Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Help! (1965)

(There's a less fragmented version here. And see also A Hard Day's Night, now with complete updates, here.)

More on the mess made by the marketing laboratories of early/mid-period Beatles. For the record, I am officially in sympathy with the Beatles who wanted to put chopped-up dolls and cuts of meat on the cover of the US-only Yesterday and Today. It's a travesty. At this point these UK track sequences can still be alienating too. (I still feel like someone midway in transition from a QWERTY to a Dvorak keyboard. It messes with my mind.) Example: WTF is "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" doing here? Or "Yesterday"? They are less like albums (let alone soundtracks) and more like collections of songs that sometimes clump. For this album, the first seven tracks also appeared in the movie and on the US version of the soundtrack. To me they are the core of Help! and then there are some pretty good random Beatles songs and/or weird soundtrack blurts, depending on the version you have or know or prefer. In short: Help! I need somebody.


"The Night Before"—This Paul McCartney song opens up the world of 1965 Beatles proper, behind the hits, among other things making a good start to a puppy love song project, which seems to inform so many songs here. Of course, it was always love, love, love with these guys—if only because ultimately it's the major theme of pop music itself—but the flavors and approaches changed a lot, perhaps nowhere so plain and deliberately as on this otherwise innocuous "soundtrack" album. After years of touring, years of songwriting and studios, years of a train and a room, a car and a room, and a room and a room, they were evidently in the mood for novelty in their songwriting. Point of view, balance of power, the particularity of unique situations—they played with all these elements, with their usual energy and abandon. On "The Night Before," for example, the point of view belongs to the boy, who wants his girl back. She has the balance of power now, but only, perhaps, because he thought he had it in the first place, and was wrong. Which only makes it worse for the foolish singer: "Love was in your eyes ["eye-hee-izz"], ahh, the night before / Now today I find you have changed your mind / Treat me like you did the night before," he begs her helplessly. The chug-chug tempo might be slow (a continuing problem actually with many of the songs on this album) but the point is made, and then the guitar solo by Paul McCartney is made (which Wikipedia characterizes as "terse and stabbing"), and then the point is made again. Give me back my yesterday!

"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"—Influenced by Bob Dylan and the coming of folk music, this John Lennon song is considered by many, including Paul McCartney, as Lennon simply doing a Dylan impersonation. I don't much hear it that way myself—for one thing, Dylan would never use the fruity flute solo at the break—but OK, sure, the influence is apparent enough. The Beatles more or less gave this song away to another UK act, the Silkie, who made a #10 hit out of their faithful cover in the fall of 1965. Overall its sentiments may be more mature than other songs in the puppy love song project. The object of adoration is nowhere in sight. The singer has been abandoned, and boy, is he bummed. His opinion of how to proceed from here? Denial. Pretend it didn't happen, pretend you aren't feeling the feelings you're feeling, and fob the blame off on "the world" (society) for the necessity of such repressions. Yes, it's only levels of petulance, thus perhaps not really so mature after all, nor that far removed from teen boy and girl concerns. But it's also one of the loveliest songs in their catalog, flute solo and all, convincing because it is so careful and deliberate and stays so close to the sadness. The aggressive macho Lennon everyone forgets is here replaced with the self-pitying Lennon who bleats honesty for betterment of the world. As a conceptual understanding of Lennon that's a bit overdone, but one of its clearest sources is here in this song.

"I Need You"—A George Harrison song, and a very good one, looking forward to Rubber Soul in its way as much as "Tell Me What You See" does, later on this album. One key hook of "I Need You" is the strange, backward-sounding noise Harrison makes on his guitar using a volume pedal—it seems to push against the direction of the song, like a car skidding against wet pavement into sand. That reminds me I should say again that all these songs have the general headlong momentum of the Beatles during this period, the canny and unexpected ways of stitching together pop music. "I Need You" also has a pensive feel to it, which fits the lyrical thrust nicely. In terms of the puppy love song project, "I Need You" falls in the more conventional bin, though perhaps marked by more vulnerability and openness than usual. The point of view is the boy's, and the balance of power falls to the girl. She has left and he wants her back, but he knows he has no hold on her. The song is a plea—for attention, for pity, for anything he can get. It's only about a notch above groveling. Thus the extremities of it, the honesty (searing or otherwise—it's never really moved me much that way), set it apart some. The circumstances and situation described are familiar—make that overfamiliar—to pop songs. But it's the Beatles from arguably their best period, it's George Harrison figuring out how to write Beatles songs, and it has hooks and an endearing mood. It's a winner, that's all.

