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5th Favorite Beatles Album: Help!

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Help!
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.

This image of a TV pathologist indicates I still may not know what chemistry is.

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 interview. The point is that even topics that I supposedly know a lot about can sometimes leave me in the dark.

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 producers to capitalize on American Beatle-mania. 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-mobile … 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 MTV 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 feel. “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 song, 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 throughout. 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!

TRACK LISTING:
“Help!”
“The Night Before”
“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”
“I Need You”
“Another Girl”
“You’re Going to Lose That Girl”
“Ticket to Ride”
“Act Naturally”
“It’s Only Love”
“You Like Me Too Much”
“Tell Me What You See”
“I’ve Just Seen a Face”
“Yesterday”
“Dizzy Miss Lizzy”

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Here Come The Beatles!

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So, now that I’ve spent a good five or six years of my life on this blog, having listened to all my CDs, and ranked them, and counted down my Favorite 100, what should I do with all my free time?

Please Please Me

I got some advice from a variety of people who – bless them – were concerned with either my mental health or the functionality of my ears based on the list of Favorite Albums I finally generated. Much of the advice involved, frankly, impossible tasks relating to places to shove albums or keyboards, or techniques involving sharp objects and my ears which did not really appeal to me.

With The Beatles

A few people thought I should count down other favorite things: TV shows, books, movies, podcasts … Such lists don’t interest me as much as counting down albums. This is because I grew up in an era when Albums Mattered. The books and TV shows and movies a person likes – well, these things have always been interesting to discuss. But among my cohort – I’m going to throw out some numbers and say folks born between 1962 and 1975 – one’s taste in music and albums was important and defining, and often ascribed a listener to a tribe, of sorts.

A Hard Day’s Night

I wrote about this some in my write up of The Who’s Who’s Next album (#37 on my list). For many folks in my cohort, it mattered whether you listened to 60s Rock or Hard Rock or Top Forty or R&B or Metal or Hip-Hop or Punk or College Rock. It was shorthand, it was a marker, it told everyone else who you were.

Beatles For Sale

And like all stereotypes and labels it was pure bullshit. There is perhaps nothing more ridiculous and pathetic in my past than being a 15 year old white boy in rural PA in 1983 loving Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” or Yaz’s “Situation,” or Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue,” or The English Beat’s “Save It for Later” – waiting for the radio or MTV to play them, dancing and enthusing along to them whenever I heard them, learning the lyrics to sing along, even secretly buying the cassettes – but then going to high school and mocking those songs and their listeners while trying to build an oral argument for the genius of, say, Quiet Riot.

Help!

The music you loved back then mattered, and it mattered, frankly, too much. And yet, that residue sticks to me. My musical tastes have grown more diverse, and I no longer make a value judgement against fans of any type of music. But the feeling that the music I like is important remains. I’m 52 now, and I don’t mind saying I like a little-known Buffalo Tom record more than any Rolling Stones record. Or that a record by my buddy’s band, The April Skies, means more to me than a Led Zeppelin album. These considerations define me.

Rubber Soul

And perhaps no tribe defines me more than The Beatles Tribe. I’ve resisted adding them to my rankings because I know I can’t compare them to other artists’ records. I’ve written before that they’d simply be the top of my list, then everyone would come after, so it seemed pointless to include them.

But now I don’t know what to do with myself, so I’m going to go ahead and rank them.

Revolver

I’ve decided that the albums I’ll rank will be UK versions. I’m only going to include records released while the band was active, so compilations, remixes, bonus tracks, etc, will not be included. So here’s what will be included, in chronological order:

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Please Please Me (1963), With The Beatles (1963), A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Beatles For Sale (1964), Help! (1965), Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Magical Mystery Tour (1967), The Beatles (aka ‘The White Album’) (1968), Yellow Submarine (1969), Abbey Road (1969), and Let It Be (1970).

Magical Mystery Tour

US releases will not be included. This means the following titles are not included: Introducing … The Beatles (1964), Meet The Beatles (1964), The Beatles’ Second Album (1964), Something New (1964), Beatles ’65 (1964), Beatles VI (1965) and Yesterday … And Today (1966). Additionally, the American versions of the records listed in the previous paragraph will not be part of the ratings.

The Beatles

I’ve already begun re-listening to all these records, and what I am most struck by is this: The Beatles are fucking amazing. They’re not overrated in the least. They are collectively more impressive than any other band I know, with a higher percentage of good, great and excellent songs on their albums than any other band I can think of. And they sustained that percentage over the course of 13 records in eight years!

Yellow Submarine

I’m not saying all their songs are great, or even good. They had some clunkers, and there are definitely some songs of theirs that I could skip. But the number of misses is surprisingly low.

Another thing I’m noticing in revisiting all these albums and listening closely is this: each of the four Beatles, individually, is an excellent musician and performer.

Abbey Road

I’ll start with Ringo Starr, as he is often the most-maligned of the group. Because he’s not a drummer in the powerful, intricate and bombastic style of, say, John Bonham/Neil Peart/Keith Moon, Ringo is thought of by many non-musicians as a dud. However, go ask any drummer and they’ll tell you about Ringo’s brilliance. Better yet, listen to the drums in, say, “Here Comes the Sun,” or “Rain,” or “I Feel Fine,” or “I Saw Her Standing There.”

Let It Be

And George Harrison is an overlooked guitarist and songwriter. His rockabilly/Carl Perkins style set the tone for the band early on, and he always played something interesting, whether during a solo or as a background guitar. Paul and John are outstanding singers, and writers – obviously – and Paul’s lead guitar on songs such as “Good Morning, Good Morning,” and “Taxman” and “Ticket to Ride” is terrific.

So I can understand why I like these guys so much. They’re really good! And I’m going to have a blast listening closely to each of these 13 records. Deciding which ones I like best is not going to be easy, but for you, dear reader, I will do my best. Look for something new in a week or two! And thanks again for reading.

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