The Beatles: Help!

Of all the Beatles’s classic albums, it is probably Help! that gets the short end of the stick. This is due to a couple of different factors: 1) it was quickly overshadowed by Rubber Soul, 2) the movie was not as good as A Hard Day’s Night, 3) the American version of the album was cluttered with movie theme music and left off many of the best songs.

It wasn’t until the CD era, in 1987, when Help! was released in America the way the Beatles intended, and the result is a revelation. Help! is the first full-throated embrace of Bob Dylan and, to a lesser extent, the Byrds. This is the clear warm up to Rubber Soul. It bids a final goodbye to the happy little rockers the Beatles had been and definitively steps towards what the Beatles would become.

U.S. EditionU.K. Edition
1. James Bond Theme (Instrumental)
2. Help!
3. The Night Before
4. From Me To You Fantasy (Instrumental)
5. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away
6. I Need You
7. In The Tyrol (Instrumental)
8. Another Girl
9. Another Hard Day’s Night (Instrumental)
10. Ticket To Ride
11. The Bitter End/You Can’t Do That (Instrumental)
12. You’re Going To Lose That Girl
13. The Chase (Instrumental)
1. Help!
2. The Night Before
3. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away
4. I Need You
5. Another Girl
6. You’re Going To Lose That Girl
7. Ticket To Ride
8. Act Naturally*
9. It’s Only Love**
10. You Like Me Too Much***
11. Tell Me What You See***
12. I’ve Just Seen A Face**
13. Yesterday*
14. Dizzy Miss Lizzy***
*Released in America on the LP Yesterday…And Today
**Released in America on the LP Rubber Soul
***Released in America on the LP Beatles VI

I will confess a weakness for one aspect of the US edition over the UK edition. I grew up listening to the brief snippet of the James Bond theme leading into “Help!” and that part of the listening experience is hardwired into my DNA. Otherwise, there’s simply no contest here and it is clear why Help! wasn’t recognized in America as being the great album it is.

Incidentally, the two versions of the album had remarkably different packaging. The UK edition was packaged as an album, the US edition as a soundtrack complete with lots of photos from the movie and no small amount of marketing hype about the film. Also, the order in which the Beatles are standing on the front cover is different for some bizarre reason.

The first seven songs are the new Beatles songs from the film, and are as good or better than almost anything the Beatles had done to this point. The title track, written as a ballad by John Lennon, is given an air of desperation by the sped up arrangement. Deceptively toe-tapping good-time music underpins a lyric that is every bit as harrowing as any of Lennon’s later primal scream epics on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Trapped by the confines of Beatlemania, Lennon turned his pen inward and wrote a lyric dripping with pathos. Lennon had done this before with songs like “I’m A Loser” from Beatles For Sale, but he had blurred his tortured emotions in the guise of a love song. With “Help!” it was all out in the open, a cry in the wilderness of Beatlemania.

It’s easy to forget that Lennon was only 24 years old at this time and one of the four most famous people in the world, and the demands of band mates and fans must have been nearly unbearable for the fiercely independent songwriter. “Help!” is the first of John’s truly mature songs and one of the finest arrangements the Beatles had produced. Listen to the backing vocals, actually preceding the lead vocal, and the way they are sung. Lennon sings the lead quickly, full of vigor. The lead vocal does not sound like a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown. But the backing vocals are sung more slowly, in fragments of lyrics. It’s almost as if the backing vocals represent the sadness and insecurity Lennon felt, while the lead vocals are the full howl of pain that finally burst forth. I don’t know how much of this is intentional, but listening to the vocals on “Help!” is like being privy to both the private interior monologue and the desperate public cry of a man whose soul is roiling with emotional torment. The effect, especially when coupled with the ringing Byrds-like guitars, set a new standard for Beatle songs.

Anything after that opening is bound to be a let down in some ways. But it’s only in comparison to the title track that the other songs suffer. “The Night Before” and “Another Girl” are standard issue Paul McCartney songs: lyrics about love (lost and found, respectively), great melodies, etc. They become great Beatle tracks because of the arrangements. From Lennon’s organ to McCartney’s bass stepping gingerly throughout the song, the stinging lead guitar (also by Paul), and the call-and-response vocals, “The Night Before” is triumphant. Similarly, “Another Girl”, the happiest-sounding kiss off to a girl ever recorded, is nothing really special until the absolutely irresistable hook rises out of the chorus.

George’s contribution to the soundtrack portion of the album is his best song thus far. “I Need You” (by George Harrison—that’s a joke fans of the film will get) rides a simple two chord guitar riff manipulated by a volume pedal and the best use of a cowbell prior to “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”. Lyrically it’s nothing special, but it’s the first time George was able to craft a melody that could stand along those produced by Lennon and McCartney. For the first time, a George-penned track didn’t sound like a throwaway or an afterthought. It sounded like the work of a rapidly maturing songwriter.

The rest of the film songs belong to Lennon. They’re not as nakedly emotional as the title track (though the gorgeous “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” comes very, very close), but the words mostly reflect Lennon’s state of mind during this time, what he called his “fat Elvis” period.

“You’re Going To Lose That Girl”, with Ringo’s stunning bongo work, is the darker flip side of “She Loves You.” While the earlier track and its ebullient “Yeah yeah yeah” hook are a reassurance of a woman’s love, “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” warns that if the loved one does not act quickly, the lover will be stolen…by the same guy who was shouting “Yeah yeah yeah”, no less. The “yeah yeahs” are here replaced by a more sinister-sounding “Yes yes.” The one instance where the word “Yeah” pops up is as a snarl after the line “I’ll make a point of taking her away from you.” It’s a deceptively dark song that, like “Help!” is married to a joyful racket.

