Monday 22 June 2009

The BEATLES: Help!

The Beatles, standing in a row and wearing blue jackets, with their arms positioned as if to spell out a word in flag semaphore  


(#43: 14 August 1965, 9 weeks) 


Track listing: Help!/The Night Before/You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away/I Need You/Another Girl/You’re Going To Lose That Girl/Ticket To Ride/Act Naturally/It’s Only Love/You Like Me Too Much/Tell Me What You See/I’ve Just Seen A Face/Yesterday/Dizzy Miss Lizzy 


Another soundtrack to another movie musical, but the difference here is that where the songs of The Sound Of Music are indivisible from the story, I can listen to the Help! songs without once thinking of Help! the movie. This is not to say that the movie of Help! is no good, since I have previously said quite the opposite, but that the story these songs seem to be telling in the context of the album is quite different from a story climaxing in Leo McKern being chased down a beach.


“Help!” the song must have been as electrifying a shock as the song “A Hard Day’s Night” but electrifying in the sense of accidentally placing one’s forefinger on a careless live wire, since here the mounting tension which Lennon has hitherto been manfully attempting to suppress through songs like “When I Get Home” and “No Reply” finally explodes into something living next door to terror. Now he admits, in a prematurely hoarse voice, that he can’t cope with all this – whether “all this” involves endless touring and one night stands, or living in Weybridge, or having to raise Julian – and pleads for signifiers of hope, of rescue, as the song’s dodgem contours repeatedly slam his hopes against their white walled pads, though “I do appreciate” indicates a nouveau riche KT13 politesse which he can’t wait to rip apart.


But then virtually all of the songs on Help! are about relationships in one sense or another, and practically all drawn from uncomfortable and inconveniently sweaty real life. Throughout the album, McCartney appears to be constantly addressing Jane Asher, or more precisely dressing her down (as opposed to undressing her), as the accusatory thrust of “The Night Before” and “Another Girl” make clear; Lennon continues to theorise himself into getting out of his stoned armchair (but as “Ticket To Ride” proves, he can’t quite muster the energy until the very end). George is clearly besotted with Patti Boyd, if uncomfortable in other ways. Meanwhile, Ringo is happy to be their misery mascot (and thereby subvert the whole process).


Both “The Night Before” and “Another Girl” take the reggae tinges of McCartney’s “She’s A Woman” a little deeper (as, more subtly, Lennon does with “Help!”). “The Night Before” must be one of the most underrated of Beatles performances, Lennon having great fun pumping out deadpan chords on Abbey Road’s brand new electric piano (with increasing harmonic boldness in his comping during the song’s second half), Harrison’s extraordinary double-octave guitar break ramping up McCartney’s crossness into near-hysteria.


“Another Girl” is even more adventurous since McCartney endeavours to marry skanking rhythm to country rolls. Harrison is again outstanding here, cutting into the song’s second middle eight with surprising venom, though McCartney is working at the very lowest end of his vocal range, giving the aura of an admonitory undertaker.


This balances well, however, with the track’s overall lightness and bounce which point forward towards the Scritti of “Jacques Derrida” and even to some extent (in pop/fusion terms) towards the work of Eddy Grant. George, meanwhile, is nervous but clearly bowled over. With “I Need You” and “You Like Me Too Much” we continue to see the evolution of his distinctively rhetorical style of songwriting – more conversational, less structurally fussed than Lennon or McCartney. Borrowing a feeling and adapting a hands-free rueful two-chord guitar motif from the Searchers’ “Needles And Pins,” “I Need You” sees Harrison attempting to articulate his love as cleanly as possible; note the courteous-verging-on-courtly confessional of “I could never really live without you” (and set it against Clapton’s subsequent howls directed towards the same subject on “Layla”). Its easy stroll and residual wistfulness indicate a path leading towards developments in Boston indie music; the likes of the Lemonheads, Dinosaur Jr/Sebadoh and Juliana Hatfield all take their lead from here.


Lena describes “You Like Me Too Much” as “adorably clunky” and though clearly a minor developmental staging post of a song compresses more of Harrison’s fumbled thoughts (“I couldn’t really stand it”) into a bizarre aural scenario involving a hilarious, recurring pub barrelhouse piano figure (played by both McCartney and Martin) and some sardonic electric piano commentary from Lennon.


Lennon seems to be struggling with his own life as much as the need for anyone else’s; on “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” a neater development of the sea shanty folk tropes introduced on “Baby’s In Black,” his voice is perhaps the most exhausted we’ve yet heard it; plaintive, somehow defeated, head in hand, face to the wall, “feeling two foot small,” wanting something or someone more/else but not quite sure what is involved in getting it/them. The question of whether it is or isn’t about Epstein and/or closeted thoughts is superseded by the singer’s palpable desperation, the faux-merry Dorian “HEY!” constantly dragged down by Ringo’s funereal tambourine. Johnnie Scott’s closing dual-flute coda – hello, Jethro Tull – does little to clear the picture or offer logical succour.


Yet three tracks later his old swagger is back, as is his fixation with the Shirelles; “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” is yet another girl group tribute in which Lennon at least attempts to come across as bold and noble, though his warnings are ironically underscored by Ringo’s near freeform bongo playing, perhaps cleft in twain by the jarring key change which introduces Harrison’s distressingly magnificent guitar solo. “Watch what you do!” Paul and George warn him. “Yeah…” drawls Lennon offhandedly.


