We’re taking a look back at one of The Beatles breakthrough songs, the brilliant ‘Help!’ and we’re doing it by focusing on the band’s perfect isolated vocal tracks. It’s in these vocals that the secret to The Beatles’ earliest success can be found. It’s not only one the fans’ most favoured songs but one of John Lennon’s most treasured songs from the Fab Four.
The title track from 1965’s Help!, the band’s fifth studio album, is marked out as one of the defining records to set The Beatles on their way to the very highest echelons of music. Before tracks like ‘Help!’ the group had been wrongly labelled as a boyband. However after this release, they were so much more than that and what’s more, they could still sing it better than anyone out there.
Of course, The Beatles had been chugging around since 1960 in various different guises, even earlier if you’re counting the Quarrymen, which many of us are. As their careers began to take off in 1963, however, the group were packaged up as a ready-made boyband, perfect for teenage record sales, something now more keenly sought after than ever before. Soon enough, the real mark of the Fab Four came to the forefront and the group transcended from singers in a pop group to musicians and pop icons.
It was on this track that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr began to find their feet. No longer were the band aiming at the charts or trying to become famous (they’d achieved both rather handsomely already), instead, they were trying to express themselves as artists and using their songs as their primary vehicle for doing so.
As any starving artist will tell you, however, it isn’t all sweetness and light pursuing art for art’s sake. It meant that whatever the group were putting together would still have to sell, having not yet reached the level of fame that would allow them to experiment with reckless abandon. It would lead to a period where Lennon and McCartney were writing kicking pop songs that were drenched in hidden meanings — ‘Help!’ is one of those songs.
Described by John Lennon as one of his favourite songs from The Beatles entire canon during an interview in 1970, the singer explains why rather succinctly, “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.”
Later Lennon said of the song in an interview with Playboy, “The whole Beatles thing was just beyond comprehension. I was subconsciously crying out for help”. And this is where the beauty of the song lay, in the harmonisation of commercial nous and poetic integrity all perfectly packaged in the nuanced voices of John and his mates Paul and George. Though Lennon may not have been shooting for the top of the charts by this time, he was still certainly guided by them.
The need to sell well meant that the group were encouraged to revisit the harmonies that had put them on the map. What better way to listen to them than with these isolated vocal tracks. Not only is there the quite sumptuous harmonies between George Harrison and Paul McCartney, but perhaps more pertinently, the juxtaposition between their voices and Lennon’s.
Lennon is strong and clear in his vulnerability. He allows the words of the song to flow through him and lets the rest of the band carry it into the chart-topping territory. While many people will cite Bob Dylan as a huge influence on Lennon finding his groove with songwriting, listening to ‘Help!’ you simply cannot deny his own special brand of personalised pop is worth its weight in gold.
Of course, it did turn gold and it did reach the top of the charts and stayed there for three weeks but all the while most of the public was blissfully unaware that the number one pop song in the country was a track about lonely and damaging it was being there in the first place.