Album Spotlight: The Beatles—Help!

Help! was rather a struggle for me to find a way into reviewing it. While trying to get a handle on what I wanted to say, I asked my twenty something son what he thought of it.

“That’s my favorite Beatles album.”

“Really?” He’d surprised me. “Why?”

“Because they were right on the edge of getting high, but they weren’t getting so high that they were too weird. Right in the middle.”

In a nutshell, that’s exactly where this album lies. Help! is the last gasp of Beatlemania; after this, their music and lyrics would undergo radical changes until they became a studio band. The lovable MopTops are on show for the last time, and most of the record is straightforward 1965 pop, with at least one radical exception (and even that stays within a typical love ballad range). Nevertheless, as always, there are some classics which merge with solid pop/rock of the era.

Recording sessions began February 15, 1965, and ended June 17, 1965. In between, the group filmed their second movie, for which this is the soundtrack, gave some interviews and made several TV and radio appearances. They had definitely dialed down the activity not related to their music, but they were still busy, which makes the quality of this record all the more impressive.

Help!: John later said this was his “fat Elvis” period, as he had gained a fair amount of weight and was feeling trapped by the constraints of his fame. This song, written to a deadline when the film title changed, is a brilliant glimpse into his state of mind. A journalist friend, Maureen Cleve, had discussed with him the possibility of expanding his lyrical vocabulary, and John threw in a number of larger words such as “self-assured”, “appreciate” and “independence”. He afterwards complained that it was too fast, but the brightness and energy of the arrangement provide a marvelous contrast to the cri de coeur of the words. George Harrison’s guitar lines are sublime. 1

The Night Before: A new sound dominates this song, that of electric piano, played by John. Apart from that, it’s not a remarkable tune, although Paul’s lyrics seem a bit suggestive (“Last night is the night I will remember you by/When I think of things we did, it makes me want to cry”). I wonder if perhaps he was influenced by Bob Dylan’s  piece from Another Side of Bob Dylan, I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met). Both songs lament the loss of a woman’s attentions after a night of passion.

You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away: Speaking of Dylan, this is the closest John got to impersonating his style on record. In the last decade or so, it seems to be a popular interpretation that it was written about Brian Epstein, but Lennon never said so, and I have my doubts—it would only be on account of the titular line. This song was a harbinger, though; apart from Andy White’s work on Love Me Do, it was the first Beatles recording to bring in an outside musician (George Martin doesn’t count). Johnnie Scott played the flute solo in a clever substitute for the expected harmonica.2

I Need You: George steps up to the plate with a new composition after having remained silent for two years. Sadly, this is not one of his best, being a rather typical love ballad, although sweet. The tone pedal guitar (later known as a wah-wah pedal) was the most distinctive thing about the tune, and it’s more of a gimmick than an organic part of the arrangement. Notably, there’s no attempt at a guitar solo.

Another Girl: You have to wonder how happy Paul was with Jane Asher when he kept coming up with songs like this. The lyrics are basically “Nyah, nyah, I don’t need you, I’ve got someone else!” It’s a rocking little tune, though. George attempted a guitar flourish with his tremolo arm for the ending, but Paul must not have been satisfied; the next day he overdubbed lead guitar himself. This was an unfortunate pattern which only grew over the years, more than likely alienating George from John and Paul.

You’re Gonna Lose That Girl: The call-and-response lead vocal/backing vocals raise this song into something sublime. When I sing it, I never sing John’s complete vocal, because I always have to fit Paul and George’s responses in there. Nice bongos by Ringo. Paul plays piano.

Ticket To Ride: Proto-heavy metal from John, with awesome performances from everyone. Ringo’s drum fills in the choruses particularly shine. I don’t know if “ticket to ride” was a common British expression in 1965 or if John coined the phrase. Once again, Paul plays the lead guitar solos at the end of each middle eight and over the fade-out; but Harrison’s riffs during the entire song stand out as well. A great ending to Side One.

Act Naturally: After If You’ve Got Trouble flopped in the studio (see footnotes), Ringo still needed a spotlight song. Rather than try to write him a new one, the group decided to do a cover of Buck Owens’ country and western number, which just suits Ringo’s voice and personality. This would not have been out of place on Beatles for Sale. Sad story here: Norman Smith, their engineer at the time, had written a song with John in mind, and presented it to them when they were searching for another number. They loved it, and planned to record it. Dick James, their music publisher, was present at this session and offered Smith 15,000 pounds for publishing rights. Smith said “I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” hoping for more. The next day he came in and was told that since Ringo needed a song, they weren’t going to record his. Say goodbye to 15,000 pounds.

