14
Mar 05

THE BEATLES – “Help!”

Popular24 comments • 2,372 views

#200, 7th August 1965

Such a strange way to begin a song: “so much younger than today” – nostalgia? regret? at their age? at this of all points, with medals round their necks, with the pop future they helped create expanding by the week? But there it is – The Beatles aren’t happy. Or John Lennon isn’t, but the group still sound like a collective, something the tight harmonies here only emphasise.

(I’ve always assumed, as an aside, that nobody in the audience really cared until later which Beatle wrote what. That the “Lennon/McCartney” conceit fooled most of the people, or that they let themselves be fooled, maybe even until the band split.)

Up until 1965 the Beatles’ singles are all first person – an “I”, a “you”, a tension. Most hits then were first person, most still are, but from ’66 onwards the Beatles often drop the directness of the “I” for singles that work as narratives, or as advice, or they locate the “I” firmly in childhood or the Liverpool past. Most Beatles books put this introspection and diffusion down to drugs or music hall or both. At the same time the Stones were on a run of hits that turned the pop “I” into something focused and hostile, working through its implications in ways other bands turned away from.

Meanwhile, with “Help!” the Beatles make one last barbed beat boom hit. The music – bright, brisk, remorseless – taunts the lyric, McCartney’s bass dancing smartly through the song, chivvying the singer even as he’s cracking up. It sounds like what it is – a knockabout soundtrack to a bit of slapstick business, professionally turned out to tip-top standards. The band keep the quality high even as they’re admitting that this particular brand of fun has run out of puff.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Alan Connor on 14 Mar 2005 #

    My memories of “Help!” are, more than a track on my parents’ Red Album, more even than Bananarama & La Na Nee Nee Noo Noo’s cover, some sitcom which I seem to remember was shit.

    I wonder what proportion of the ’60s #1s were brought back into service for TV themes, ads, soundtracks etc in the 1980s?

  2. 2
    Anonymous on 14 Mar 2005 #

    “The music – bright, brisk, remorseless – taunts the lyric.” Excellent insight, Tom. I think that for a long time “Help!” was placed by many (if not most) into the category of “beat song” without much regard for the lyrics. Indeed, if anyone were really listening to the lyrics, the song would undermine its function as the theme song of a film which, after all these years, I find almost too painfully stupid to watch. (All the same, the bogus “Third World” terrorists and the assassination attempts on the Beatles have, in their way, proved all too prescient for comfort.)

    I have to wonder if, to some degree, Lennon was responding in agitation to being forced into performing such juvenile nonsense, hence the sense of feeling “so much older.”

    While this is a very good Beatles recording, what keeps it from being a great one are those incongruities Tom has observed.

    Doctor Mod

  3. 3
    Tom on 14 Mar 2005 #

    I actually think the incongruities make it better – set up an interesting tension in the song.

    Re. Lennon – yes quite possibly. The band’s expected work schedule must have been huge (3-4 years in the public eye is the current pop band lifespan before frustration and burnout seem to inevitably set in, and I doubt the circuit was much easier in the mid 60s) and this as much as boredom with the material would make someone feel old.

  4. 4
    Anonymous on 14 Mar 2005 #

    From Allna W Polloack Notes ON Series :

    Even in this context, though, the song “Help!” would appear to have pushed the envelope, given its chronological place within the cannon, just shy of mid-career, and its rather “psychiatric” choice of words.
    Check your lyrical concordance; it’s the only Beatles song where you’ll find the words “independence,” “self-assured,” or “insecure.”

    - But don’t be fooled into thinking that we’re dealing with a kind of perverse impulse to recklessly cast John “against type,” running the risk, big time, of blowing such a carefully cultivated image.

    - Rather it’s precisely *because* of the cross casting here that the overall production it work as well as it does! Consider the alternatives. Tough guy singing tough songs is okay but predictable. Nebbish singing nebbishy songs is, yech, pathetic. Nebbish singing tough songs not fully believable. But take the one who always jokes and laughs like a clown and have him admit to his private indulgence in copious tears that fall like rain from the sky — and now you’ve really got something. Maybe those PR folks really knew what they were doing :-)

  5. 5
    Frank Kogan on 14 Mar 2005 #

    The Beatles aren’t happy. Or John Lennon isn’t…

    Wait, did he sound brimming with delight in “Ticket to Ride”? Or “Not a Second Time” or “You Can’t Do That” or “I’m a Loser” (another song in which he presented himself as something other than invulnerable) or “Hey You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (not to mention “Anna” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” and “Money”)? The incongruities (if that’s what they are) are in the music from the get-go – “Please please me like I please you,” i.e., why aren’t you keeping your end of the bargain? – the color and the flash and the fantastic harmonies and the “Yeah Yeah Yeah” all accompanying the doggedly unhappy love life and the pang that’s always in John’s voice.

    This is what a lot of pop does, like putting tension in the plot, which is why I wouldn’t think “incongruities” is the right word.

    Also, the “I” remains in John’s songs, implied when not stated, though as he goes on he’s addressing the listener more, starting with “Nowhere Man,” so the “you” isn’t necessarily some girl, it’s, you know, you. “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao…” and it’s John talking to you. Except when he’s talking to himself, trying to convince himself it’s gettin’ better all the time (and he’s no longer cruel to his woman, no longer beats her and keeps her apart from the things that she loves?) (yeah, he divorces her instead).

