Thursday, March 7, 2019

100 Albums: "Help!" by The Beatles

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: The Beatles
Title: Help!
Released: 1965
Genre: The frickin' Beatles


I almost went with 1 instead because honestly how the hell do you pick a favorite Beatles album? On a different day of the week I might have said Rubber Soul or Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, but I settled on Help! because it's the absolute best album of their early period when they were the most like a normal band. They still played together as a group and hadn't started getting super experimental yet--which, to be clear, I love their experimental stuff, but there's something to be said for a rock band in a room playing straight-forward rock music. At a certain level, it becomes less about what songs you like on an album and more about which album has the bits that annoy you the least. And for my money, I'd rather hear George Harrison mess around with an expression peddle (I Need You) than with a sitar (Love You To from Revolver, Within You/Without You from Sgt. Pepper, basically all of the Concert For Bangladesh).

Lennon and McCartney are absolutely on fire with their writing on this record. The title track is one of the best--if not the best--of John Lennon's entire oeuvre. Second-to-last on the album we have Paul McCartney's Yesterday, one of the greatest pop songs ever written and the most-covered song of all time. In many ways, Help! is the archetypical Beatles records. We get John being sad but in a poppy way (Ticket To Ride), John being sad in a sad way (You've Got To Hide Your Love Away), John being out-and-out depressed (It's Only Love), Paul's bubblegum pop in a major key (I've Just Seen A Face--my low-key fave on the record), Paul's bubblegum pop in a minor key (The Night Before), George being overly technical (It's Only Love), George kicking back and having fun for a change (You Like Me Too Much), a cover that's fun but doesn't really feel like it belongs here (Dizzy Miss Lizzy), and a goofy song for Ringo to sing (Act Naturally, a great Carl Perkins number). The only song that's not great is Tell Me What You See, which is a pretty good song actually, it just gets droney in the verses.

Recorded over four months and then released six weeks later, Help! came in the middle of a whirlwind of productivity when the Beatles were putting out two albums a year and touring constantly. There's a rushed feel--it never gets too perfect, but the Beatles were also extremely well-practiced musicians, so even the not-quite-perfect stuff feels pretty good: loose and vibrant, never sloppy. At thirty-seven minutes long, none of the album's fourteen tracks sticks around very long, so you get positively pummeled by brilliant pop song after brilliant pop song. After the dreary Beatles For Sale, Help! is a revelation. The band was reinvigorated in no small part by becoming friends with Bob Dylan (Dylan's fingerprints are all over You've Got To Hide Your Love Away) who introduced them to his other friend Mary Jane. So the band was relaxing a bit but hadn't gotten to the point yet where Paul was writing love songs about the drug yet (Revolver's Got To Get You Into My Life).

The album is accompanied by a movie of the same name, which I really can't recommend. The performances in it are fun, but the plot involves the band trying to escape a Thuggee cult that's trying to murder Ringo and it's... rough. Suffice it to say that seeing British actors in Indian make-up is problematic by modern standards, and really problematic when you dig into the history shared by those two countries. I don't blame the band for this, though. By their own admissions, they were basically stoned out of their minds for the entire shoot.

Further Listening: I dunno, all of it? I mean, it's the frickin' Beatles. What do you want? The White Album is a touch overrated, Let It Be is kind of a hot mess, and their really early stuff is sloppy, especially the stereo mixes. On the other hand, they're the frickin' Beatles. Help! kicked off a stretch of amazing records that got progressively more inventive: Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (also overrated, but only because it's merely brilliant and not world-peace-inducing), and Magical Mystery Tour (uneven with some bizarre A-side tracks, but overall a very solid effort). But if you're looking to dip your toe in, I would still recommend 1, released in 2000 in an attempt to repackage The Beatles as a boy band and also somehow as direct competition with Elvis, for some reason? It's a decent career retrospective that includes almost all of their best-known hits (the big notable exception being Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds which was never a single). It was the first major remaster of any of the Beatles songs since they were originally released on CD in 1987, and its success led to the remastering of the entire catalog that was released in 2009. It's not as comprehensive as the blue and red compilations from 1973, but it's stronger for being a bit more streamlined.

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