Help!, the fifth album released by the Beatles in just two years, and soundtrack to the film of the same name, stands as a huge step forward in both the band’s songwriting and musicianship, as well as paving the way for the more mature sound of later albums. The 14 songs range from classic early rock ‘n’ roll to acoustic folk to rollicking country. Balancing all of these styles, the Beatles sound distinctly like themselves on the cusp of a new phase of their sound.
The album kicks off with one the greatest singles they ever released. “Help!” is immediate while at the same time almost despondent. As it fades from the chorus into the first verse, the song shifts to a more melancholic sound—not surprising, as Lennon originally wanted it to be slower and more representative of his feelings of being overwhelmed at the time. In addition to “Help!”, the album also contains two more of the Beatles’ biggest singles in “Ticket to Ride” and “Yesterday”.
“Yesterday” is arguably the band’s most popular song (it certainly is the most covered) and the story of its creation is well known. The melody came to Paul McCartney in a dream and he originally thought he had unwittingly plagiarized it. Finally, accepting that the song was all his, its working title was “Scrambled Eggs” until lyrics could be written and a classic ballad was born. The song stands as the first recorded with only one Beatle, as McCartney sang and played guitar with a string quartet. Despite its popularity, or maybe because of it, “Yesterday” would go on to sometimes be dismissed as too sentimental, but without a doubt the song’s gorgeous melody and McCartney’s performance clearly highlight a standout track on both the album and in the band’s career.
The originality and creativity of “Ticket to Ride” would mark it as one of the album’s most important songs: George Harrison’s opening on the 12-string guitar stands as a primary influence on the Byrds and the burgeoning folk-rock sound. Ringo Starr’s drumming is out front and the mix of forlorn lyrics with the buildup to the faster bridge and then the bluesy “my baby don’t care” repeated over the outro showcase the sheer energy of the song and sets it apart from much of the standard rock ‘n’ roll fare. As far as classic rock songs are concerned, the album does have its fair share in tracks like the underrated “The Night Before”, the country-tinged “Another Girl” and their blazing cover of Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”.
Help! also features one of Lennon’s loveliest compositions in “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”. Highly influenced by Bob Dylan, the lyrics offer a glimpse into Lennon’s evolving style and his initially accidental use of “two foot small” instead of “two foot tall” is a perfect example of his famous playful use of language. McCartney’s counterpart to the song might be “I’ve Just Seen a Face”. Another acoustic gem, although decidedly bouncier, it is another highlight in an album filled with them. The album also marked the second appearance of a Harrison composition with “I Need You”. His contribution features his double-tracked lead vocals and while there is nothing really groundbreaking about it, Harrison’s delivery and personal lyrics elevate the simple song. Starr’s vocal contribution to Help! comes in his cover of country song “Act Naturally”. Seemingly a throwaway track, Starr’s vocals are especially suited to the song and McCartney’s harmonies on the chorus are a nice touch.
Help!’s release marked the shift from the Beatles’ poppier, early rock ‘n’ roll sound to a more introspective songwriting style, as well as more inventive musicianship. While not always referred to as one of the Beatles’ greatest albums, Help! laid the groundwork for their next album, the landmark Rubber Soul, marking it as a critical step in the band’s career, not to mention one of its most enjoyable.
// Notes from the Road
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