"Another Girl"—This song and the next are where I was first alerted to the puppy love song project of the core songs in Help!, maybe because they both use the word "girl" in the title and present such strikingly different narratives. "Another Girl" is a Paul McCartney song but not exactly a "silly love song." In fact, it's a good deal like a John Lennon song in attitude. The point of view and the upper hand in this song both belong to the boy, who boasts aggressively to his girlfriend that he can leave her any time (because he has got ... "Another Girl"). Typically, the edge is filed off the dominating sentiment—it's puppy love, remember—by retreating to a more upbeat, positive, even gentle message, meant to distract. The girl addressed may not be a good girl (she's making the singer say he's got nobody but her), whereas the girl on the side, according to the singer, "will love me to the end / Through thick and thin / She will always be my friend." Compare this expression of need and vulnerability with "I ain't no fool and I don't take what I don't want," just a verse or two earlier. Will the real Beatle please stand up? But that's part of the fascination of the project. Sometimes in love the bear eats you, and sometimes you eat the bear. Wait, no, I'm not saying that right. Well, PC or no, I still like "Another Girl" quite a bit, of course, but the song is more intriguing to me now for the light it throws on the Lennon-McCartney collaboration. It was written by McCartney on his own, with no input from any of the others, including Lennon, who is nonetheless fully internalized in it.

"You're Going to Lose That Girl"—Pronounced "you're gonna lose that girl," this song sounds in attitude much like a certain type of John Lennon song, and that's Lennon on lead vocals in his mode of hypermasculine aggression. But it appears it was actually more a genuine collaboration with Paul McCartney. In addition to use of the word "girl" in the title, it ties itself to the previous song with an unusual chord change in the bridge that occurs in both. In the puppy love song project they remain two of the most interesting. "You're Going to Lose That Girl" is also unusual in another way. Its point of view is not of either principal in a relationship, the girl or the boy, but rather a friend of the boy, standing off to the side, speaking frankly. The singer does not like the way he sees his friend treating the girl. The balance of power here is complex. The girl has none, she is in the song only as an object that is coveted and cared for poorly. The boy appears to enjoy most of the power over her. Interestingly the friend, who normally in a situation like this would probably be a bit of a sad sack, instead sounds remarkably sure of himself. "I'll make a point / Of taking her away from you," he boasts (and "yeah!" the backing singers McCartney and George Harrison enthusiastically chime in—everyone's on the singer's side in this one). Things soften again as usual toward the end—"And I will take her out tonight / And I will treat her kind"—but still, it's not the best situation, and the girl is just a cipher. This might just be an argument about whose dick is bigger.

"Ticket to Ride"—With this song we more or less conclude the basic core of Help! essentials, all of which are in the movie, on this album, and on the US version of the soundtrack too. "Ticket to Ride" was also a pretty big hit in its own right, making it up to #1 for a week in May 1965, before the movie was released. It was also much beloved by a particular babysitter of ours, who played the radio when she was watching us. Because of her, I never stopped listening to pop music on the radio. I think "Ticket to Ride" is still pretty well loved, appearing on Rolling Stone lists of this and that and elsewhere. John Lennon claims the authorship, but Paul McCartney, who gets lead guitar duties here again, remembers working closely with him on it. In terms of the puppy love song project, it's reasonably straightforward: abandoned boyfriend POV, he is sad. The girl has the upper hand and indeed appears only as an absence: "She's got a ticket to ride and she don't care," etc. I like the jangly, thumpy, mechanical way it proceeds, but the truth is it's lost much of its appeal for me over the long years. The matter of the title is interesting: some take it for the obvious (she's traveling away), some think it refers to the town of Ryde on the Isle of Wight, and still others speculate it's about health documentation carried by prostitutes in Hamburg, Germany, to assure prospective customers. Well, whatever. Even mediocre Beatles songs from this period have their charms, if only because of the band's unmistakable sound and some nice touches. Here it is the delicate guitar figure on the attack and the big "my baby don't care" finish, spanning whole scales.

"Act Naturally"

"It's Only Love"Rubber Soul

"You Like Me Too Much"—The second George Harrison song on this album (as it happens, the first since With the Beatles to include Harrison songs at all) bends toward nothing-burger, I'm afraid, which I will lay at the feet of a poky tempo. And juvenile lyrics, which at least bear their own interest in the annals of the ongoing puppy love song project of the wider era. "You Like Me Too Much" was not in the movie and not on the US version of the soundtrack either, relegated instead to Beatles VI. It might be fair to say it's a weak song, but it's unmistakably Beatles of this era and has multiple points in its favor. It's great to hear another Harrison song and also another song with Harrison on lead vocals. The piano intro involved George Martin and Paul McCartney at either end of the keyboard playing at once, a musical figure Bob Dylan later recreated for Blonde on Blonde's "Temporary Like Achilles." In terms of puppy love songs, here we find the boy with the upper hand, bragging. He has nothing to worry about in this relationship and knows it, enjoys it even: "Though you've gone away this morning / You'll be back again tonight," he starts. "You've tried before to leave me / But you haven't got the nerve," he continues. "You'll never leave me and you know it's true," he concludes. But no fears, the reasons are all good, all good: "'Cos you like me too much and I like you," they bawl in harmony. Well, all right. But we'll have to get back to you about the unsettling undertone.

