1965, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1994.
IN A NUTSHELL: Help! is the album where The Beatles started to regularly go beyond the expectations for a pop band. Acoustic numbers, folk-rock, country … all shared space with the usual lovable pop gems. Also, lyrical content matured and introspective themes appeared. The band could’ve just knocked off a few watered-down retreads for this second soundtrack in a row – it certainly would have sold. But the band took the opportunity to elevate their art and make (another) masterpiece.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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1 Over the years I’ve really surprised myself with the things that I don’t know. I’m not talking about shit like how bosons and fermions behave, or the evolutionary pathway of Ornithorhynchus anatinus, or imperialism and nationalism in early modernity: the cosmopolitan and the provincial in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, for example. I’m talking about, like, what baked ziti is, which is something I didn’t know until well into college.
I’d earned a living as an analytical chemist in pharmaceutical laboratories for more than ten years when a potential employer for a job as a chemist called me for an initial discussion. As part of his screening process, he asked me to describe the difference between an acid and a base. (For you Non-Science-Types, this is about as elementary as one can get in chemistry.) All I could think to say was, “well, I know it has to do with how salts are formed.” (Again for NST’s – this is a ridiculous response.) The guy was stunned. I didn’t get the job. I didn’t even get an interview1. The point is that even topics that I supposedly know a lot about can sometimes leave me in the dark2.
2 When I was little – six and younger – I really enjoyed the TV show The Monkees. As you’re probably aware, the show featured a band, The Monkees, which was assembled by TV producers3 to capitalize on American Beatle-mania4. Actor/musicians Mike Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork auditioned for roles on the show and were assigned guitar, drums, cuteness and bass, respectively. (Only Mike and Pete really knew how to play their instruments at first. Davy and Mickey would quickly learn.)
I watched reruns, in the early evenings, with my older sisters. It felt like a “big kid” show. It was about a hip, young band, living together in a crazy house in a neighborhood with other bands, acting zany, charming the ladies, driving a cool Monkee-mobile5 … It was everything a five-year-old in 1972 thought was cool about musicians. And that’s the thing – I liked it for the musicians, not the music. The show had catchy songs, but for years I never really thought of The Monkees as a band with songs. I thought of The Monkees as a TV show with songs.
Sometime around 1986 MTV6 brought back reruns of The Monkees, and even got the band a new hit song (albeit with only half of the original band participating). This era also coincided with my nascent, deep, deep love for The Beatles. This is when I started to realize that The Monkees, the band, not the TV show, really had some amazing songs! The producers had hired professional songwriters – including Neil Diamond, Carol King, and Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart – to craft Beatlesque songs (I love Beatlesque songs) for Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz to sing. And Mike Nesmith wrote some pre-Byrds countrified rock songs to go alongside them. (By the way – the band was friendly with The Beatles, and they even used an obscure Beatle song 12 seconds into one of their shows.)
The Monkees didn’t just have hit songs, they had great hit songs. “I’m a Believer” is fun-pop perfection. “Last Train to Clarksville” is hip, and was one of the first songs to (indirectly) address The Viet Nam War. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” has a cool guitar, and speaks to the soulless boredom of suburban life. (I have no idea why Mickey’s hi-hat is where it is in that video.) “Steppin’ Stone” has a raw, garage-rock, Nuggets-y feel7. “Valleri” has a cool touch of psychedelia. “Daydream Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” are bubblegum pop treats.
And their homage to the Fab Four (Mickey Dolenz called them “the four Kings of EMI” in a song) wasn’t lost on me. As with Ringo, The Monkees let vocally-challenged Peter sing a song sometimes. They featured really cool guitar parts on some of their album cuts, just like The Beatles did. And like their role-models, they delved into mind-expanding songs and more avant-garde stuff. So, call it an homage, call it a rip-off. Whatever you call it, The Monkees are a great, cool band.
3 I bought Help! sometime around the time I bought A Hard Day’s Night. Help! is another soundtrack to another Beatles film I only saw once. Just as I never considered The Monkees a band, I never considered The Beatles actors. I watched the films once just to see them, but never felt compelled to do so again. So I purchased Help! solely to dive into the songs, and as I made my way through the songs I was stunned to learn this fact: “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is a Beatles song, NOT a Monkees song!
I was amazed to learn this fact – especially as it came a good decade into my Beatle super-fandom. I was sure I remembered The Monkees cavorting around on the TV screen, with wacky jump-cuts of the band in kooky outfits, or goofing off on the beach, interspersed with exciting footage of Mike playing countrified guitar while Mickey drums and sings, Davy shakes maracas and harmonizes and Peter plucks the bass. I knew I’d heard a DJ intone, “That’s The Monkees, with ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face.'” I went to a record store and looked up Monkees albums to track down their version. (This was in the early internet era.) I asked all my friends. Finally, it hit me: “I’ve Just Seen a Face” was always a Beatles song, only a Beatles song, never a Monkees song. Maybe I’d been thinking of “Papa Gene’s Blues,” which is a Mike Nesmith-penned, country-ish song with quickly-sung lyrics?
I guess my long-held misapprehension could be viewed as either a testament to The Monkees or an insult to The Beatles. But my well-documented confusion is not the point here. The point is that Help! is one more incredible record by an incredible band.
“I’ve Just Seen a Face” is a good place to start when discussing the album Help! It’s a great example of just how different this record sounds from all of the band’s previous output.
