Tuesday, July 10, 2018
The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- Help! (1965)
RECOMMENDED (rating for the PC outtakes package, not the album)
Help! is arguably the least engaging of the Beatles' LPs from the first half of their career, though it still sparkles at times; and curiously it provides the basis for one of the most fun of these early, lean Purple Chick sets... but maybe it's not such a mystery. As it happens, Help! is the first Beatles album for which songs were properly recorded that really truly genuinely never made it to release (at least until the 1990s), and its sessions also provide a great number of leaked-out minutiae for hardcore fans in unusually high quality. So let's have at it dissecting this thing.
The original stereo mix of Help!, duplicated here from a '70s Parlophone pressing, is markedly superior to the 1987 mix supervised by George Martin for the CD releases, which have now become canon; they're the ones on all the streaming services and newer vinyl releases, but despite some awkward separation the original mix has much more depth and presence, and maybe because of my own history with this album, it just sounds like springtime to me. For completeness PC includes the most obsessive of obsessive details here in the form of the split second of remaining count-in that didn't quite get lopped off the U.S. version of "You're Going to Lose That Girl"; fans who are particularly attached to the Ken Thorne instrumentals and the "James Bond" intro of "Help!" will have to look elsewhere, though. Help! in mono is notoriously washed out and muddy, but I must say that this rip from the Japanese red wax vinyl is the best the mono mix has sounded to me. Yes, the flaws in the record are more apparent, but I hear more clarity and bottom-end here than on the modern CD and LP.
The first two discs are rounded out by five supplemental tracks from the period, two of which were -- at the time and for decades after -- unissued. We'll have to wait for Lewisohn to determine if this has any validity, but I've always guessed that UK fan backlash to buying the same songs twice prompted the Beatles, George Martin and/or Parlophone to insist on unique b-sides for the two Help! singles, hence "Yes It Is" and "I'm Down." There's always been talk of how the Beatles suffered from a deficit of material in the Help! era, resulting in the apparently desperate use of a couple of weak covers on the record -- and some of the film songs aren't that hot either, at least compared to the standards set by A Hard Day's Night. I find this odd myself, since "I'm Down" and "Yes It Is" are to my ears unmistakably stronger than some of the songs that made the LP, and neither of the cast-off outtakes -- "If You've Got Trouble," the Ringo song replaced by the rather dreadful cover of Buck Owens' "Act Naturally"; and "That Means a Lot," a reverb-laden romance given to P.J. Proby -- seem particularly embarrassing to me. Moreover, we know that the underrated "Wait" was sitting around ready to finish. (Part of the feeling of pressure came from scheduling; once shooting on the film started, they knew they would have very little studio time... but apparently there also was a dearth not so much of material as of material they were confident about.) This gets even more complicated because of Beatles VI, a Capitol album from early summer '65 that needed a couple of extra cuts from the Beatles; a telegram later and they got fresh, wild versions of Larry Williams' "Bad Boy" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzie" on their doorstep. The fresher and wilder of these, "Bad Boy," didn't find an outlet in the UK until a greatest-hits package late the next year, while the somewhat less convincing "Lizzie" was thrown on as the album closer. Weird, but what can you say? "Trouble" and "Lot" finally found their way to Anthology 2 in 1996; those mixes were rechanneled stereo and are included here on the mono disc, while the stereo disc offers the complete "masters" without the futzing, though they're not really masters as the Beatles were clearly unsatisfied with both.
These two discs are rounded out with some relatively boring mix oddities -- several mono mixes from the Help! film print, sounding a bit different in some cases (very heavy on the vocals) but not worth any dedicated attention; and the contents of a mono production acetate given to the film crew, which gives evidence that "Yes It Is" and "You Like Me Too Much" were under consideration for the film but provides very little in the way of distinctions that are easy to hear. ("You're Going to Lose That Girl" does have a different, terrible guitar solo and a clean ending.) The usual Anthology mixes round out the discs.
The third disc is a lot of fun for scholars and extreme devotees. "Ticket to Ride" is fun to hear with its uncut ending intact, and the Anthology 2 alternate takes of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," "I'm Down," "Yesterday" and "It's Only Love" are all fascinating and probably make more sense in this context, but the star attractions are the nearly complete session outtakes for three songs, and a rather peculiar selection at that: "Yes It Is," "Help!" and "That Means a Lot." It's quite instructive to hear the band working their way through how to record and in some cases even properly arrange and finish these songs. John slurs through take after take of "Yes It Is," either attempting a Dylan-like approach or saving his real vocal for the master, while the band works their way through the process of refining the song's instrumentation. John's fumbles and directives are enjoyable as always, and it's worth noting that George Martin seems to really be stepping back and letting the Beatles control the destiny of the sessions by this point. "Help!" stands as an example of the way the Beatles generally recorded in the middle years, laying down a basic track then completing the performance afterward, and we are permitted to hear this outstanding number put together in piecemeal fashion, with vocals and then double tracking and lead guitar following the impressively complex basic track. (I may be an unusually captive audience here, because this is one of my favorite songs by anybody and I think may have Lennon's very best lyric.)
Perhaps most interesting of all is the wealth of rehearsal and session material for "That Means a Lot," which was attempted on two different days and utterly failed ever to satisfy the Beatles or particularly the song's composer, Paul McCartney. As already mentioned, the February version -- a remix of which features on Anthology 2 -- has considerable charm as a lyrically light but musically ambitious ballad that genuinely feels like a solid mid-'60s Beatles track. For whatever reason, they were dissatisfied and took a different, harder, bluesier approach on the remake a month later; the arrangement most closely resembles "She's a Woman," but in the absence of that song's primal bluster, the ragtag garage band approach is harder to justify, and Paul's voice clearly strains on all four included takes; by the end of the fourth he seems obviously to be sick to death of the song, and the others seem to agree. The set is rounded out with what's labeled a "test" but actually consists of the band playing the song intentionally badly while Paul croons and warbles atonally over the top of it -- one of the weirdest unreleased Beatles items and one of the funniest, and clearly an indication that something somewhere, god knows what, made them really dislike this particular song. (I still don't see what makes it "bad" while "Tell Me What You See" and "Another Girl," mildly enjoyable as they are, are "good.")
The third disc closes out with a pointless "outfake" of "Wait," a song that was written and recorded for Help! but finished and released as part of Rubber Soul several months later; it sounds like this was made by goofing around with the OOPS effect you can get by partially unplugging your headphones, or reversing the polarity of your speakers. Pretty dumb, at any rate. Equally dumb -- but packaged here for completeness or convenience -- is the bizarre Anthology 2 remix of "Yes It Is," which starts off with one of the early guide-vocal takes included here and crudely crossfades it into a modern mix of the master take, for genuinely unfathomable reasons.
Despite these complaints, you know what you're signing up for when you download these releases, and Purple Chick couldn't exactly control what leaked out into the bootleg marketplace over the decades, and I think the good portions of what you get here are well worth the effort; the complete session tapes of the three songs that make it here in that context will offer considerable pleasure for the more intense participants in Beatles fandom, and those who just want a clearer picture of how the Greatest Rock Band's studio process worked... and this really is the best transfer I've ever heard of the album in mono, so on this last goround before we hit the real juggernauts, we've got a winner as these things go.