"Tell Me What You See"—All signs are that this song is something of a bastard stepchild, with John Lennon disavowing any part in it and a hazy Paul McCartney thinking he might have written 60% of it, according to Wikipedia, and everybody else more or less hiding their love away. It was another one not in the movie nor on the US version of the soundtrack, but rather packed off to Beatles VI. It must be said it also doesn't have a whole lot of pick up and go, sauntering along at sluggish tempo, though of itself that's not such a problem. The melody takes place in a nice lower register and it's fun to sing with; the lead vocals are a joint effort by Lennon and McCartney. The Everlys harmonies are slowly but surely taking on more of the folk textures then current, with the songwriting, though it's all couched still in terms of the puppy love song project, which I think is actually more the problem. If Help! is the place where the Beatles really made a point of working out the permutations of puppy love songs, "Tell Me What You See" is approximately where they ran out of ideas. The passivity is numbing. I hate to be the grumpy grown-up who does not understand, but look, the yearning that is the point of this song could be eliminated absurdly quickly by speaking up once to the object of adoration. One grows impatient—suck up and tear off the band-aid, etc. Maybe the most interesting feature of the song is the spinet-sounding keyboard at the bridge, foreshadowing some of the baroque textures ahead on Rubber Soul and "In My Life." They would be leaving the puppy love songs behind soon enough, more and more.

"I've Just Seen a Face"Rubber Soul

"Yesterday"—Speaking of the puppy love song project, here is arguably the biggest, greatest, most insidiously pervasive puppy love song of all time—#1 for four weeks in the fall of 1965 and now with 2,200 cover versions and counting. "Yesterday" came just after the peaks of Beatlemania, shortly after John Lennon's Jesus remark. It was not in the movie. It's the first Beatles song performed by just one member. Though never particularly a favorite I don't despise it either the way some do, such as John Lennon himself so publicly years later. It's obvious in every way that the little shorty (all of 2:08) is a Paul McCartney "silly love song." It's conventional enough that at one point I wanted my parents to listen to it for their opinion. The strings made it classical, or classy, or something (thoughts of a 10-year-old). That was probably the peak of it for me. I think Lennon's raging about it as some kind of hideous abomination was misplaced, of course, some sort of unfortunate Freudian event. Someone might have taken him aside and reminded him Elvis Presley was waist-deep in these waters by 1957. Elvis was the original rock 'n' roll prostitute. That said, there is something undeniably insipid about "Yesterday" too: "Things were so much better in my immediate past, oh boo hoo, la la la" is small-scale at best. But ultimately there's no shame in "Yesterday." McCartney appeared happy to play the role of the heartthrob, teen or otherwise, and this plays very nicely to that. He's sad. He's available. He needs a shoulder. Will it be yours? [SCREAMS] Cha-ching.

"Dizzy Miss Lizzy"—How did this—what the ruck is it doing here? One more homeless Beatles rock 'n' roll cover looking for a place to lay its head, and I think one of their best actually (albeit with naysayers too). First point of confusion: I thought this was on the US album Something New, but it is actually yet another on the US Beatles VI (which incidentally must make the Beatles among the first to that particular Roman numeral). "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" is not in the movie. Second: As best I can tell from a cursory Internet search, it appears that people who don't like "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" don't like the Larry Williams original, arguing it's a knockoff of Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly." But Larry Williams is actually, I think, one of rock 'n' roll's great semi-hidden treasures, chipping in at least one stone classic with "Bonie Moronie"; he never has been a knockoff of Little Richard though obviously he has a similar way with words and names (his biggest hit was "Short Fat Fannie"). John Lennon and Paul McCartney were big fans of Williams (and Little Richard, of course, McCartney's favorite) so no surprise that the Beatles also covered Williams's "Slow Down" and "Bad Boy." There's something maybe a little detached and cerebral about this version of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," which might in turn be due to yet another somewhat lackadaisical tempo, but George Harrison's guitar is wicked stinging, Lennon's vocal has all the authority of his full roar, with screams, and it sounds unself-consciously in love with rock 'n' roll and with everything about itself, which is infectious. Maybe it shouldn't work, when you break down the elements, but it does.

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