It’s Only Love: I don’t think this is one of John’s best songs, but he has a lovely, wistful vocal, and the internal rhymes are fantastic. Like the earlier Every Little Thing, the lyrics seem to be pondering how strong his love is. “It’s so hard loving you”—indeed.

You Like Me Too Much: While I Need You may not be a striking song, this tune definitely is one of Harrison’s best early works. The word “love” isn’t mentioned once! Instead, George goes on about how he’ll bring his girlfriend back and she’ll return because neither can be bothered to break up the relationship. Wow. I also like the melody and arrangement, with electric piano by John and Steinway piano played by Paul and George Martin.

Tell Me What You See: I didn’t think much of this song for years; then, in the past ten years or so (I’ve been a Beatles fan for a LONG time), I began paying attention to the lyrics. “Look into these eyes now, tell me what you see/Don’t you realize now, what you see is me?” There’s something about the idea of seeing into another’s eyes that makes this really deep. John and Paul’s vocals blend so well that for the longest time I wasn’t certain who wrote it. The answer seems to be Paul, which fits with another outtake from these sessions, That Means A Lot, which repeats over and over, “Can’t you see?”3 I also like the arrangement, with Ringo playing a guiro and Paul on electric piano. Interestingly, this is one of the few Beatles songs where I have to jump into a higher octave on the chorus when I sing along because the melody is so low in my range.4

I’ve Just Seen A Face: Beautiful acoustic guitar opening. I’m not certain if this is just Paul and Ringo, or if John and George contributed as well, but it’s essentially Paul as a solo act since he overdubbed his own harmonies. An omen of things to come. Wings’ live version years later accentuated the country feel; every time I hear Amie by Pure Prairie League, I think of this song.

Yesterday: So much has been said about this song! Paul dreamed the melody, and originally the lyrics went “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs.” George Martin recalled hearing the tune back in January 1964, which means McCartney sat on it for over a year! Apparently he played it to all and sundry, convinced that he’d unconsciously heard it and stolen it from someone. When finally convinced it was original, he took it to the studio. They discussed a group version, but all agreed that Paul on his own would complement the tune best.5 The string quartet, formed for the recording session, consisted of Tony Gilbert on first violin, Sidney Sax on second violin, Francisco Gabarro on cello and Kenneth Essex on viola. Martin asked Brian Epstein if the Capitol single would be credited to Paul McCartney, and got a curt, “No!” George Harrison, at least, was present for the recording although no other Beatle participated. I argued fiercely with a friend who suggested that this was a nostalgic tune, and in the purest sense of the definition I was wrong; but I still maintain that the brunt of the lyrics are set on the present day, and that the singer only looks back because of the pain of the current moment.

Dizzy Miss Lizzy: Recorded along with another Larry Williams tune, Bad Boy, in one 3 1/2 hour session when Capitol Records needed two more songs for the patchwork Beatles VI album. An awesome rendition, with a fierce vocal from John and ringing guitar work from George. John also contributed the Hammond organ. The last cover on a Beatles album, with the exception of Maggie Mae on 1970’s Let It Be.

Help! was released August 6th, 1965. Cover photos were taken by Robert Freeman, who had the Beatles spell out in semaphore the title, NUJV. (Freeman said later that their arms didn’t look right spelling HELP.) For the first time on a British Beatles release, there were no liner notes, although there were one-line statements of instruments played.

For the 1987 CD release, George Martin remixed the album, and this mix carried over to the September 9th, 2009 remaster.6 For my money, there’s almost no audible difference, with two exceptions: John’s vocal dropout on It’s Only Love was corrected, and Martin added faint echo to his voice on Dizzy Miss Lizzy. This really bothered me when I first heard it, but I’ve grown used to it over the years, until now the original stereo sounds weird.

As usual, Capitol squeezed as many albums out of the British release as possible. Dizzy Miss Lizzy, You Like Me Too Much and Tell Me What You See ended up on Beatles VI; I’ve Just Seen A Face and It’s Only Love were saved for the U.S. Rubber Soul (more on this next time), and Act Naturally and Yesterday were released as a megasmash single and then saved for Yesterday…and Today. The soundtrack songs on Side One were released on the U.S. soundtrack Help! album, which included some Ken Thorne instrumentals from the film in between the tunes, so you had to keep picking up the needle and couldn’t even skip Side Two. An abysmal release. Naturally, because of the gatefold with extra photos from the movie, Capitol charged an extra dollar for it.

Help! will never make my top tier of Beatles albums (in fact, when the remasters came out, it was the second to last which I bought), but it’s a good solid record with a few classics, and the last hurrah of Beatlemania. The movie, BTW, has not aged nearly as well; it was a fun romp at the time, if not as good as A Hard Day’s Night, but nowadays it positively reeks of racism. I know the Beatles had a lot of fans in India; I’d be curious to know what they think of the film.