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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Beatles: Help!


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 Lizzie.

Sometimes I can't help!... but think that it is this album, rather than Beatles For Sale, where the Beatles went for a bit of a sag. In fact, the band spent most of the first half of 1965 sort of procra­stinating, giving others plenty of time to catch up — the Stones were coming into their rights as masterful songwriters and creators of a new rock'n'roll sound; the Beach Boys finally learned how to make real musical albums rather than filler; the Byrds were pressing from behind the lines; Bob Dylan had gone electric, etc. etc. With a whole exciting new world waking up, Help!, as fine a Beatles album as it is per se, sounded like it needed a little... help?

You could sense a bit of trouble brewing even by simply watching the movie. Where Lester's first experience with the boys bordered on the «biographical» and, in places, read like a smart jab on the crisis of the older generation next to the young ones, Help! was, clearly, just a comical excuse for some Beatle-acted gags and lots of Beatle-mimed songs. It was still miles ahead of the ave­rage contemporary Elvis movie, but only because the gags were funnier and the songs were pret­ty much incomparable. Oddly, when you look at it in retrospect, Hard Day's Night, to me, seems to shrink a little bit in stature, where Help! seems to grow — not because Help! is actually «deeper» than it looks, rather because Hard Day's Night is somewhat shallower. But, clearly, it is always the former that will be the critical darling, never the latter.

Of course, on an individual song level, Help! contains at least as many tactical breakthroughs as Beatles For Sale, if not more. The presence alone of the title track, ʽTicket To Rideʼ, and That Song Most Frequently Covered By Crap Artists, places it well beyond the reaches of dirty jealous criticism. But it is probably no coincidence that it also contains the first song in the Beatles cata­log whose author himself went on record to state his acute despisal for it: ʽIt's Only Loveʼ, writ­ten mostly by John, was later lambasted to bits by his own persona. Why ʽIt's Only Loveʼ? Why not ʽAsk Me Whyʼ or ʽWhen I Get Homeʼ — songs that were comparably inane from a lyrical stand­point, and much less elaborate from a musical one? (Want it or not, the main guitar line that dri­ves ʽIt's Only Loveʼ is terrific, and its liaison with the final falsetto flourish is even more so). I think it's all because of the context — writing a song like that in 1963 would be more fitting in with the still slowly changing times than in 1965, when creative juices were flowing on all sides and lines like "it's only love and that is all, why should I feel the way I do" just didn't cut it any more. (And yes, the lyrics are atrocious, even if one could argue that "I get high when I see you go by, butterfly" may be interpreted in a psychedelic manner).

Anyway, what it all boils down to is that Help! is really a curious melange of startling discoveries, obsolete attitudes, lightheadedness that borders on annoyance, and hidden depth that borders on catharsis. The album is structured in the exact same way as Hard Day's Night (one side has the movie soundtrack and the other one doesn't), but this time, there is no feeling that the movie songs are somehow «lighter» and the non-movie ones are «darker». If anything, it would rather be the other way round — simply compare the initial Side A mood set by ʽHelp!ʼ and the initial Side B mood set by ʽAct Naturallyʼ (Ringo to the rescue!).

The movie soundtrack may produce a rougher, rockier, and a pinch more somber impression be­cause the movie was rougher — an action-packed comical thriller, with the Beatles chased around the world by a cartoonish cult aiming to chop off Ringo's finger (which, of course, symbolizes the Beatles' creative genius, and the cult is a personification of EMI/Capitol record bosses... okay, pushing too far ahead here). But it also genuinely reflects the growth of John's aggravation: of the three songs on Side A that are definitively his (ʽYou're Going To Lose That Girlʼ seems like a fifty-fifty job), one is playfully melancholic (ʽTicket To Rideʼ) and two are downright tragic, with John playing the sad little broken-down chap on ʽYou've Got To Hide Your Love Awayʼ and a snarling hunted beast on the title track.

ʽHelp!ʼ (the song) is, in fact, so perfectly arrow-shaped, it always gave me the impression of being played on one single breath throughout — the verses flash by like a speed rocket, with just a few brief moments in between chorus and verse to give the senses a quick rest. Played slow (the way Deep Purple would attempt it a few years later), it would be an emotional folk ballad; played at this sort of breakneck speed (well, «breakneck» for the times), it was proto-punkier, in a way, than quite a few garage classics of the time, if only because it was born out of a genuine feeling of desperation and crisis, rather than out of a generic penchant for «teenage rebellion». But never forget about the professionalism — as in, «with what else can we decorate this tune so that it will stick out more?» — there are some head-spinning harmony arrangements on the verses that in­tensify the arrow-like feeling of the song, with a non-stop vocal bombardment throughout.

