My Independence Seems to Vanish in the Haze: Help! At 55
The Fabs’ 1965 movie/album was the last gasp of Beatlemania
Help! was the last gasp of Beatlemania, though no one knew it at the time.
How could they? For the Beatles, 1965 was a retread of the triumphs of 1964: world tours, chart topping records, a feature film. Help!, and its accompanying singles, easily reached No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, while the film for which the album was the soundtrack was a worldwide smash as well.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
But in truth, the bloom was already coming off the rose. The tours were shorter, as the Beatles were getting tired of the chaos that surrounded them on the road. And while their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, had garnered critical accolades for its perceived social commentary and innovative cinematography, Help! was less well received. In fairness, Help! was more of a trifle, with the plot — the Beatles are pursued around the world by an Eastern religious cult trying to get their hands on a ring that has ended up on Ringo Starr’s finger — the kind of insubstantial story you’d expect from an Elvis film. Indeed, Presley’s Harum Scarum, released the same year, also looked East, with a plot equally as silly: Elvis plays an actor visiting a fictional Middle Eastern country, who’s kidnapped by rebels who want him to kill the king.
VIDEO: Harum Scarum trailer
But Presley was stuck singing dross like “Kismet,” “My Desert Serenade,” and “Shake That Tambourine” in his film, while the Beatles, of course, fared far better. Even at the time of its release, Help! wasn’t the Beatles’ strongest album, but it still contained its share of masterpieces. The title track for one, the first Beatles composition that wasn’t about love. It’s a naked plea for salvation, which John Lennon (its primary composer) contended he didn’t like because “we did it too fast, to try to be commercial,” thus papering over his unhappiness. In fact, it’s that disconnect — downbeat lyrics, upbeat music — that gives the song its depth.
“Ticket to Ride” is the other standout, Lennon watching the dissolution of a relationship with a world-weary sigh, set against jangling guitars (the lead guitar on this outing played by Paul McCartney, who nonetheless mimed playing bass in the song’s videos), and Starr’s rolling beat. Lennon’s just as philosophical on the confessional “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” the first entirely acoustic performance by the band. It’s also the first song with a contribution from an outside musician (the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, had played on a number of their tracks), John Scott, who plays a flute solo.
The remaining film songs are good, solid pop. Lennon’s “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” highlighted the Beatles’ expert harmonies, the film showing the group ostensibly recording the song in the studio. McCartney’s breezy “The Night Before” and George Harrison’s tentative “I Need You” (which used a tone pedal to give the guitar a different sound) were used in sequences where the Beatles were seen recording at Stonehenge, because, hey, it’s photogenic! McCartney’s “Another Girl” has a cheeky arrogance (the singer boasts about dumping his girlfriend for a new love, plucked from all the many beauties surrounding him: “She’s sweeter than all the girls/And I’ve met quite a few”), but it’s used to good effect in the film, in a sequence showing the group frolicking in the sunny Bahamas. The same concept was applied to “Ticket to Ride,” showing the group frolicking in snowy Austria. The Monkees got an entire TV series out of those two clips.
In the U.S., Help! was treated as a true soundtrack, with the rest of the record filled out with the ersatz James Bond-style instrumentals used in the film (and featuring the same guitarist who played the Bond theme’s signature guitar riff, Vic Flick). The UK version, which is now the standard format for the catalogue, followed the Hard Day’s Night release in having the film songs on side one, and the non-film songs on side two. And though you’d assume the Beatles are semaphoring “HELP” in the cover shot, they’re not. Photographer Robert Freeman didn’t like the hand signs for those letters, so Lennon signed “U,” McCartney signed “J,” Harrison signed “N,” and Starr signed “V.” So on the UK covering, they’re signing NUJV; the us cover has the Beatles in a different order, signing NVUJ. Now you know.
VIDEO: Veruca Salt’s dad tries to remove the ring from Ringo’s finger in Help!
The non-soundtrack songs are mixed bag. There are two covers. “Act Naturally,” a country number originally recorded by Buck Owens, has a one joke theme that’s suited to Starr’s one note voice. The rocker “Twist and Shout” had been chosen to close the Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me, with a bang, and the group tried the same trick again, with Lennon shouting his way through Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” It’s a more labored performance than the earlier song, and it also ended up being the last cover the Beatles recorded.
And speaking of labored, there’s “Tell Me What You See,” whose jerky rhythms make the song sound forced, a bid for complexity that doesn’t quite come off. Harrison’s “You Like Me Too Much” might sound sweet, but lyrically it shows him to be just as much of a cynic regarding matters of the heart as Lennon.
But there are also songs that pointed to the future. Lennon never liked “It’s Only Love,” because of what he called its “abysmal lyrics.” But the mellow warmth of the guitar parts in particular (Harrison recording three lead guitar lines, again making judicious use of tone pedal) anticipates the autumnal glow of the next album, Rubber Soul. Indeed, “It’s Only Love” would open side two of the U.S. edition of that album. The country-rock flavor of McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face” also showed the group expanding their musical horizons. It would be chosen to open side one of the U.S. Rubber Soul, and was one of the few Beatles songs McCartney performed at his live shows in the 1970s.
And then there’s “Yesterday.” It was the first song to feature no other Beatles besides its composer, McCartney. McCartney had been tinkering with the song for months, having the melody but no suitable lyrics. When they were finally completed, it still was uncertain whether it qualified as a “Beatles” song, as the rest of the group felt they could add nothing to it; McCartney even offered the song to other artists. Finally, McCartney agreed to record it himself, backed by a string quartet, after insisting to Martin (who wrote the arrangement) that he didn’t want any of “that Mantovani rubbish.” Martin wrote a typically tasteful score, its restraint matching the perfect simplicity of McCartney’s song. It also introduced the Beatles to the concept of using classical instruments in their work, an idea that would come into fruition in a few years. Though the Beatles insisted it was too much of a solo work to be released as a single in the UK, the U.S. had no such hesitation in releasing it, and it became another No. 1. “Yesterday” eventually became one of the most recorded songs in history.
Help! shows the Beatles at a crossroads. They were able to produce what was required — the needed songs for the upcoming film — but were also clearly looking to stretch out, introducing new sounds and musical styles into their work. “Help!,” “Ticket to Ride,” and “Yesterday” weren’t the stuff of teeny-bopper dreams. The Beatles were maturing, and their next album would see them vault into full on adulthood. With an audience still eager to see what they would come up with next.
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