Help! (released 6 August 1965)
Dear Help! (with the exclamation mark),
People really seem unable to make up their minds about when George, John, Paul and Ringo left the sphere of popular rock songs and passed on into a psychedelic era, one in which they dared to destroy the existing formulas over and over again. Originally it was Sgt. Pepper, but Revolver and then Rubber Soul became the starting point, and while doing research for this one I came across some articles purporting YOU to show the first glimmers of psychedelic genius. (By absolutely no coincidence, John and George had their first LSD trip just after they started work for this album… and yeah, man, you can feel all the pretty colours… okay, I have no idea what an LSD trip feels like.)
I find this continuous backdating a little absurd: after all, the Beatles were all inhaling drugs in truckloads already. (For the record, I prefer to think of Revolver as the point where it all started.) But you know what? You’re still one of my favourite albums to listen to, and even though you’re not a dreamy, hazy album exploding with creativity, I still love all (and I mean ALL) of your songs. As I’m gonna show in the next 1500 words (or more — I never end up writing to a word limit, as my good professors in CUHK might know), this was a sort of recap for all the Beatles records up till now.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here, and I’m neglecting the review part of this letter! How is it that I’ve gone so far without shoehorning a song title in? I suppose I should “Act Naturally” for this kind of thing. 🙂 I apologize for that terrible effort, but I suppose this is a perfect lead into some context: you were originally a soundtrack for the Beatles’ 1965 film offering, and here’s the weird thing: Help! is the complete antithesis of their earlier film adventure. Whereas A Hard Day’s Night succeeds in its film, I find the songs not up to par; here, your songs vastly outstrip the film you accompanied (which is still passable) in terms of quality. (Don’t be fooled though: all 7 songs written for the film still have no relation to the film whatsoever. Useful to note when you hear “Another Girl” and see Paul playing a woman as if she was a guitar. Yup, it’s a very weird film.)
The reason for that? There’s something for everybody here. Covers of old standards? Check. Songs that harken back to the good old days of rock and roll? Check. Songs that feature George? Right this way, ladies and gentlemen. Songs that rip off Bob Dylan? Check and check again. Songs that describe how colourful the world is under drugs? … okay, that’s for the next album or two. Your songs are crowd-pleasers, each and every one of them, but each song just leaves you hungry for the next track, and all of them are unique in their own way: the perfect blend of art and entertainment.
And all that starts with a little honesty. I realize I’ve been gushing about the words “always be true” since Please Please Me, but this is what DEFINES the Beatles, and it’s really THE something that makes them — and you — great. For right off the bat, you serve us a good helping of honesty with “Help!”. Although it’s a very upbeat song — so upbeat that it sticks in your head and it’s so HELPful — the lyrics paint a different picture: John has abandoned all subtlety and gone straight for a cry for help (or HELP!). You can detect a touch of desperation behind the upbeat arrangements: the singer is anxious, the ground slipping away from his feet, and the direct appeal screams at us even behind a mask of charisma (“help me if you can, I’m feeling down”). If you ask me, that crack is just wide enough for us to realize how much this person is in genuine need of a pat and a hug. John has done sad songs before, but never has it seemed so genuine: this is the first time where he sounds as if he doesn’t know what to do. The arrangement in this song (and your entire body of work, to be honest) is just superb: George’s guitar descends every time the title word is uttered, as if to illustrate the singer falling, falling into an abyss. And tying it all together, making this song possible, is that teensy bit of honesty: because John’s so willing to admit us into what he’s thinking, we get to feel what he feels. We get to pity him. That frankness strikes into our hearts, rallies us to its cause, and is that ingredient which makes this song the work of a genius.
Also this is as good a time as any to talk about how much George’s guitar bits — which I realize I’ve sorely neglected for the past couple of articles — are really becoming an inseparable part of the music for the first time! I could go on for ages about how the arpeggios in “Help” are JUST SO COOL, but I still have another 12 songs to talk about, so instead I’ll tell you all about his equally brilliant way of punctuating his own lyrics in “I Need You” with a couple of guitar chords — a bit like a fanfare on the word “need you” (think “Things We Said Today” from A Hard Day’s Night, but classier). George the guitar player literally makes himself heard with these gestures, asserting his presence with just a single chord. It was while writing this letter that I realized how important George’s guitar playing is to the Beatles: prior to this, George’s guitar playing tended to blend into the background, and you tuned out whenever the vocals took a break. But now, those guitar solos that George put out are just as important as the words: his musical hooks in “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” sound like he’s responding to John’s hyperactive vocals, and they are just as infectious. So having been absent as a creative force for some time, George is beginning to rear his head here. (It’s my personal view, though, that the lyrics of “You Like Me Too Much” leave a little something to be desired. But it’s still cool. BEATLES!)
Talking of dormant talents, it’s delightful to know that even your filler tracks are interesting to listen to. I’m not sure if this has been commented before, but “It’s Only Love”’s opening notes sound like they’ve been inspired (what, “COPIED”? NEVER) from “La Vie en Rose”. (Of course, it’s equally possible that the first five notes are extremely common in popular music, but then again I’m not that concerned.) “I’ve Just Seen a Face”’s intro, meanwhile, sounds like it’s been inspired by the romance bit from Forbidden Games. But even though these bits seem like they’ve been adapted from earlier works, John and Paul provide their own interpretations to these musical clichés, and make them sound like as if you’re hearing that particular version for the first time. After all, these are not just pop songs (bah), these are exquisite pop songs.