ʽYou've Got To Hide Your Love Awayʼ has always been attributed to the Dylan influence — slow acoustic shuffle, «draggy», tired vocals that almost seem to imitate Bob himself, a clumsy, not-yet-quite-successful attempt to make the words matter — but the vocal melody is rather too poppy for Bob, and so is the pastoral flute solo at the end, although it adds a great touch. And ʽTicket To Rideʼ is sometimes hailed as one of the first «proto-metal» tunes, but I wouldn't go that far — just acknowledge that the level of «roughness» is severely increased from the likes of ʽYou Can't Do Thatʼ, mostly by devising a very complex, innovative drum-bashing part for Ringo and bringing the bass a bit higher in the mix than usual.

Next to these songs, Paul's competing material is tremendously slight — not that ʽThe Night Be­foreʼ and ʽAnother Girlʼ aren't great, energy-filled, instantly memorable pop-rock, but they do not advance us much further: ʽAnother Girlʼ, in particular, sounds like an attempt to capitalize on the formula of ʽCan't Buy Me Loveʼ, but the Beatles never fared all that well when they tried to write a song that sounded exactly like, or seriously in the vein of, a previous song, and there's a reason why ʽCan't Buy Me Loveʼ is on all the best-of packages and ʽAnother Girlʼ isn't. (Again, hardly a coincidence that the song illustrates the «cheapest» bit in the movie — the band engaged in gene­ric teenage fun with girls in the Bahamas). For some reason, I have always valued George's ʽI Need Youʼ over its neighbour on the record — his second attempt at songwriting that made the grade in the other ones' eyes has a certain minimalistic sternness and solemnity to it that makes it cross over from the slight and flimsy into the strange realm of the chivalrous. (Well, it was chi­val­rous, of course — a proper serenade to Patti Boyd, whom George would marry in less than a year's time. Good idea that there is no guitar solo; who knows what would have happened, had Eric Clapton turned up at the studio on that day?).

Most of the «high-quality filler», however, is concentrated on the second side — this is the batch of songs that looks like it has been relatively quickly thrown together to fulfill the obligations. For one thing, the two covers that bookmark it are either painfully slight (ʽAct Naturallyʼ, tongue-in-cheekily given to Ringo as an inside joke on his celebrated acting abilities; its cutesy country-pop mode would later be reworked in a much more interesting and original manner for ʽWhat Goes Onʼ) or questionably minimalistic (Larry Williams' ʽDizzy Miss Lizzieʼ is saved by John's trademark rock'n'roll roar, but the song is built on one single melodic phrase, and even if George's guitar tone is fatter, shriller, and hard-rockier than Larry's original incarnation, it is a bit too repetitive for a band that always thrived on build-ups, dynamics, and unpredictable twists).

For another thing, there are only two genuinely great creations on all of Side B, and both happen to be Paul's. ʽI've Just Seen A Faceʼ may actually be the greatest of the two (yes, we are all entit­led to a bit of controversy) — Paul's first venture into the realms of bluegrass, but infused with the usual pop spirit; had anyone up to that point, in the UK at least, even tried playing the acous­tic guitar in rapid-fire banjo mode? Spiritually, a trifle, perhaps ("falling yes I'm falling, and she keeps calling me back again" is as serious as the song gets), but musically, this is a rather unique entry in the Beatles catalog, which would never again see such an enthusiastic triple acoustic gui­tar-fest. As for ʽYesterdayʼ... well, who needs to hear another opinion on ʽYesterdayʼ? Surely the sixteen hundred popular artists who have covered it since cannot be wrong, even if fifteen hun­d­red of them probably suck as artists.

