[5 May 2014]
When “Help Me, Rhonda” was released as a single in mid-1965, it became the Beach Boys’ second number one hit, following “I Get Around” from the previous year. But it’s not “Help Me, Rhonda” that’s on The Beach Boys Today!, it’s “Help Me, Ronda”. After recording the original version of the song in January of 1965, the Rip Chords—a band featuring Bruce Johnston, who would later join the Beach Boys officially in 1966—expressed interest in recording a version to release as a single. Instead, Brian Wilson reworked the song, added an “h”, and the Beach Boys released it for themselves. But the first recording still ended up on side one of Today! After the success of “Rhonda” as a single, the group placed it on its next album, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), and the Rip Chords did record the song, but never ended up releasing it.
Most of the lyrics, chords, and melodies remained unchanged for the single version, but the arrangement has a few key differences. “Rhonda” opens right on Al Jardine singing the first verse, but “Ronda” uses a four-bar instrumental intro featuring the main guitar riff and layers of jangly ukuleles. In the chorus of the single version, the vocal arrangement adds the iconic “bow-bow-bow-bow” vocal bass line that’s missing from “Ronda”. And a guitar solo was added to a previously empty instrumental section. But the biggest difference is the outro.
The album version of the song features a few bizarre false endings. As a looping chorus of “Help me, Ronda / Help help me, Ronda” begins to fade out, the mix suddenly jumps back up in volume and starts to fade out again, only to come up once more and repeat the main hook. It starts to fade away again and then comes back one last time, only to finally fade away for good. Brian Wilson must have realized this wouldn’t go over well on radio and decided to end the single version with a normal fade-out on an instrumental tag. In general, this original recording feels messy and strange, and the cleaner and more energetic instrumental and vocal arrangements on “Rhonda” are a definite improvement. Jon Stebbins quipped, “Brian’s decision to rerecord it for single release was a wise one.”
Though there’s been some speculation of the contrary, both Brian Wilson and Mike Love have claimed that there was never any real Ronda (or Rhonda, for that matter). The song tells the story of a man who was recently left by his fiancé and who wants Ronda to “get her out of my heart”, with, essentially, a one-night stand. The sexual implications are more direct here than on most Beach Boys songs, but it’s still vague enough to fit their clean-cut image, and to go to the top of the charts. This is helped not just by the insanely catchy music from Wilson but by the lyrics leaving the plot out of the chorus. The entire story takes place in two brief verses, while the chorus just repeats the phrase “Help me, Ronda / Help help me, Ronda” until the hook of “Get her out of my heart”. This is the part that everyone remembers, so the specifics of what Ronda is being asking to do in order to “help” are often forgotten.
Both versions of the song feature Al Jardine singing lead. It was only the second Beach Boys song he sang lead on, the first being “Christmas Day” on The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, but he proved himself more than competent and would go on to sing more leads throughout their career. And like many of the tracks on the b-side of Today!, “Ronda” almost entirely utilizes session musicians for the instrumental track. The only exception being Carl Wilson playing guitar alongside Glen Campbell, Bill Pitman, and Billy Strange.
Despite its inferiority to the single version, “Help Me, Ronda” has a lot of charm. Even outside the novelty of the false endings, the messier structure and strange instrumental bridge give the song a unique character. And even with a mediocre arrangement compared to other tracks on Today!, the song still has one of the strongest melodies on the album.