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.