There aren’t many songs in the canon of The Beatles that evaded the wrath of John Lennon. The singer and band’s founder was notoriously difficult to please when it came to his own work and, by the time he began reviewing the record seriously, he was dissatisfied with a hefty chunk of the Fab Four’s material. One song, however, would not only evade his scathing silver tongue but also be embellished by it. For many, ‘Help!’ is now the definitive Lennon anthem.
“We think it’s one of the best we’ve written,” said John Lennon in 1965 as he contemplated on the band’s recent single, a commissioned track for their new film Help! Taking notes from the film’s title, there’s a good chance that this song could have easily passed fans by, but digging only a little deeper it quickly became prevalent that this was Lennon’s most personal song to date.
As ever with the Fab Four, a new film meant a new album and the Lennon-McCartney train looked like it showed no signs of slowing down. With a view of penning yet another smash hit, Lennon didn’t revert to the rock and roll tropes that had put him and the band over the top, and, instead, listened to the words of his newfound singing idol, Bob Dylan. The freewheelin’ troubadour had connected with The Beatles in 1964 and encouraged the group to ditch the toe-tapper and write directly from the heart.
‘In My Life’ and ‘I’m A Loser’ are the most easily recognised moments of this revolutionary change of speed, but one of Lennon’s favourite songs, ‘Help!’ should also be noted as such a track. It was, as many people have come to realise, John Lennon, drenched in fame, fortune and without the foggiest idea of how to keep on living his life, crying out for help. He did it in the most obvious way possible too.
During various interviews, Lennon has pointed to ‘Help!’ as one of his favoured songs of the Fab Four. In 1970, after avoiding a simple question from Rolling Stone founder Jan Wenner on Lennon’s favourite song he ever wrote for The Beatles, he delivers a typically flagrant response. Lennon says: ”I always liked ‘[I Am The] Walrus’, ‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘Help!’, ‘In My Life’,” Wenner soon interjects, “Why ‘Help!’?” Lennon delivers a typically colourful response and one rendered with his uncontrollable honesty.
The singer and guitarist replies, “Because I meant it, it’s real. The lyric is as good now as it was then, it’s no different, you know. It makes me feel secure to know that I was that sensible or whatever- well, not sensible, but aware of myself. That’s with no acid, no nothing… well pot or whatever.” Lennon clarifies his point, “It was just me singing “help” and I meant it, you know. I don’t like the recording that much, the song I like. We did it too fast to try and be commercial.”
It’s a notion that Lennon later expanded on during his now-iconic interview with David Sheff of Playboy in 1980. “The whole Beatle thing was just beyond comprehension,” recalls Lennon as flashes of the mobs of fans and press flash across his brain, “When ‘Help’ came out, I was actually crying out for help. Most people think it’s just a fast rock ‘n roll song.
“I didn’t realise it at the time; I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie. But later, I knew I really was crying out for help.” It was a moment when Lennon’s old personality, his old way of being, was beginning to lose out to the pop star the band had created.
“So it was my fat Elvis period,” he continues. “You see the movie: He — I — is very fat, very insecure, and he’s completely lost himself. And I am singing about when I was so much younger and all the rest, looking back at how easy it was. Now I may be very positive… yes, yes… but I also go through deep depressions where I would like to jump out the window, you know.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it was clear to Lennon that something was wrong, a notion shared by his friend and songwriting partner, Paul McCartney. When speaking to The Sunday Times in 2020, he noted that mental health was never top of the agenda: “There were a lot of things we had to work through [and] you didn’t talk about mental health,” he said. “It was something really that, as four guys, you were more likely to make fun of than be serious about. And the making fun of it was to hide from it.”
“You know, John [wrote] ‘Help! I need somebody’. And I thought, ‘Well, it’s just a song,’ but it turned out to be a cry for help,” he said. The song has gone on to not only rank highly among The Beatles best but also among Lennon’s most heartfelt performances. Across every note, no matter if it was created by Lennon or not, the track now aches with a new understanding.
Yes, ‘Help!’ was a smash hit pop song, but like all great songs, it is now clear that it was the outpourings of an artist trying to express themselves.