‘Help!’ is the fifth album by the Beatles in the UK and amazingly the tenth released in the US, showing the substantial difference in releases between the two countries (the US version however had different songs to the UK version I’m reviewing). It is the soundtrack to their second film with the same name, which is less fondly remembered compared to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. Quite rightly too as the film would be a lot more incoherent and the Beatles would all say they were barely able to communicate with the production staff due to being under a ‘haze of marijuana’ the whole time. However, in the films favour Lennon would later say it is was a pre-cursor in style to the hugely popular tongue-in-cheek ‘Batman Pow! Wow!’ type of TV show and many of the song performances are notable as they feel like early-versions of music videos.
The album itself is everything but incoherent filled with strong varied songs that push forward the musical compositions and songwriting to create in my opinion their best album to this date. Released in 1965, thankfully we return to Lennon/McCartney completely dominating songwriting duties with eight songs, two cover versions and two written by George Harrison.
The album opens with ‘Help!‘ which is easily one of my favourite songs they ever produced. The song franticly moves at a lightning pace as Lennon urgently sings about needing to find love. In retrospect he would later say it was actually a cry for help and the lyrics match this. He’s yelling for aid as the run away success of Beatlemania and the crushing demands of fame started to get the better of him. Lennon would later call it his ‘fat Elvis’ period due to the depression he felt and was probably the beginning of why the Beatles withdrew from touring soon after.
The Beatles had met Bob Dylan in 1964 and had been listening to his music a lot and his influence really comes across in this album. In particular, ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away‘ is practically Lennon doing a Dylan impression. But imitation is not necessarily a bad thing as the stripped down acoustic music and Lennon singing solo without harmonies increases its impact as he bares his soul.
‘The Night Before‘ furthers this lyrical complexity as McCartney mourns a woman not liking him as much the morning after a night of passion, condensing a full range of emotions and story-telling into two minutes with expert skill. Similarly, ‘Another Girl‘ recounts the joy and excitement of a new relationship but unlike previously this is countered by McCartney recalling the lose of a previous relationship and moving on. Whilst hinted at on ‘Beatles For Sale’, ‘Help!’ is the sound of the band beginning to fully move on from the days of simple rock n roll ‘I love you’ songs.
Along with this theme, one of the stand-outs ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl‘ has one of the oddest morally dubious lyrics the Beatles ever wrote. Lennon tells an unknown man that he thinks he is treating his girl wrong so Lennon vows to steal her from him; a two wrongs make a right logic. It’s also a disastrous karaoke song to sing (from experience) due to the deceptively difficult vocal as Lennon changes key with such ease and has never sounded better. The filmed performance from the movie is also one of the highlights of the film.
Following on in the morally dubious theme is ‘Ticket to Ride‘, one of their most famous songs. Whilst the lyrics suggest a lover getting a train to ride, Lennon would later allude to the song meaning a ticket showing a clean bill of health that hookers in Hamburg would have on the streets. Whatever the meaning, it is a classic. Music critic Ian MacDonald would describe it as ‘extraordinary’ and the lyrics ‘psychologically deeper than anything the Beatles had released before.”
‘Its Only Love‘ was later described by Lennon as lousy and by McCartney as a filler track but that does it a disservice. The lyrics may not be as strong as elsewhere but the chorus is particularly strong as Lennon puts real power in his voice when he sings “It’s only love, why do I feel the way I do.”
The McCartney penned ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face‘ matches the urgent frantic speed of Help! with McCartney singing at great speed and the musical taking in a country influence. It’s a fantastic catchy song showcasing the multiple genres of music the band could dip into with great success despite it being their first real country and western song attempt. ‘Tell Me What You See‘ is a declaration of love, a full blown wedding vows style description of protecting someone through everything. Whilst dismissed as not terribly memorable by McCartney later, the slowness of the singing lies in direct contrast to the speed elsewhere on the album and I would disagree with Paul as its a brilliant love song.
It’s almost surprising ‘Yesterday‘ is on this album; it would not be out of place on the later more mature sounding ‘Abbey Road’ or ‘Let It Be.’ It’s the sound of McCartney’s songwriting growing and becoming far more weathered. What appears is arguably the most famous of all the Beatles produced, and the most covered song of all time, as McCartney mourns the lose of a love and the carefree life he once led. McCartney’s sings it beautifully and has never sounded so frail in tone which really adds to the immense power and impact this song holds.
With every album, Ringo’s song gets better and the cover of Buck Owens’ ‘Act Naturally‘ is the best so far. Ringo sings and plays the character of a jolly simpleton being able to make it in the movies by acting as himself. The sweet nature fits perfectly with Ringo’s nice guy image and is smile-inducing throughout. It is also the last cover the Beatles would record until the Get Back/Let It Be sessions and a great way to send off that part of their Beatlemania period.
The two Harrison written songs fit in great to the rest of the album showing his improving strength in song composition. The rather wonderful ‘I Need You‘ is a straight-out love song as George begs a girl to come back to him while ‘You Like Me Too Much‘ however is far more complex. The lyric ‘you like me too much and I like you’ hints at far more complex emotions than the freely declared ‘I love yous’ of the past as George sings about too lovers held together despite obvious tensions and too afraid to leave each other.
The closer ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy‘ takes a break from the improving songwriting and returns to a strong throat-tearing Lennon cover to end the album. The Larry Williams song has a catchy recurring guitar riff which perfectly compliments John’s yelps and screams to create another big party starting rock n roll song like ‘Twist and Shout’.
Underrated seems unlikely for a Beatles’ album but I’d say this is at least a little underrated. Most of the songs on this album could easily be placed on their later albums without them seeing out of place. Pre-Rubber Soul Beatles’ albums are generally seen as less to what the Beatles would later produce but that is not necessarily the case. ‘Help!’ should easily stand side-by-side with the later albums in people’s minds as some of the finest tunes the band ever produced. Whilst the film was the worst they made, this is the best soundtrack that they made.
Nine out of ten and a nice picnic