Earlier in 1965, “Ticket to Ride” had introduced a new page in the Beatles songbook: an anti-love song alternating between dejection and sarcasm with an unsteady, lumbering beat to match. “Help!” at first blush seems a throwback to the snappy pop and three-part harmonies that had defined the group’s early singles, with just enough of the post-Hard Day’s Night folkiness to fit comfortably among the 1965 pop landscape. Closer inspection, however, reveals John Lennon focused as ever on his personal anxieties. “Help!” is the cry of a once-confident man who’s suddenly found the ground pulled out beneath him — by fame, marriage or neurosis — and is clawing at anything or anyone who might save him. Unlike the other Dylan-influenced hits of that summer, it skips the poetic language and politics but embraces the confessionalism, even if Lennon presents himself as a far more vulnerable figure.
Lennon had intended to record ”Help!” at a slower tempo to express his anguish, but commercial concerns called for an upbeat theme tune to promote its namesake film. If anything, though, the faster pace makes the record far more panicked and intense. Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s backing vocals frequently beat Lennon to the lines he’s about to sing, as if he’s struggling to keep up with his own song. In both the intro and the chorus, the lead guitar continually descends in three note phrases, as if slowly pressing down on him, before ending in a swiftly repeating arpeggio that seems to reflect his swirl of anxious thoughts. Lennon gets a brief respite in the third verse (actually a retread of the first verse), when the drums let up and he gets a few peaceful moments to recall his independent younger days. But as soon as he admits to feeling ”not so self-assured,” the drums start up again insistent as ever, escalating into a desperate pounding on the transition into the chorus. From then on, there’s no letting up until all the instruments drop out at the end, leaving just a meld of three voices crying “help me – ooh” as one falsetto. There’s no resolution or rescue imminent, and the bleak ending suggests it’s too late anyway. Perhaps not coincidentally, the next Beatles number-one primarily written by Lennon wouldn’t arrive for two more years. As Lennon pursued darker, more personal avenues of songwriting, McCartney (as we’ll soon see) also expanded the Beatles’ sound – and the band’s audience. 8
Hit #1 on September 4, 1965; total of 3 weeks at #1
143 of 1013 #1′s reviewed; 14.12% through the Hot 100
The Byrds proved the burgeoning counterculture could be prettied up for the mainstream, but Sonny and Cher watered it down and sweetened it enough that conventional pop fans would hardly know what they were drinking. But the hippie generation’s Steve and Eydie weren’t bandwagon jumpers, exactly. Sonny Bono had co-written the proto folk rock “Needles and Pins” for Jackie DeShannon two years before, while Cher had a solo hit earlier that summer with a version of Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do.” But “I Got You Babe” is hardly trying to be folk rock anyway, apart from a few trendy superficialities: Sonny’s nasal squawk, the Dylanesque “babe,” the duo’s long hair and bellbottoms. The lovey-dovey lyrics are too sentimental, and any guitars that might be floating around in the mix are drowned out by woodwinds and bells. If Sonny and Cher are ripping off anyone, it’s their former boss Phil Spector. With its low-rent Wall of Sound arrangement and us-vs.-the-grownups mentality, “I Got You Babe” sounds an awful lot like a Righteous Brothers record if they crooned Crystals lyrics to each other. Its unabashed corniness is thoroughly charming, and the orchestral build and false ending confirm that Sonny picked up on his mentor’s grasp of dynamics. That the arrangement is more stripped down than Spector’s usual aural onslaught is less a failure of ambition than a concession to the new era of rock. Sonny and Cher’s voices may seem mismatched – hers low and forceful, his whiny and hardly on key – but they have the vocal chemistry of a couple in love. Even when the pair sounds like they’re trying to out-sing each other, it’s like they’re saying “no, I love you more.” “I Got You Babe” may have knocked off everything about folk rock (except the folk part and the rock part), but it’s so genuinely sweet that it never feels like a sorry imitation. 7
Hit #1 on August 14, 1965; total of 3 weeks at #1
142 of 1011 #1′s reviewed; 14.05% through the Hot 100
One of the things that makes the pop charts more fascinating than carefully curated lists of “important” records, like Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, is all the junk that filters through. That’s not an insult — junk may not be particularly well-written, and it’s often annoying, but at its best it embodies the careless vitality that makes rock and roll so exciting. The very fact that junk hits aren’t so-called timeless classics makes them snapshots of the transient tastes of a lost age. And for one week in 1965, the single that best captured the state of American pop taste was a 17-year-old English kid and his beat group covering an old music hall hit. Less than two minutes long, consisting of little more than three choruses and a time-killing guitar solo, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” feels barely substantial enough to pass for a B-side. Like “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” before it, the single didn’t even merit release in Herman Hermits’ native country. (Unlike “Mrs. Brown,” this doesn’t feel like an oversight.) But the record’s exotic Cockneyisms, old-timey flavor and unshakeable chorus were enough to buoy it to the top of the US charts in August. What better time for a nice repetitive song that takes no effort to learn quickly than the mind-dulling heat of late summer? It’s cheerful and a bit funny and tailor-made for group singalongs. Eventually it’ll wear out its welcome, but it’s so slight that it can be cast aside without guilt.
Certainly there are better records — better Herman’s Hermits records, even — more deserving of the number-one spot. But compared with the horrors of past novelty chart-toppers, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” is downright pleasant. The band is charming enough, Peter Noone doesn’t oversell the joke, and the whole thing ends quickly. Better a tossed-off piece of junk than a record that’s ponderous or bloated or a self-serious attempt at social relevance. Squint and you can maybe even detect the seeds of punk in its stripped-down insouciance — after all, the Ramones did quote “second verse, same as the first” in “Judy is a Punk.” But is “Henry VIII” a good record? Even the band probably thought of it as nothing more than a bit of filler that got lucky. 5
Hit #1 on August 7, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
141 of 1011 #1′s reviewed; 13.95% through the Hot 100