Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Beatles: Help! (1965)



Help! is the first Beatles album that feels unfinished, which is perhaps because its songs -- again split in half between material from the film of the same name and new album-only cuts -- mark a distinct turning point in the band's career. A slight feeling of discombobulation results, with some cuts forging completely new territory and others that can seem like pale imitations of the Beatles circa 1963 except somewhat forced and overproduced.

Virtually everything included on either side of the album is enjoyable, but a few songs have a kind of fluffiness unknown on the prior four Beatles LPs (not to mention their singles), a few of the sugary McCartney-led covers ("Till There Was You," "A Taste of Honey") notwithstanding. Rigid format duties are adhered to, but never again -- Help! is the last time the Beatles included covers on an album, and really, what else could do they do after Beatles for Sale? A tepid take on Buck Owens' "Act Naturally" is the rigid backdrop for the obligatory Ringo lead, and he's out of his league here. Larry Williams' "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" boasts a lovely guitar sound but never takes off, and has the doubly unfortunate position of closing the album and coming after, well, "Yesterday." Thus, the problem with the post-mania Beatles: on the sparse occasions when they want to rock & roll the way they used to, they demonstrate that the manic, dirty energy of their heyday has left them behind.

They have ways of dealing with this. Witness the whole of Beatles for Sale, and the advance single from this album, "Ticket to Ride." Lopsided and seductive, it rolls along loudly, but it is not akin in many ways to the pop music churned out by the Beatles through mid-1964. They're finding new ways to have fun, which is precisely why despite everything, Help! is endearing even in its weaker moments, and infectious as its best. But it's not the easiest adjustment, and John and Paul respectively come up with the by-the-numbers "You're Going to Lose That Girl" and "Another Girl," both of which yearn for the Shirelles and Eddie Cochran of their youth but come up empty; they're just devoid of sincerity and spirit of any kind. They're not charmless, but they make the album seem like that much more of a learning experience.

The big-budget four-track superstar production doesn't help. Stereo sound does this music no favors... it sounds slick, contrived, and overblown more than you'd expect possible for an album of 1965. [Note: At the time I wrote this, I was only intimately familiar with the album's original CD release, which uses George Martin's reverb-laden, sterile 1987 remix, hence this accusation; the original 1965 stereo version is oddly balanced at times but far less dated.] Even "Tell Me What You See," not a bad song even if it does resemble a slowed-down "I Want to Hold Your Hand," finds a pleasant John-Paul ballad pushed over the edge into sugary Chad & Jeremy territory... and without the aid of strings!

All of the above problems -- keeping in mind that none of those songs or performances except "Act Naturally" are bad at all -- are cancelled out by three cases in which the production works beautifully. The sound is aurally huge, creating an almost baroque effect on Paul's prototype-disco "The Night Before," George's gorgeous "I Need You," and John's almost subliminally blissful "It's Only Love." It helps that all three are leaping with sunny pop hooks, and that the first two are accompanied by happy memories of a phenomenal sequence in the film Help!. The record also provides a first for George Harrison: he contributes two songs this time around -- "I Need You" and "You Like Me Too Much," which has the guitarist overreaching a bit on vocals but features a good band performance. The lyrics (and title) are obnoxious, but oh well. Neither song is as strong as "Don't Bother Me," but they can easily claim to be on a par with John and Paul's weaker cuts this time out, and "I Need You" eclipses several of their offerings.

And then there's "Yesterday." Paul's most alluring melody ever -- it came to him in a dream, presumably of the kind unlikely to strike us mere mortals -- sounds a toll against his haunting lyrics with perfect synchronicity. Alas, despite its enduring popularity, t's not the masterwork it could be; George Martin, in one of his less admirable moves, puts strings on it, and really awful, schmaltzy strings at that. (Paul is right to bitch about what Spector did to "The Long and Winding Road" but is this much less a crime?) The song is still one for the record books if only for the startling, ghostly tale it generates and the way it turns youthful longing into a sophisticated, universal emotion; if you want to really hear the song, hear Ray Charles or Tammy Wynette sing it. But even in the Beatles' solo-Paul rendition, it takes the audience manipulation in pop of the early '60s to a new level while remaining a personal experience beyond the reach of the generally desired (or at least presumed) impact of a rock & roll record. It also marks the beginning of the Beatles' being thought of as more than mere "rock stars."

For my money, though, anyone who honestly believes "Yesterday" to be either a perfect pop song or Paul's best one has never heard "I've Just Seen a Face," which is just before it on the album and is still lingering by the time the record ends. There's nothing cloying or obvious here, and it's direct enough to exist wholly outside the plane of the British Invasion universe and the cultural mushroom cloud of the '60s. Moreover, its sentiments are franker, less studied, their spontaneous joy more powerful than the more famous song's poetic despair. Unlike "Yesterday," it is a joyful, unapologetic rock & roll ballad, with leaping percussion and guitars and wordless intensity, all in an ecstatic love song. Which is the stronger recording, forty years later?

Neither if you let John Lennon in the house. With "Help!" he does the unthinkable: he upstages "A Hard Day's Night" in the strange miniature subcategory of film title songs. But more importantly, he creates the Beatles' most personal, undiluted, and electrifying single outside of his own "Strawberry Fields Forever" two years hence. Lennon's vocals here are exhilarating... you can feel the importance of the song and its lyrics to a lost, terrified man, and it's a hell of a statement coming from one of the world's most famous people. Everything clicks, as it does so often with the Beatles, but it's clear whose song it is and whose it isn't; the seeds are planted for the group's undoing already. "Help!" will be remembered long after "Yesterday," if there's any justice in the world.

Help! is also home, incidentally, to what gets my vote as the most moving song in the Beatles' catalog. It is credited as a nod to Bob Dylan, but it has a depth and immediacy that could belong only to John Lennon. Whether you take "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" to be a veiled message about homosexuality directed toward manager Brian Epstein or a typically wounded relationship ballad -- a more verbose "Yesterday," if you will -- the heart-wrenching acoustic guitars and the beauty of the words don't lie. As on "Help!," John Lennon's voice is a magnetic instrument, every syllable drowning in nuance, quiet agony, and thrilling elegance. One second of his vocal is worth a thousand pictures.

Hearing Help! with a more than passing familiarity of the Beatles' history and output, one could easily figure out its placement as the album between Beatles for Sale and Rubber Soul even without the aid of books and copyright dates. It's the clearest possible stopgap between those two masterpieces, and unquestionably lets in some artistic fatigue for the first time while forging ahead in unexpected, endlessly surprising ways. For a bridge between two great and powerful recordings, though, it's a hell of a fine LP on its own, warts and all.


[Slightly altered version of a review first posted in 2003.]

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