  6. 6
    Marcello on 15 Mar 2005 #

    The Bananarama cover was for Comic Relief, with French & Saunders and Kathy Burke.

  7. 7
    Tom on 15 Mar 2005 #

    Frank – yes, “happy” a lazy choice of words there, it’s the implication of age and weariness that separates “Help!” from those other songs.

    My gut feeling is that an implied “I” has different effects from a stated “I” but I’ll have to think about how/why/what.

  8. 8
    Anonymous on 15 Mar 2005 #

    I think Alan Connor was referring to a late-80s sitcom starring a minor McGann – a sort of Bread lite. Nimble. I expect the Bootleg Beatles provided the theme.

    MJ.

  9. 9
    p^nk s on 15 Mar 2005 #

    haha “check your lyrical concordance”

    i seem to have left mine somewhere!! along with my wisden’s and my bradshaw perhaps!!

  10. 10
    Marcello on 15 Mar 2005 #

    “Help!” is best heard in tandem with “In My Life” from the same year. 25 years old and Lennon’s already mired in rueful nostalgia (“Some are dead and some are living”). Although we are supposed to be reassured by the concluding sentiment that the present (“I love you more”) is always preferable to trying forlornly to recapture a past, the traumatic sob of the song’s title as the music pauses (to die?) right before the end indicates a greater grief which makes the song the other bookend to “Cold Turkey.”

  11. 11
    p^nk s on 15 Mar 2005 #

    cf “julia lennon theory 101″ of course!!

  12. 12
    Alan Connor on 16 Mar 2005 #

    You’re absolutely right, MJ: I can see the Bootleg Beatles’ name on the closing credits now.

    Ah, I see. Stephen McGann. Rescheduled as a children’s show? And thanks for the Nimble laughter.

  13. 13
    Paulito on 19 Feb 2011 #

    @5 “Getting Better” is one of Macca’s.

  14. 14
    lonepilgrim on 19 Feb 2011 #

    Returning to Tom’s opening line, I suspect that that Lennon’s lyric was influenced by ‘Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’ from Dylan’s ‘My Back Pages’

  15. 15
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISCS WATCH:

    Rita Tushingham ,actress(1965)

    Adele Leigh, soprano(1965)

    Robert Carrier(1965)

    Henry Cooper, boxer(1966)

    Jeffrey Archer, politician, novelist(1981)

    Leo Mckern, actor(1984)

    Gerry Cottle, circus owner(1984)

    Gordon Kaye, actor(1991)

    David Jason, actor(1994)

    Derek Jamieson, broadcaster, journalist(1994).

  16. 16
    Lena on 29 Jul 2011 #

    And in second place, another anthem: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2011/07/nothing-left-to-lose-animals-we-gotta.html Thanks for reading as ever & see some of you this Sunday!

  17. 17
    Lena on 2 Aug 2011 #

    Also in second place, the opposite: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2011/08/in-the-same-boat-fortunes-youve-got-your.html Thanks for reading as always!

  18. 18
    lonepilgrim on 1 Feb 2012 #

    Meanwhile, over in the USA Hermans Hermits hit the number one spot, as noted here:
    http://nohardchords.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/141-hermans-hermits-im-henry-viii-i-am/

  19. 19
    lonepilgrim on 28 Feb 2012 #

    ‘Help!’ was also a Number 1 over in the USA – as noted here: http://nohardchords.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/143-the-beatles-help/

  20. 20
    Jimmy the Swede on 19 Jun 2012 #

    Victor Spinetti RIP.

  21. 21
    punctum on 19 Jun 2012 #

    Terrible news in a terrible year for deaths. I saw his one-man show at the Donmar Warehouse in the early nineties. It was really just him reminiscing about all the big stars he’d worked with in his time but he was approachable, genial and very, very funny. RIP big Italo-Welshman.

  22. 22
    enitharmon on 20 Jun 2012 #

    The RIP for Victor Spinetti might have been placed more apositely under A Hard Day’s Night, in which he played the TV director. AHDN was much the better film.

  23. 23
    Mark G on 20 Jun 2012 #

    His brain was draining…

  24. 24
    hectorthebat on 14 Apr 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 29
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 259
    Greil Marcus (USA) – STRANDED: “Treasure Island” Singles (1979)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 53
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Greatest Beatles Songs (2010) 15
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 29
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 29
    Stephen Spignesi and Michael Lewis (USA) – The 100 Best Beatles Songs (2004) 26
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    Guinness Book of Hits of the ’60s (UK, 1984) – Tim Rice’s Top 10 Songs
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 56
    Mojo (UK) – The 101 Greatest Tracks by The Beatles (2006) 53
    Q (UK) – 50 Greatest British Tracks (2005) 12
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 469
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Sounds (UK) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1986) 57
    Uncut (UK) – The 50 Greatest Beatles Tracks (2001) 20
    Now & Then (Sweden) – The Beatles’ 50 Best Songs (1992) 7
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Rolling Stone (France) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 3
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

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