You are so exquisite, in fact, that even the way the tracks are presented are worthy of a mention. Note the way two of Paul’s songs are placed: “The Night Before” and “Yesterday”, two titles which could have easily switched titles (“The Day Before” and “Yesternight”?). I know it probably wasn’t intentional when George Martin placed the two of them as the second and second last song on the album respectively, but dang it, they seem to mirror each other so perfectly that it’s impossible not to think of them as something of a bookend. They’re both songs about a love which was right one day and then went horribly wrong the next, and they are both lovely songs. Yes, “The Night Before” is far less lyrically and musically complex than its side two mirror, but the sentiments at its core aren’t any less charming than “Yesterday”, and I still think that it’s such an underappreciated cut of the album.
Speaking of which: who can forget the three classics that spring from this album? “Yesterday” has been analysed to its component atoms by people in the past 54 years, but it’s for a very good reason: it’s an extremely catchy tune, fun to sing — and yet it departs from the popular song formula a LOT too. That string quartet marks the first time we hear Paul (and the Beatles) opting for classical instruments in their music, and it adds a sorrowful touch to the song. It’s not supposed to be a part of rock music — guitars and drums are what we think of when we think of rock, maybe a piano, but not strings — and yet it’s there, the moans of the cello screeching out melancholia. It’s an album full of surprises, so what can I say? Meanwhile, the earlier “Ticket to Ride” does have catchy lyrics and a rather infectious melody (and also another song that the Carpenters stole). Although I’ve never been a huge fan of “Ticket to Ride”, as it doesn’t seem to provide us with enough emotional insight the way “Help” does, the resulting song is still catchy and surprisingly raw with its emotions and arrangements when one compares it to your other tracks: there’s a reason why this is sometimes considered the first hard rock song. (You can credit the Beatles with basically anything in the pop music world and there’s usually a plausible chance that it’ll be the truth.) And Ringo’s drumming — off-kilter but in a pleasurably unexpected way — shows just how far this group has come, and how much potential they had to develop.
Slightly less famous but still pretty well known “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is an explosion of creativity from Paul, a musical collage of styles and genres that don’t take away from how inherently CUTE this track is. I think one might even call this “falling in love in two minutes”: the song is quite a frantic scramble that springs at you from nowhere after a dreamy, romantic intro, as if the singer’s trying in vain to stop all the words from flowing out of him. And this is why we love Paul, is it not? He’s so good at capturing a moment in our lives and articulating how we feel. “Falling, yes I am falling” is simple, yet it’s how we feel when we decide that we love somebody, and so it works. Believe it or not, it’s Paul’s first stab at a country/folk style, and it shows us how good he himself is as a musical innovator.
Not to be outdone, John provides his interpretation of a country style in the critics’ favourite “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”. This one has provided us with loads of speculation on what John actually means (therefore kicking off a phase where John’s lyrics become increasingly indecipherable and he trolls us as we try to dissect them for fragments of John’s supposedly tortured psyche), but I think the music is what is so attractive about the whole song: the meek, vulnerable bits of the verses balanced out by the swinging, widely varied refrains. Lots of people say they can hear Bob Dylan’s influence in this one as well, and I have to say that this is the one where for the first time it doesn’t sound like a mere attempt at emulation: the carefree harmonica solo sounds ironic and stinging against the gloom of the whole song.
Of course, John’s tried a lot of Bob Dylan emulation in the past, but that’s the thing about the Beatles. Even when they revisit things they’ve done before, it’s much more polished and is performed with a lot more panache and confidence compared to earlier albums. They continue their fascination with Latin-style arrangements in “Tell Me What You See”, but my favourite example comes from the end of the album. Consider (if you will) “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”, a VERY blatant attempt of the Four to replicate the ending of “Please Please Me”. (It even has “come on”s to match.) It’s vibrant, it’s shouty… it’s also a little derivative of their earlier efforts. But what the hell, the song is great and the group harmonies sound just like they come from 1963. And who doesn’t love a bit of nostalgia?
But all of these performances, diverse though they may be, have one thing in common: the group dynamic between the three of them (oh, and Ringo) has become even more stunning than you’ve ever heard from them before. “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” is one of my favourite songs from you, and it features some of the best call-and-responses that I’ve ever heard from the three singers, as well as, of course, some stunning bongo work from Ringo (poor man — left out of the letter till now). Here, John hints that his friend needs to do something about his love while George and Paul — look, try as I might, I’ve never been able to get an image of the two of them suddenly popping out of John’s shoulder and delivering those lyrics in a cheeky grin. They come out as a sort of Greek chorus, those little voices agreeing with the singer and teasing the listener with all their repetitions. It’s a tour de force that relies on the backing vocals for its humour, and the three of them trail each other’s vocals just right.
And this is what makes the Beatle dynamic work: their gelling as a group. They might have all sorts of styles to explore, and their music seems to reveal different personalities. But the way they were willing to work together, the way with which Ringo was willing to supply the rhythmic backbone and George, John and Paul provide the adequate harmonies for each other’s work reveal just how well they could work as a group by now. And this song, like all your other songs, shine because of it. What more is there to say? After all, the Beatles’ progress to become the perfect pop and rock group over just three short years cannot be more evident in you. And having perfected the crowd-pleasing formula, it was obvious that there was nowhere to go from there, but up. And you know what, I recant all I said about you not being the trailblazer. After all, you show how the Beatles were ready to start revolutionizing the world of popular music and send listeners into a whole new realm of possibilities: and that stems from you being the best pop album ever produced.
I really should shorten these…
Favourite track: This is the complete antithesis of the problem I had while writing the piece for A Hard Day’s Night: I like all of them equally! However, none of the songs have the emotional complexity — and for me, resonance — of “Help”, which is so honest and yet so catchy that it’s the song which I still sing, partially to make myself happier, when I feel down and that I can’t do it alone.
(Featured image from cover of Help!, copyright EMI Music/Parlophone Records.)