143) The Beatles – “Help!”

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

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under 08, 1965

4 responses to “143) The Beatles – “Help!”

  1. Funny, I was just thinking about this song today, when wondering if I should start a song I’m cowriting with the chorus. “Help” is one of the few songs that does this … it’s difficult to do well.

  2. Stein

    Interesting observations. I like to read a write-up such as this that points out what the instrumentation is doing, as well as little structural tricks like, as you say, the backing vocals preceding the lead vocal.

  3. robertjlamb

    Sally, I love your writing and this commentary is, as ever, great. One quibble – how can you not give “Help” a 10?!

  4. GeorgeL

    Absolutely love this song! To me it is just perfect. The singing, harmonies, arrangement, everything! At the risk of sounding like an old man “They don’t make ’em like they used to!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s