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Aug 06

JOE COCKER – “With A Little Help From My Friends”

FT + Popular34 comments • 4,458 views

#260, 9th November 1968

 

First appearance at Number One for this hardy perennial: probably the best version to reach the top, which is saying something about the others as I still can’t stand it. The charm of the Beatles’ original – yet another Beatles song about togetherness, friendship, the importance of not being lonely – is that it’s Ringo singing it, and he’s not very good at singing so the help is tangibly needed.

So what happens when a great bluesy ox of a singer gets hold of it? The track gets quite a lot longer, and a great deal louder, and you can feel the charm being steamrollered out: who needs charm when you have force on your side? Ian Macdonald in Revolution In The Head mentions that the song became an anthem for “Woodstock Nation” and it certainly has an epic quality: everything in the song is massive, with Cocker’s performance probably the subtlest thing here. He stumbles and howls convincingly, but I still can’t help but regret that a sweet and hopeful song has got this Samson in the temple treatment. For me it’s an illustration of Cover Version Rule#1: if you slow something down, it becomes more serious. But that doesn’t make it more meaningful, and it surely doesn’t make it better.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Mark Grout on 31 Aug 2006 #

    Of course, Bill Oddie’s version of “Ilkley Moor Baht Aht” should be cited here.

  2. 2
    Pete on 31 Aug 2006 #

    Not to mention The Wonder Years, which resurrected this song for a whole new generation of blues-scared teenagers and initricably coupled it in their brain with insipid life lesson learning sitcoms.

    “You know, that’s when I realised that though my Dad was some sort of righteous smiting Zeuslike vengeful God in my brain, in everyone elses brain he was the guy down the street who looked a bit like Fred Flintstone”.

  3. 3
    pˆnk s lord sükråt cunctør on 31 Aug 2006 #

    bin laden = joe cocker fan

  4. 4
    wwolfe on 31 Aug 2006 #

    This really nails why I don’t care for this version of the song. It’s hard to be loud and humble at the same time, I guess.

    A couple other points that work against it for me. First, the playing seems so sloppy. I’m sure all the musicians are talented, but their performances seem slovenly. Second, this might be THE song where it seems to me that popular music (read: white rock) became impossible to dance to, which I’m convinced is the moment when any particular genre begins to lose its hold on mass popularity. You can’t slow dance to this, you can’t fast dance – really, you can get very stoned, stand in one spot, and sway woozily back and forth. I seem to recall audience members doing in the movie of Woodstock, and it just never seemed like a good time to me.

  5. 5
    jeff w on 31 Aug 2006 #

    This song was on the first record I ever owned (K-Tel’s 22 Dynamic Hits, Vol. II) so I knew it intimately many years before I heard The Beatles cover – erm, the original I mean.

    I did find it rather scary at age 7, but I think it has its plus points (or at least some features of interest).

    While the song is remembered for its OTT-ness, the verses are actually rendered very softly with minimal backing. The way Cocker sings “What/ would you do-oo/ if I sang/ outa toon” and then holds back a bit before rushing the next line with an almost audible ‘sorrowful shake of the head’ works for me: Cocker may be hamming it up, but it’s genuinely pathetic (as in generates a bit of sympathy). But actually he’s lulling you into a false sense of superiority. He’s stronger than you think. He gets by with the help of his friends. Just a little help, but together he and his friends are stronger than you, who is walking out on Joe and his out of toon voice.

    The second verse also offers a different perspective to the original by virtue of having the backing singers sing the second and fourth lines. The focus is thus continuously on Cocker: does it worry YOU, Joe to be alone? “No no” he replies. Are YOU sad to be on your own, Joe? No, Joe gets by… (The way Ringo sings it, the message is more universal, communal)

    It’s not necessarily a better take on the song. But, as I say, it is interesting for the way the meaning is twisted without changing the lyric as such. Jeff’s cover version Rule #1 (if you’re going to cover something, do something new with it) = tick.

  6. 6
    Brian on 31 Aug 2006 #

    Was this the ” Mad Dogs & Englishmen ” days for Joe ? I’m not a big fan of live albums but that was one of the best. And , as I recall , the Woodstock version of this song was a scorcher …

    Number one “live album ‘ever : ” Waiting For Columbus ” by Little Feat.

  7. 7
    Mark Gamon on 31 Aug 2006 #

    Oh, for heaven’s sake, Tom. The ‘charm’ of the Beatles original???

    Sigh. I guess you had to be there at the time to get the Cocker version.

  8. 8
    Mark Gamon on 31 Aug 2006 #

    I’m beginning to think Tom and soul singing don’t mix. THat’s the second time in the last half dozen posts.

  9. 9
    blount on 31 Aug 2006 #

    he liked levi stubbs just fine!

    i like this song (danica mckellar and julie condra possibly why), i like the switch-up between verses, i like the call-and-response of the original taken to its logical soul variant, i like the mock grandeur of those page guitar sweeps during the chorus (ie. ‘5’). this + plus jude – you can see the import and bloat seeping in and cresting over, rock’s a beached whale by this point and 1966 seems a long time ago.

