“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. 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.
But behind all the fast games, quick cash and unstoppable fandom, John Lennon was already beginning to long for a time before The Beatles ever happened and took over his life. He was crying out for help. It is on this track that he goes into his “fat Elvis period” and yet still manages to create one of the band’s most cherished songs—and one of Lennon’s favourites.
The track, of course, is ‘Help!’ a song seemingly written with the film in mind but actually hides a multitude of separate meanings and evocative moments for the song’s main composer John Lennon. It’s a song which is utterly beloved by the band’s fans and marked out Lennon as a future rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Famer. It saw Lennon put his heart on the page for all to see.
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.”
Luckily the duality of getting older may well provide you with rose-tinted moments of youthful hopefulness, never to be attained again, but it also provides you with the knowledge to know what’s to come. “It becomes easier to deal with as I get older; I don’t know whether you learn control or, when you grow up, you calm down a little,” says Lennon, concluding the matter with his classic wit and curtness. “Anyway, I was fat and depressed and I was crying out for help.”
Often written off as another commercial number for The Beatles to lay more stones along the path to success. But, in fact, the song was deeply personal, entirely effected by its creator and a hint at the wonderful songs that were to come. ‘Help!’ isn’t just one of Lennon’s favourites, it’s one of ours too.