing one of the most iconic films in rock history. That the film itself is far better than it needed to be makes the story even more astonishing. Rather than a flimsy teen movie, Lester delivered a classic rock film. And it all started with the idea of selling a soundtrack LP.

Recommended reading:

Ray Morton, A Hard Day's Night, Music on Film Series (Limelight Editions, 2011)
Bruce Spizer, The Beatles Swan Song (498 Productions, 2007)