The title of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” could refer to the fact that Lennon was under strict orders to keep his marriage to Cynthia a secret, lest it should break the hearts of teen girls across the globe, but the lyric is a very straightforward lament for lost love. What matters here, is the spare acoustic instrumentation and the “feeling two-foot small” lyric. Although the lyric was just a flubbed line, Lennon left it in because he preferred it to the actual “two feet tall”. Both the instrumentation and the surrealism of that lyric (and the “gather round all you clowns” line) are direct imitations of Bob Dylan. The Beatle music in this song comes at the end, in the form of a flute solo played by British composer John Scott. Again, it shows the Beatles thinking outside of the traditional rock box.

Throughout the album, Dylan’s influence is very strong. This is the most acoustic album the Beatles had done. Acoustic guitars are prominent in the rhythm tracks, even as Dylan (influenced by the Beatles) was plugging in for the first time. As such, this is also the most different Beatles album yet. Dylan’s influence had reared its head earlier on songs like “I’m A Loser”, but there the Beatles appeared to be copying the Bard of Greenwich Village. Here, for the first time, it sounds like the Beatles have fully absorbed the sound and run it through the filter of their own budding genius.

“Ticket To Ride”, described (incorrectly) by Lennon as “the first heavy metal record”, is the last of the film songs. The chiming guitar riff does sound like the Who as played by the Byrds, and Ringo plays the hell out of the drums. (You think Ringo’s not a great drummer? You’re an idiot. Shut up and listen to this.) Paul’s bass is straightforwardly simple, probably because this was the first song where Paul handled not just a solo but lead guitar, leaving George and John to handle the rhythm. Heavy metal it isn’t, but it’s one of the heaviest songs the Beatles ever did.

The non-film songs that make up side two of the record are a little more problematic. “Act Naturally”, a country hit for Buck Owens, was given to Ringo to sing as a nod to his surprisingly good performance in the Hard Day’s Night movie. As with most of the songs given to Ringo, it’s fun and fairly lightweight. As four young men from Liverpool, the Beatles were far from country music. They play the notes well enough, but it never sounds like anything more than a lark.

Lennon’s “It’s Only Love” returns to acoustic rhythms with a loose lead. The lyrics are nothing special, but the vocal sells it, especially John’s falsetto swoop at the end. This song ended up as the first song on side two of the American version of Rubber Soul, and it fit better on that album. Here, sandwiched between the faux country of “Act Naturally” and the unremarkable George-penned “You Like Me Too Much”, the song sounds out-of-place.

The same fate falls on Paul’s considerably better “I’ve Just Seen A Face”. The propulsive, yet folky, song was the first song on the American Rubber Soul and set the tone for that album. Here, in its original (and, I suppose, proper) place, it’s between the nothingburger “Tell Me What You See” and the masterpiece “Yesterday.” The placement of this song on Help! makes one of McCartney’s best songs lose the impact it had on American audiences when it kicked open the door to Rubber Soul.

Tribute must be paid to “Yesterday.” Thousands of cover versions (it’s one of the most widely recorded songs in history, with versions by everyone from Sinatra to Liberace) may have dimmed its light, and the George Martin-arranged string quartet is a little mawkish, but that’s hindsight. At the time, “Yesterday” was a radical departure for the Beatles (Paul is the only Beatle on the record, which is why they did not approve it as a single, though Capitol Records overruled them in America and released it). As Lennon was starting to break out of the confines of Beatle music lyrically, McCartney was now doing so musically. It was a Beatles record because they said it was a Beatles record. It was a rock song because they said it was a rock song. In truth, it was neither. It was a Paul McCartney solo effort, and musically it harkened back to the standards that Sinatra used to sing, and that the Beatles grew up hearing. It’s far closer to “Til There Was You” than “Ticket To Ride.”

Still, it’s brilliant. It’s a new standard in 1965, and recognized as such immediately. There was no need for “Yesterday” to stand up to the rigors of time. It was clear the first moment the needle hit the groove that McCartney was writing for the ages on this one. People who loved rock and roll accepted it as a great ballad. People who hated rock and roll fully embraced it. The kids loved it and so did Mom and Dad, ensuring that the Beatles could appeal across generational boundaries. More than any one song, “Yesterday” buried the image of the Beatles as the Mop Tops. This was a serious song, with a serious arrangement. To really appreciate the greatness of the song, the version on Anthology 2, before the string section had been added, makes the song sound fresh again. This version presents the song as McCartney wrote it, with just his guitar and vocals. For this listener, this alternate take is the best version of the song.

“Yesterday” was so masterful and so different that including a souped-up cover of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” sounds wildly out-of-place. It’s a great version—probably the definitive version of this song—but it’s obviously a place-filler for a band that needed to release an album but didn’t have quite enough songs ready to go. Following all the acoustic introspection that preceded it, the effect of the slashing guitars and wailing vocal from John is, to say the least, jarring. It’s a great performance. It also is what it is: a by-the-numbers cover of a song by a writer who, at his best, was nowhere near the level of Lennon and McCartney. Help! deserved a better ending than a song that would have sounded redundant on With The Beatles.

Help! pointed in the direction the Beatles were going. The best was still ahead.

Grade: A


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