Originally written December 2012, revised April 2016.
Except for John’s book selection routine and his relentless interrogation of the jeweler, Help! isn’t much of a movie.
Help! isn’t much of an album either. There are some truly great songs but the gap between great and godawful is huge. And contrary to popular critical opinion, Side 2 (the “extra songs”) isn’t that much better than Side 1 (the film songs). I do agree with the critics that some of the tracks display the exit from Beatlemania and the path to Rubber Soul, but only from a musical perspective. The lyrics are uniformly tiresome boy-girl stories.
In this category I place the songs from the film that follow the Beatlemania formula but now sound forced and lifeless: “The Night Before,” “I Need You,” “Another Girl” and “You’re Going to Lose That Girl.” While the boys make a game attempt with a key change here and there and a couple of non-standard chords, these songs signify that the lovable moptops are very, very tired of being the lovable moptops. I also place in this group the two cover songs on Side 2: “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and the beginning of Ringo’s regrettable love affair with country music, “Act Naturally.” These songs are on the album because Lennon & McCartney were too tired and/or too busy to write more material—in other words, classic album filler.
Before we get to the great songs, there are two originals on Side 2 that are somewhere in-between the extremes: Harrison’s “You Like Me Too Much” and the Lennon-McCartney duet “Tell Me What You See.” I love the slightly dissonant harmonies on “You Like Me Too Much,” and though the gestalt of “Tell Me What You See” reminds me too much of Jay & the Americans’ Latin bent, the dronish quality of the song and John’s low notes are very compelling. I’m a slut for strange sounds when presented in a proper context.
Although Lennon was full of shit when he reinvented “Help!” as a song that captured the beginnings of the existential crisis that would give the world Yoko Ono, it’s still one of the Beatles’ greatest singles (particularly when paired with the raucous “I’m Down”). John’s vocal is both world-weary and genuinely emotional at the same time, and the boys do a fabulous job on the harmonic crescendos. Equally world-weary but far more detached is John’s vocal in “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” a song the critics have described as “Dylanesque,” forgetting that Dylan was better known during that period for his socially-conscious protest lyrics. Here we have pretty standard “somebody took my baby away and I’m bummed out” lyrics, and there isn’t enough room in this post to list how many of those the Beatles had already done. Even with its lyrical limitations, it’s still a well-constructed piece of music, with subtle dynamic changes that enhance John’s superb vocal.
“Ticket to Ride” is another outstanding single, one of my all-time Beatle favorites, and irrefutable evidence of progress, particularly on the rhythmic front. I’ve always considered the evolution of Ringo’s drumming to be as important to the growth of the Beatles as the advances Lennon & McCartney achieved in songwriting. Try to imagine “Rain,” “A Day in the Life,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” without Ringo 2.0. Impossible. Here the thundering toms and insistent drive make the song terribly compelling, and though rumor has it that McCartney had the idea, Ringo had to execute, and baby, did he ever.
“I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love” are both great songs that shine more brightly on the American version of Rubber Soul, as noted in my review of that album. And though we’re all sick of “Yesterday” covers, it is still one of the most beautiful melodies in all creation and helped Paul shed his anti-Mantovani aversion to strings that would bear such lovely fruit in “Eleanor Rigby.”
Help! is at the juncture of colliding universes, so it’s completely natural that the experience of listening to it is somewhat unsatisfying. It’s the death of Beatlemania and the birth of something that would have been beyond anyone’s imagination in 1965.