John Lennon wasn’t happy with The Beatles and their recording of ‘Help!’. It was too jolly in tone, too speedy in its delivery, and definitely too commercial in its outlook. The song, he felt, was about his suffering, and should have reflected the fragmented state of mind he was in. In 1970, he suggested that he might re-record the effort, no doubt blown away by the treatment Deep Purple had given the number.
In many ways, their 1968 cover honours the original intent better than The Beatles did. Jon Lord plays a forlorn organ solo, while Ritchie Blackmore strums his guitar like a drummer leading the funeral carriage to its rightful burial ground. And then there’s Rod Evans, who sings the track as if he’s confessing to the many women he’s wronged by lying to them, before walking away from their doors for a future they had no part in.
The song features on Shades of Deep Purple, an otherwise derivative album soaked in Procul Harum’s influence. Yet to gain a creative second wind from singer Ian Gillan, Deep Purple were coasting on fumes, unaware which direction they should be sailing down. But somewhere between the protracted organ solos and instrumental suites came the dense Lennon cover that gave listeners something to bite their teeth into. It’s not our place to say whether or not their version is better than the 1965 original, but we can safely say they matched it.
If George Harrison was impressed by the cover, he didn’t mention it in interviews. But he did salute Deep Purple in a feature from 1987. “They’re my neighbours, two of them, Jon and Ian,” Harrison said. “They live near me and I’ve known them now for probably eight, nine years. Yet they were so famous in the 70s, I got to know them in the period after they broken up before they reformed. So I never knew their music. I mean, I heard this one thing about ‘Smoke On The Water’ or something like that. I’ve actually never seen them and I heard that they are in the Guinness Book Of Records for being the loudest group in the world.”
Curiosity got the better of the former Beatle: “So I thought, well, I was in Australia at the time and they happened to be doing a concert in Sydney. So I thought I’d go an check them out, get my earplugs and go and see them. I really enjoyed the show. I sat on the stage for part of the show behind the loudspeakers and then I walked down and sat right on the center of the hall and it was not too loud. It was really funny, I liked it.”
“I thought Ian,” he continued, “Who is my neighbour, Ian Paice, he is such a good drummer and Jon Lord, rocking his organ. Ian Gillan, I thought he is just a scream, he is really funny. I enjoyed and they said ‘Hey! Here’s a guitar, come on!’ So I just went on and sang, I don’t know what it was, I was playing the wrong key but it didn’t seem to matter”.
Harrison joined Deep Purple for a rousing rendition of ‘Lucille’, a number the erstwhile Beatle was more than familiar with. Typically, he placed himself in the shadows, chiming beside the other members of the band, but he acquitted himself nicely to a performance that thrived on spontaneity.
Would Lennon have appeared with Deep Purple? It’s almost a moot point, considering that the poor fella was shot dead outside his apartment in 1980, but he might have been encouraged to join Deep Purple for a number. Deep Purple could have served as his backing band for a more rounded version of ‘Help!’ that saw Lennon expel the demons that had lived in his head since the end of the 1960s. Or, he could have matched Gillan for another rock number, as the two of them raced to see who could hit the high falsetto before the other one.
We don’t live in an imaginary world, but in a very real one, and a planet that Lennon, Lord and Harrison don’t live in anymore. But as long as we are well enough to enjoy Deep Purple’s version of ‘Help!’, then the we should, for the lack of a more appropriate phrase, ‘Help!’ourselves.