Saturday, October 24, 2009

Album project: Help!

The Beatles, Help! (1965): By now, not only were The Beatles the world's most successful musicians, but their witty, ebullient personalities made them naturals for an even greater celebrity status approaching that of Hollywood idols. Movies, then, seemed to be a logical career progression, and in the first part of 1965 the Fab Four once again hooked up with director Richard Lester to make Help!. The film was intended in the vein of Marx Brothers classics such as Duck Soup, and also as a spoof of James Bond movies, but the results weren't quite as successful as what they achieved with A Hard Day's Night. The group would later say that they didn't enjoy working on Help!, with John Lennon remarking that they felt like extras in their own movie. The Fab Four had difficulty at times understanding the plot, although Lennon suggested that their recent mind-altering discoveries may have had something to do with it:

The movie was out of our control. With A Hard Day's Night, we had a lot of input, and it was semi-realistic. But with Help!, Dick Lester didn't tell us what it was all about. I realise, looking back, how advanced it was. It was a precursor for the Batman 'Pow! Wow!' on TV -- that kind of stuff. But he never explained it to us. Partly, maybe, because we hadn't spent a lot of time together between A Hard Day's Night and Help!, and partly because we were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period. Nobody could communicate with us, it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time. In our own world. It's like doing nothing most of the time, but still having to rise at 7 am, so we became bored.

The Beatles began recording the soundtrack to Help! prior to beginning the film's shooting, and sandwiched in additional sessions as filming progressed. When the LP was completed, it featured seven songs used in the movie, and additional tracks the band had written during the same period. On Help!, the band starts moving forward again, incorporating elements of country and folk music, including ideas picked up by way of Bob Dylan.

Lennon's melancholy, which he had begun to explore on Beatles For Sale, hangs over many of the tracks on this record. Those feelings are apparent on "Ticket To Ride", with its bluesy mood underlying the folky guitar chords. Paul McCartney provides some inspired lead guitar licks, but the power of the song comes from Ringo Starr's deep groove, as soulful as anything to come out of Motown in those days. Dave Marsh says of "Ticket To Ride", "Here, they ride their bar band roots in Liverpool and Hamburg to a new kind of glory."

Lennon's melancholy is tempered at other times by the folksy sweetness of songs like "It's Only Love" and "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away". The sentiment's of "You're Going To Lose That Girl" are among John's most mean-spirited, but here they are offset by some of the most gorgeous harmony work the Fab Four ever turned in. Lennon lets everything hang out on "Dizzy Miss Lizzy", which along with another stock rockabilly turn by Ringo Starr on "Act Naturally" would be the last covers The Beatles would record.

By now, Lennon and Paul McCartney were already going their separate ways as songwriters, and this was becoming apparent in the tracks written principally by Paul. "The Night Before" and "Another Girl" feature jaunty yet complex melodies. "I've Just Seen A Face" is a standout; its folksy melody and uptempo pace suggest a hint of bluegrass. The plaintive "Yesterday" may seem a bit precious, but it's one of Paul's greatest successes; the song was hugely successful when released as a single, and became the Beatles composition performed most by other artists.

The title track is another of the Fab Four's greatest triumphs. "Help!" is arguably Lennon's strongest expression of the claustrophobic feelings brought on by his sudden fame, and his accompanying melancholy. He considered "Help!" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" to be his most genuine Beatles songs. But John was not pleased with the recording of the song; he wanted "Help!" to have a slower, bluesier feel. George Martin and the other Beatles overruled him, though, and the uptempo final recording suggests dimensions to John's pain that his intended reading would not have conveyed. In Dave Marsh's words, " 'Help!' isn't a compromise; it's bursting with a vitality that Lennon's less mediated solo albums never achieve. And John certainly doesn't sound like he's trying to spit the bit; he sounds triumphant, because he's found a group of kindred spirits who are offering the very spiritual assistance and emotional support for which he's begging."

In the US, as with A Hard Day's Night, the Help! soundtrack omitted the tracks not used in the movie and substituted instrumental sequences from the soundtrack. Hardly slowing down, after the movie and LP's release, The Beatles accepted the Members of the Order of the British Empire award from Queen Elizabeth II, causing controversy among many of the order's more conservative members, some returning their medals in protest. Then in August, the Fab Four returned to America for the first-ever stadium tour by a rock band, beginning with appearing before a record audience of 55,600 at New York's Shea Stadium.