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Wednesday, January 20, 2010


On the strength of A Hard Day’s Night (both the movie and album) and Beatles For Sale The Beatles were officially household names across the globe. They were touring constantly and when they weren’t touring they were popping into the studio to quickly record their newest Top Ten single. The lads from Liverpool could seemingly do anything.

Less than two months after the release of Beatles For Sale talk of making another movie began to crop up and by the spring The Beatles were on location in England, Austria, and The Bahamas filming what would become the movie Help! On the surface the movie, and accompanying album, had all the cheeky charm of A Hard Day’s Night, but underneath there was something more insidious and desperate brewing.

John Lennon, who wrote almost half the songs on Help!, referred to this period as his “Fat Elvis” period, in which he gained weight*, was smoking too much marijuana, and felt pressured on all sides to continue writing hits. Additionally, the inherent difficulty of pretending to be charming, innocent Beatles all while rubbing shoulders with rock bad boys like Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones was beginning to chafe and the weariness shows, more so in the movie than the album.

What John’s, and The Beatles', weariness amounted to sonically though is the penultimate record of The Beatles’ early work. If The Beatles’ career can be split into three parts (Early: Please Please Me through Help!, Middle: Rubber Soul through Magical Mystery Tour, and Late: White Album through Let It Be) then Help! is an indelible exclamation point at the end of one period and the beginning of another.

Help! is an incredible album, easily the best from start to finish of their early work. With almost five months to write new material, John, Paul, and George came to George Martin with a set of songs that pushed the limits of what had previously been thought possible. In particular the song “Help!” used not one, not two, but three 4-track bounces of tape to create the double tracked vocals and lush arrangement to what became an instant classic.

Lennon, who was drowning in self-pity at the time, nonetheless usefully channeled his gloom into the heartbreaking “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”** and “Help!” while McCartney, perhaps in reaction to Lennon’s depression, stepped up his own writing output, filling the empty space with upbeat, jaunty numbers like “The Night Before” and “I’ve Just Seen A Face”.

But the crown jewel of the set is the breathtaking, stark beauty of “Yesterday”, a song McCartney said he simply dreamed up one day. George Martin’s decision to dress the song in nothing more than the finery of a string quintet has to be one of the all-time best production decisions, and the strings give what could have been a cloying, maudlin tune something of a magisterial and haunting edge that perfectly buoys McCartney’s choir-boy tenor.

This album would have been great without the song, but with its inclusion it became a classic. It also signified a drastic tide-shift in the songwriting dynamic of the two principal writers. Prior to “Yesterday” The Beatles had arguably been “John’s band” but as Lennon slipped deeper into his depression, Paul jumped into the breach and pulled out one of the greatest Beatles song of all time (and also one that, significantly, featured only Paul), thus solidifying McCartney as not only a songwriting force in the group but also as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. At the time, Paul’s growth may have seemed a relief to John but with subsequent albums it became clear that Help! is where The Beatles really started breaking just took six more years and eight classic albums for the cracks to finally show.

*Which is a bit of a misnomer. While he did gain weight, he was by no means fat.
**This track utilized flute for the first time in any Beatles song.