All that remains is to voice the speculative conclusion: If there ever was a moment in Beatles his­tory where they could have been thrown off the «train of relevance», it was in the first half of 1965. Plenty of early 1960s bands never survived the transition into the psychedelic and the art-rock era, and, theoretically, even the Beatles could have forever remained stuck in «teen-pop» mode — as Help!, with its somewhat unsettling conservatism, is enough to show. Again, this disappointment is quite relative and, in a way, fantom-like, because back in 1965, any new Beat­les product was greeted with tremendous hoopla, regardless of whether it did or did not push boundaries; and today, with all the boundaries pushed to death a long time ago and «innovation» no longer being a defining trait of one's creativity, we can simply enjoy Help! as another col­lec­ti­on of fabulous pop songs, no better and no worse than the ones that surround it.

But then, it is also fun to look at it as a tricky, deceitful bit of «calm before the storm»: the more innocent and unassuming an air these Help! tunes put upon themselves, the more of a shock one must have gotten by the end of the year, with Rubber Soul announcing that the Beatles were finally agreeing not only to participate in the ongoing musical revolution, but even to take upon themselves the role of one of the leaders. And, finally, no theoretical criticisms could ever con­ceal the fact that, innovative or not, formally Help! is just as filler-free and enjoyable all the way through (yes, even ʽDizzy Miss Lizzieʼ) as any other Beatles album — you didn't think I would dare deprive it of its upcoming thumbs up, did you?

Check "Help!" (CD) on Amazon


  1. This record is filled with moments of stark genius contrasted with moments of rehashed Beatle formula. You are right George, this was the record when they were tired and grasping at straws a bit, but its insane to see the straws they managed to grab in desperation. "Help," "Yesterday," "Ticket to Ride," "I've Just Seen a Face," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," "The Night Before," and "Another Girl," are among my favorite Beatle songs. The rest ranges from ok to boring, but everything sounds good when its sandwiched between diamond classics, and performed by the world's greatest group.

    I disagree on "Another Girl." It doesn't remind me of "Can't Buy Me Love," at all. The melody is unique and representative of McCartney's uncanny knack at writing fast paced harominc rock. "The Night Before," is better, and my modern favorite. The part when Paul sings, "now today I find, you will change your mind!" just fills me up with pure happiness. Same goes for the part, "when I think of things we did, makes me wanna CRY!" The song is just one big exercise in melodic excitement.

    I just tried listening to "Yesterday" with fresh ears, and here is my impression. You can hear the songs movement in the orchestration, kinda like the wind blowing in a lonely forest. Paul never really sounds like he's in a room, or a lonely apartment in all his solo Beatle numbers, but always in a natural outdoor setting. I do think his vocal is too syrupy and it kinda made me want to gag, but ultimately, its a 1965 pop song.

    The last song I want to talk about is, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." To me, this is the only Dylan parody of real significance in the Beatle catalog. Here, John is doing Bob Dylan, and while it is mostly great, I don't think it has aged well. It sounds a bit corny and fake to me after all these years, even though he is making visible songwriting progress. This song just seems like practice for the territory he would explore in Rubber Soul when he really began to find his own voice.

    Great review as always George, can't wait for the next one.

  2. About "Yesterday", it might just be me but I think that its effect is much better here in its original placing. Most modern listeners are used to hearing it as a flagship number in compilations (not to mention the countless versions by easy-listening performers), and it *almost* sounds like a different song when it is just a humble unassuming song hidden near the of the "lesser" side of a soundtrack album.

    Mention should be given to the touch of genius McCartney had while recording it; most singers would try to approach it with a fresh voice, but Paul had the idea of recording it *right after shredding his vocal cords to bits* in "I'm Down" just so it would sound less sweet. It adds a touch of humanity to the song that I really appreciate.

  3. The first record I've ever bought, so I'm not going to knock it, but in an ideal world Beatles For Sale and Help! would have made one classic album. (but then I'm not to be trusted: I would have gladly relegated a good half of The White Album to a 'worthy outtakes' status...) I pretty much agree with the tracks you singled out. "I've Just Seen A Face" is indeed one sweet infectious delight - I think he even played it in Moscow...

  4. "Tell Me What You See" always reminded me of Buddy Holly's spirit and it also has some skiffle touch.
    It's not about melody it's about atmosphere - though many critics unjustly avoid saying few good words about it. Judging from it's title one can say it's an "ordered" song, prequel to "I've just..." but still good in it's own way, despite the lyrics.
    Always loved John's voice octave lower Paul's when they start - Open up your eyes now... That creepy bit..