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