It’s a finger-picking, country-tinged shuffle that would have sounded out of place on any of the earlier records. But on Help!, it fits just fine. There are no electric guitars on it, no bass guitar, and Ringo plays brushes and maracas. There is a harmony vocal – but it’s Paul singing harmony with himself. Paul’s love-at-first-sight lyrics include cascading, internal rhymes that are cleverly constructed. (“I have never known the like of this/ I’ve been alone/ And I have missed/ things and kept out of sight/ But other girls were never quite/ like this…”) I probably should’ve known all along this wasn’t The Monkees.
I don’t know if it helps my credibility to say that I’ve always known “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” another song that sounded nothing like previous Beatles’ efforts, was by the band!
This time it’s John who’s practically solo, playing a 12-string and singing a Bob Dylan-inspired song about the perils of love. It’s a lovely singalong song8, with Ringo adding tambourine and maracas. Flutes show up, as well, some of the first non-rock instrumentation featured on a Beatles record. This is probably as good a time as any to mention the McCartney solo song “Yesterday,” which also features non-rock instruments. It’s hard to really say much about this song. It’s incredible, it’s everywhere, its simple lyrics are universally felt … it may be the most popular song ever written.
The Beatles were really stretching out for this record, a fact that makes a strong statement about the band. After the mega-success of the film and album A Hard Day’s Night, they could have easily just coasted and hacked up a few more sound-clone ditties. Instead, right off the top, they open with a pop song unlike any that had been heard before: “Help!”
For one thing, the lyrics are very raw and honest, even though most pop fans probably didn’t think much about their meaning. But most of all, the contrapuntal melody sung by Paul was a technique unheard of in a 3-minute teeny-bopper record. George plays a cool descending riff (first heard at 0:09). John’s acoustic strumming on the song is really great, and Ringo’s drumming drives it all. I love his use of toms, not to mention his tambourine in the chorus. The vocal harmonies are awesome, including the finale “ooo.”
Ringo’s drumming is great throughout, but let’s not forget his vocals! He gets a lead vocal on the Buck Owens classic “Act Naturally.” He does a great job on humorous lyrics about being a loser in love, and Paul’s harmonies enhance it all. George also gets a couple tracks of his own this time around, including the standout “I Need You.”
The best parts of this song are Paul’s bass and George’s electric guitar, its sound augmented by a volume pedal. Ringo breaks out his cowbell, and actually played acoustic guitar on the track – that is he played percussion on the back of an acoustic while John played a snare drum! Paul’s harmonies are terrific, and George nails his love song lyrics. It’s one of my favorite George songs. One of my least favorite is his other offering on Help!, “You Like Me Too Much,” a song about being a jerk. I think if it had appeared on Please Please Me or Beatles For Sale I may have more tolerance for it. But it’s rather simple, and the “I really do!” in the bridge is almost amateurish. But the chord changes are nice, and George is great, so I won’t say anything more.
Besides “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and the title track, Lennon also gets introspective on the love song “It’s Only Love.”
Harrison plays a cool electric guitar part throughout – both rhythm and subtle leads – and the acoustic strumming (both George and John are credited on acoustic) is fantastic. Ringo breaks out his trusty tambourine again. Lennon is in fine voice (he even rolls an “r” in the word “bright” for some Lennon-y reason) and it’s a truly lovely song. I also like his “You’re Going to Lose That Girl,” a warning to a friend that turns into a warning about himself! Excellent three-part harmony here, with George and Paul tearing it up, particularly in the bridge! Ringo breaks out bongoes, and I’m starting to realize that this entire album could be capably reproduced by a few folks around a fire with acoustic guitars and bongoes and tambourine. I’m sure it’s been done.
Although, it might be difficult to reproduce my favorite track on Help!, the riff-based classic “Ticket to Ride.”
I love Ringo’s drums throughout this song – the toms, the syncopation. I also really love the droning, buzzing guitar heard throughout9. And Paul’s high harmonies throughout are brilliant, as he helps John on lyrics about a girl that’s going away. The guitar solo, and lead fills, are also played by Paul. It’s a great, electric song.
Another song that wouldn’t be terribly suited to acoustic strumming is the cover “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” It’s a fine song, I guess, but by Help! I’m rather over hearing John sing a cover song. I’d rather hear Lennon and McCartney team up, like on the lovely, mellow “Tell Me What You See.”
This may actually be my favorite song on the album. (It’s so hard to choose.) Their voices are so perfect together, Ringo’s on claves again, George strokes a guiro, and that electric piano break (1:04, 1:49, and at the very end) from Paul is awesome – as are Ringo’s drums coming out of it. Paul is trying to convince a girl that she should recognize he’s the one for her. Of course, another song on Help! points out that if she doesn’t, well, he has got “Another Girl.” McCartney plays the countrified lead electric guitar throughout, which is stellar! John sings a cool high harmony, and the three part harmony through the bridge is once again amazing.
Help! is really a new direction for The Beatles. But the didn’t totally abandon the driving, pop song gems that they originally rode to success. Check out “The Night Before.”
Ringo’s back on the full kit, slamming that ride cymbal, the vocal oohs and ahhs are primed to make the girls scream, and Paul begs them to treat him right, his memories of last night bringing tears to his eyes! George and Paul play an electric guitar duet, and it’s just like the good old days of 1963.
This album broke the mold for the band. But maybe it set the mold for the bands and artists in the rest of the 1960s. It showed the public that anything was possible in pop music. Why, even a bunch of actors thrown together for a silly TV show could create some amazing stuff; all they had to do was follow the originals. They might even end up fooling some people!
“The Night Before”
“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”
“I Need You”
“You’re Going to Lose That Girl”
“Ticket to Ride”
“It’s Only Love”
“You Like Me Too Much”
“Tell Me What You See”
“I’ve Just Seen a Face”
“Dizzy Miss Lizzy”