  10. 10
    Chris Brown on 31 Aug 2006 #

    Sorry everyone, I think this is rubbish. I’m not a fan of Joe Cocker generally, but I think he’s done better than this. The fundamental problem is that it’s a silly song they wrote for Ringo to sing. And that’s fine, but it leaves ol’ Joe straining to emote something that just isn’t there. He ends up sounding a bit constipated.

  11. 11
    blount on 1 Sep 2006 #

    he always sounds constipated! he always was constipated! cocker has actually done better, ‘i’m feeling alright/ain’t feeling too good myself’ or whatever it’s called is awesome, one of the great ‘classic rock you can really dance to’ standbys (cf. ‘sympathy for the devil’). that it is just ‘a silly song they wrote for ringo to sing’ helps it i think – if he’d done this with one of the more portentious beatles cuts – ‘yesterday’, ‘you’ve got to hide yr love away’, even – shudder to think of it! – ‘hey jude’ – the result would’ve been more unbearable than one dares imagine! on reflection a pity he didn’t opt for ‘when i’m sixty four’ instead! !!!!

  12. 12
    Tom on 1 Sep 2006 #

    Jeff – I like your take on it, as with wwolfe on Jude I don’t think I feel your take on it, but I like it.

    Blount (2nd post) – OTM!

    Mark – I will respond to this disgraceful slur in future reviews!!

  13. 13
    Tom on 1 Sep 2006 #

    Because I am v.dim I have only just worked out why half the ‘related posts’ are Pulp songs – now there’s a man who knows how to place a vocal interjection.

  14. 14
    pˆnk s lord sükråt cunctør on 1 Sep 2006 #

    i heart the idea of a full-length cocker jude! MERZBOSH!

  15. 15
    CarsmileSteve on 1 Sep 2006 #

    joe or jarvis?

  16. 16
    Oh No It's Dadaismus on 1 Sep 2006 #

    Cocker would appear to be a common name in Sheffield, no?

  17. 17
    Tanya Headon on 1 Sep 2006 #

    I always read it as Cock to be fair.

  18. 18
    jeff w on 1 Sep 2006 #

    Thinking about the song some more overnight, I was struck by how complex* it is (not this recording as such, I mean the writing). In particular, the shifting “you” of the lyric. (Is this the “switch up” that Blount refers to above?) Going back to the Beatles version, the “you” starts out as the person Ringo is singing to, but by the end of the song, the most logical construction is that the “you” is Ringo. And in the middle it’s ambiguous who the “you” is, especially in verse 2. In other words, it’s debatable where the switch-over occurs. The Cocker version irons out a lot of these ambiguities, which may be where it fails, if at all.

    The other thing I meant to say before in defence of the Cocker version is how fab the arrangement is. I mentioned the dynamic range in passing above (and far from the musiciams playing slovenly, as someone said, I hear every beat and pause as incredibly calculated). Not to mention the change from the clomp clomp 4/4 (or skippety skippety 12/8 if you prefer) of the original to waltz time; the Cocker version is not just slowed down. Some thought has gone into how to make it work as a slow dance.

    *substitute “not very well thought through” for “complex” if you prefer. But I don’t think you can dismiss it as a ‘silly song’, if by that is meant ‘tossed off’. There’s too much going on in it for that.

    OK I shut up now.

  19. 19
    Martin Skidmore on 1 Sep 2006 #

    There are few more hideous thoughts than Joe Cocker doing a cover of a Jarvis song like, say, ‘Something Changed’.

  20. 20
    Erithian on 1 Sep 2006 #

    Slightly off topic, but this got me thinking about another cover version which illustrates both Jeff and Tom’s Cover Version Rules – “if you’re going to cover something, do something new with it” and “if you slow something down it becomes more serious but not necessarily better”. I can listen to the original version of “Over the Rainbow”, but Eva Cassidy followed by countless X Factor types have ruined it. “With A Little Help” was a charming lightweight song that was very effectively reworked by Cocker, “Over the Rainbow” was similar but needs to be kept simple – overwrought versions messing about with the phrasing as a substitute for emotion just ruin it.

  21. 21
    Tom on 1 Sep 2006 #

    Taxonomy of cover versions here:

    http://freakytrigger.co.uk/old-ft/nylpm/2004/08/how-to-do-a-cover-version/

  22. 22
    Doctor Mod on 1 Sep 2006 #

    Practical advice for making a cover version:

    Take a BAD song and make it better.

    (if you can……………)

  23. 23
    Chris Brown on 1 Sep 2006 #

    No, I didn’t mean it was silly in the sense of tossed-off; although if Hunter Davies’s account of the writing is accurate, they weren’t at their most focussed, this song is exactly as silly as it’s designed to be, and wholly congruent with the mood of Sgt Pepper. However, Cocker’s building on sand here.
    Of course the other difference, which I think some comments have touched on, is that in the Beatles version there’s literally more than one voice, with John & Paul asking questions that Ringo can reply to (as parodied by the Rutles’ ‘Rendezvous’. Joe doesn’t do this, even though he obviously has backing singers present.