But then the ball and chain of rhythm returns with a vengeance on “Ticket To Ride,” at this stage the most extreme thing the Beatles had recorded (although clearly track 13 would also qualify from the McCartney perspective). Though its rumbling power gives a quite different picture from the Beatles to which we had previously been used, its dutifully stumbling rhythms indicate a group, or a writer/singer at least, no longer clear as to which path they are clearing. Despite all his pleads and protestations to the contrary, Lennon is now so deeply sunk into the floor of his own making that he can do nothing to stop her leaving; the whole song seems constructed to warp and wane his body such that he cannot rise upwards. And yet she is “riding so high,” in a place he cannot reach or penetrate; and so the song’s subtext expands to incorporate the immediate future of high flying, leaving the straight minded grounded (and thereby lays an unlikely path for Nick Drake; see “Betty” in “River Man,” the subject of “Cello Song,” etc.). The most audible protest Lennon is capable of offering in the song is his exhausted/exhilarated downhill slide of “Ahhhh!” as he dips to meet the final chorus. Thereafter there is nothing – not even the noble nothing of the final stretch of the Carpenters’ version – but to snigger/weep “My baby don’t care” (paving a way for “Pretty Vacant”?) as McCartney’s lead guitar slowly corrodes an already imperfect heart. The precedent for Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” is extremely evident in the song’s rhythmic construct, but Buckingham’s active uncaring in the passive seventies was as searing a scald as Lennon’s passive uncaring in the active sixties turned out to be. The performance is not quite heavy metal or even particularly redolent of a Who/Yardbirds inspiration, but could be said to be heavy metal in terms of its being in chains of imagined iron


Following “Ticket”’s torpid tumult, Ringo’s cheery stroll through the unchained ironic misery of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” comes as very welcome light relief at the start of side two and is as perfect a peacekeeper for the album as Christine McVie’s “Songbird” would prove to be for Rumours; here, Starr seems to be saying, sadness is relative and one might as well face it with a grin and lots of labial lip rolls (“play the part so WELLLLL!!!!”).
Thereafter side two hits something of a lazy lull; as with the Hard Day’s Night soundtrack, only the songs on side one appear in the actual film, but at some points Help! does seem to kneel towards the floor of scraped outtakes. Lennon’s “It’s Only Love” is something of a throwaway piece, and its author treats it as such (in the phrase “bright…very bright” he audibly cracks up); only some early adventures with Harrison’s guitar and a Leslie cabinet take it out of the Hamburg/”Besame Mucho” days. 
Likewise, McCartney’s “Tell Me What You See” is thought to be a resuscitated early composition and sounds sixteen years old; elementary and not quite finished, a shockingly harsh Lennon/McCartney shrill of the title, underscored by a harsh tambourine rattle from Ringo (Help! features some near-demonic tambourine work throughout) leading to some fumbling electric piano from McCartney which in turn leads to nowhere in particular. McCartney’s voice is again low and menacing, although his emphasis on the phrase “Open up your eyes now” does indicate the road which would follow.
And then, suddenly, McCartney is jolted, or jolts himself, into life with “I’ve Just Seen A Face”; essentially McCartney’s take on Dylan’s style, it proceeds swiftly from its deceptive slow introduction to jumpcut gloriously between internal rhyming schemata and breathlessness born of justified optimism, clearly setting the scene for the further folk-rock (bordering on Mod) adventures to be undertaken throughout Rubber Soul.
Then, amidst this cutting room floor of a side, almost as the album peters to its end, we get “Yesterday.” Such an assertively unassuming song, so obstructively unobtrusive that McCartney kept it on ice for two straight Beatles albums and only reluctantly agreed for it to go on Help! as the album was on the point of being finished (George Martin has confirmed that McCartney wrote the song at the beginning of 1964), partly because he was unsure whether he had subconsciously plagiarised an old standard; indeed, by the time of its recording he was on the verge of offering the song to Billy J Kramer. For a song which appears to disclose and sum up all of the angst and doubt to which the other songs on the album have led, and for the one Beatles song which would unquestionably have appealed to and been understood by even the starchiest of Sound Of Music appreciators, “Yesterday” plays its cards remarkably close to its chest; it dwells in guilty semi-darkness (“There’s a shadow hanging over me”) and McCartney leaves George Martin’s typically Boswell-like string quartet arrangement – the raised eyebrow of the arched ‘cello figure in the first half of the second statement of the middle eight, the gently weeping high A of Sidney Sax’s lead violin sustained through two-thirds of the final verse – to speak the words he’s afraid even to hear (“Yesterday came suddenly,” “Why? She wouldn’t say,” “I said something wrong”). 
But the song not only summarises the multiplying shades of gloom which have been building up throughout Help! but also confirms that there is no answer save to evade answers (since all answers would require explanations); Lennon states that he’s got to hide his love away, McCartney reluctantly concurs that he too needs a place to hide away, possibly even from the other Beatles. As with a surprising number of the songs on side two in particular, one wonders whether this could have been transposed directly in a time machine from the 1968 White Album sessions (and certainly neither its evasive elegy nor its ‘cello lines were disregarded by the Nick Drake of 1968). But then Harrison’s clanging alarm bell guitar wakes us all up – no, we can’t finish like this – to commence a deranged rampage through “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”; Lennon’s screams are more wild than high but he is determined to reinject life into the corpus of limp guilt; he roars and whoops with something resembling joy on a branch line stretching out between Freddy Cannon and Iggy while Harrison will not let go of his clingy clangs and McCartney takes a turn on the Fender Rhodes punp. The last of the great album closer Beatles rave-up covers, and a signpost that the adventure is on again, the beach now as alive, or more so, than the hills.