Thursday, May 21, 2009


Just because I need it, kiddies. Majorly. Don't we all sometimes? These are my times.

The song is, indeed, helpful, and so is this very silly video.

"Help!" is the theme song to the film of the same name, of course, so John wrote it on demand, once director Dick Lester settled on the name of the new film. (The working title was Eight Arms to Hold You, which is a terrible name for a film and a worse name for a song, so thank God Lester saw the light on this one.) Although it was written to order-- and apparently in just a couple hours, as with "A Hard Day's Night"-- "Help!" is one that John himself thought to be one of his best even years later, in his last interviews. It is frequently thought of as John's first truly personal song, though to make that argument you have to discount "I'm a Loser." I think people go ahead and discount the earlier song because "I'm a Loser" has this (arguable) level of sarcasm or self-mockery, whereas "Help!" sounds far more earnest. Or at least it does to contemporary ears. Back in 1965, the mental exhaustion that came with being a Beatle wasn't yet widely discussed and maybe not known yet even to the Beatles themselves, though it was definitely taking a toll. When he wasn't a-touring and a-whoring, John was lying on his couch at Kenwood in one of the poshest London suburbs, getting high, ignoring his wife and toddler son, and hating himself. At least that's the way he tells it.

So he really did need some help, and later on John admitted that this song was a cry for it. As such, it has little do with the extremely silly movie, the trailer for which I've been looking for an excuse to post.

See, in this context, you just think that "Help!" sounds like a kickass song with one of the vaguely lovey plots that all early Beatles songs are written around. That reading works for me, too, by the way. And I'm really trying not to indulge in too much twenty-twenty hindsight. Even at the time, though, I don't think you could have missed that there was SOME kind of new tension in this song.

It's the opening that does it for me. As in "A Hard Day's Night," they seem to have been trying to open the film's theme song with a wallop worthy of opening an entire fantastic Beatles movie. (In Help!, this didn't work out, because the film opens with a non-musical scene of the cult members in India. Oh well.) This is as energized a song intro as you could want-- George and Paul just wail their "help" line, John's lead is straining with true need, and all the time George is doing this awesome scale downward on the guitar (which becomes one of the song's key motifs), and Ringo manages to infuse this huge sense of expectation into even the tambourine part. And that only sets the stage for when they get going.

Although everyone is playing totally well (especially Ringo, I should point out), I gotta call out the vocals in "Help!" most of all. John more yells than sings a great lead vocal on one of those classically Lennon all-one-note melodies; in fact, this verse has a particularly strong spitting-out-the-words feel that lends John the right air of desperation. But having Paul and George sing their backup lines before John gets his words out is a really inspired decision. They're not really backing him up at all-- they're driving him on. There's something weirdly relentless about the way they're always one step ahead of him on those words, isn't there? That's why when they drop out on the last repeat of the verse, along with the drums, and the song suddenly goes all quiet, it feels like a breath of fresh air that we needed to take. But it's only a short respite before their voices creep in again and whisk John's lead vocal away. I don't know. It's cool, and it keeps things interesting.

Even though contemporary listeners didn't take it for anything other than the Beatles' next awesome single, they still loved "Help!," and the band ended up making it a part of their live performances in the second half of 1965. I like this one from British TV myself.

I always think it's cute when John forgets the lyrics and the others kind of laugh at him. And what's more, he seems to be enjoying performing in this clip, doesn't he? It's no wonder that John's inner torment was still invisible to everyone at this point. That mask is still there, but this, I guess, is about where it begins to chip away.

"Help!," released in the U.K. side A track 1 of Help!, August 6, 1965; in the U.S., side A track 1 of the stupid Capitol Help!, August 13, 1965.


  1. I really have nothing to add except, nice post! I love the insight about Paul and George anticipating and driving forward John's lead vocal and then almost everything dropping away. Good stuff! (I wonder how many groups had done backup vocals that way before?) Tom R.

  2. You know, it's probably more common than I'm even realizing to sing backup that way, but it's so effective in this one. It just keeps pushing and pushing and pushing. I heart this song so.