  24. 24
    Doctor Mod on 3 Sep 2006 #

    I’m going to go entirely against the grain here and say that I actually like this recording. Because I don’t think that these “I love/hate this and everyone else is stupid” remarks contribute much to a discussion, though, I’ve been waiting until I could figure out what I like about it.

    I believe/like it because it is absurd. Yes, this recording is absurd. This is a song about acknowledging that one does not, indeed cannot, stand alone. This is completely and unambiguously convincing (not to mention) when sung with Ringo’s quavering baritone. But here we have Cocker’s big growling, grunting, menacing, even bullying voice that seems as if it would tear the song’s sentiments to shreds. If this is not absolutely absurd, it is surely at least incongruous.

    And I like its sense of dialogue. Perhaps my opera background is creeping in here, but what clinches it more me is the section later in the performance where the volume drops and the female voices (including the fabulous Madeline Bell) ask “Would you believe in a love at first sight?”, he responds, with a slight hesitation, “I’m certain that it happens all the time, yeah,” as if this is a completely new idea–a contrast with the previous bluster. (The Beatles, on the other hand, treat this exchange in a very matter-of-fact way, as if there could be no other answer.) This moment comes close to unintentional camp–but not quite. I’m almost convinced it’s sincere–an assumption I rarely make.

    I suppose what I like about it is that it strikes me as if it represents the bully, the bloke without the slightest finesse or subtelty, coming to realize that he isn’t self-sufficient after all. Somehow, this doesn’t seem like what was supposed to happen after the bravura of the opening.

    I won’t say that’s necessarily an improvement over Ringo modestly acknowledging what is already quite apparent. I think the original point of the song what that it was custom-made for Ringo, whose voice bears no resemblance to Joe Cocker’s. (And, by the way, I am still quite fond of the Beatles’ version as well.)

    I could, of course, be entirely wrong. And I daresay that those who disagree can offer reasonable suggestions to the contrary. We like what we like.

    But one other thing that should be said in its favor is that it’s a CREATIVE cover version that doesn’t merely recapitulate what the original did. What’s the point in that? (And that’s the question that I have to ask about the NEXT Beatles cover, coming up soon.

  25. 25
    Tom on 3 Sep 2006 #

    I like Doctor Mod’s bit on dialogue – makes it sound like a song from Dexys’ Don’t Stand Me Down!

  26. 26
    Doctor Mod on 4 Sep 2006 #

    Thank you, Tom.

    Cocker as Caliban, hearing the spirit voices singing……

  27. 27
    pink champale on 20 Mar 2008 #

    i was persuaded by dr mod for a moment there and based on how it sounded it my memory was going to make a case for the absurd vein-bulging, eye-popping intensity of this as an abstract study in extremity, sort of like surfa rosa era pixies. unfortunately you-tubing to check reveals it’s:
    a) not quite as intense as i remember; and
    b) actually pretty horrible.

  28. 28
    Waldo on 27 Oct 2009 #

    Blimey! I really can’t understand how much of a panning this great record has taken from my Popular Pals as I have always regarded it as one of the sixties’ great spectacluars. I thought its usage as a backdrop for “The Wonder Years” worked wonderfully well too. Just goes to show.

    Cocker as Caliban, I can see. Cliff could be cast as Ariel with Ian Anderson lording it over them both as Prospero.

  29. 29
    Dispela Pusi on 17 Dec 2010 #

    An early example of force-feeding the audience with totally bogus emotion, characterised by wandering all around the melody till it’s virtually lost, coupled with an overblown arrangement.

    Nik Cohn, as usual, got it right: “Marjorine” (Joe’s previous waxing) walks all over this.

  30. 30
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISCS WATCH:

    Emma Thompson, actress(2010).

  31. 31
    hectorthebat on 15 May 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (1976) 26
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 604
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Rolling Stone (France) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 72
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  32. 32
    flahr on 22 Dec 2014 #

    RIP, aged 70. I was a bit surprised to discover that given that I remembered this as being a hit at the end of the 80s. I think I was conflating Wet Wet Wet’s cover of same and Jim (not even Joe!) Diamond being an 80s singer.

  33. 33
    Mark M on 22 Dec 2014 #

    Re32: The Cocker version had a certain amount of late ’80s currency as the theme tune to The Wonder Years.

  34. 34
    lonepilgrim on 2 Nov 2016 #

    having grown up as a kid with the Sgt Pepper version – as the only contemporary pop LP my parents owned – I was a bit confused by this. I found Joe’s performance a little scary at the time – this wasn’t how I expected adults to behave. I still find it a bit over egged as a performance. Like many white singers trying to do soul Joe forces the emotion whereas IMO the best soul singers sound as if they are struggling to contain the feeling.

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