Since we last checked in with Brian Wilson, his ambition has expanded beyond arranging intricate vocal harmonies over more-or-less standard surf-pop to constructing majestic pop symphonies to rival the Wall of Sound. “Help Me, Ronda” (as it was then spelled) first appeared on the 1965 album The Beach Boys Today! as an overstudied emulation of the Philles Records style. There’s Latin percussion and semi-unusual instruments (ukulele, saxophones, harmonica), vocals swathed in echo, and volume levels that fade in and out, but the pieces feel jumbled without Phil Spector’s intuitive sense of order. Perhaps realizing he’d gotten ahead of himself a bit, Wilson rerecorded “Help Me, Rhonda” for single release in a more straightforward, slightly more uptempo version. But while “Rhonda” doesn’t have the showiness of “Ronda,” it’s a far more immediate record. “Rhonda” launches straight into Al Jardine’s lead vocal with no introduction, bouncing along from there on an insistent tambourine beat. A brief guitar solo replaces an undercooked harmonica break. The harmonies are now tighter and more melodic; Mike Love’s bass “bow-bow-bow-bow” adds an extra hook.
This newfound sense of urgency keeps “Help Me, Rhonda” fresh and vital, yearning with the pangs of young lust. Our narrator sketches a story of heartbreak, but frankly neither Jardine nor the rest of the band sound all that broken up about it. It’s a pretty good come-on, though, one that makes him look sensitive and vulnerable while also appealing to her vanity, making her believe that she’s the only girl who could possibly save him from his misery. Meanwhile, the rest of the Boys are gazing soulfully in her eyes, cooing “come on, Rhonda,” don’t you see how down this kid is, if you really liked him etc. We never find out how sympathetic Rhonda is (though what girl could resist a line like “I know it wouldn’t take much time”!), but that doesn’t matter. “Help Me, Rhonda” isn’t about getting the girl; it’s about wanting the girl, and the euphoria of anticipation. Every element on the single slots neatly into place, with none of the clutter of the Today! version. Wilson’s still experimenting with dynamics, for instance, but now the crescendo into the chorus soars because it has a purpose: to signify the flood of desire overtaking our narrator. With the new “Help Me, Rhonda,” Wilson modifies Spector’s lessons to his own ends, creating a style that emulates the intensity of adolescent emotions but feels a little less grandiose, a little more rock and roll. 8
Hit #1 on May 29, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
136 of 1009 #1’s reviewed; 13.48% through the Hot 100