Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Five)

HELP!
 
A young woman is about to be sacrificed by a strange cult but is saved at the last second because she’s not wearing a red ring, the same red ring that Ringo Starr has foolishly decided to put on and can’t get off no matter what he tries.  That’s the premise of The Beatles’ second feature film.  Released in 1965, it was accompanied by a new studio album.  Half the songs were made for the movie, the rest to fill out side two.  Only in Britain could you hear all 14 songs on one record.  (North America only got the movie songs and selections from Ken Thorne’s original score.)
 
With a tight running time of just under 34 minutes, like A Hard’s Day Night (or any of the early albums, for that matter), time is considered so precious that not a single second is wasted here.  Unlike the music from that movie, not everything is original.  However, the Please Please Me formula of six covers paired with eight originals is finally discarded with this release.  Only two remakes were needed to fill out the second half of the album.
 
The title song sets the tone with John Lennon swallowing his pride and openly admitting he’s too weak to go it alone anymore.  He sounds like an old man when he sings, “my independence seems to vanish in the haze”, the best line in the entire track.  A blast of energy from start to finish (Harrison’s slightly off-kilter guitar playing gives it character), despite not being terribly specific, Help! is startling evidence of lyrical growth on the part of Lennon and Paul McCartney.  In just two years, you could already hear their advancement as personal vulnerability is increasingly creeping into the material.
 
Speaking of McCartney, he sounds deeply bitter about his lover’s change of heart in The Night Before, a rollicking number filled with the pounding sounds of Ringo’s Ludwig drum kit.  (You can hear him constantly thrashing about on the cymbals.)  After one incredible night of passion, he’s shocked to discover that she just doesn’t need him anymore.  (“Now today I find/You have changed your mind”)  Clinging desperately to the idea of rekindling that sexual chemistry, he begs her over and over again “to treat me like you did the night before”.  Simply remembering all that hot sex reduces him to a puddle of tears.  Ah, the catch-22 of groupies.  Strong hook here.
 
The melancholic ballad You’ve Got To Your Hide Love Away, which showcases some terrific acoustic guitar playing, casts Lennon in the familiar role of the sad sack who’s just been dumped.  Furthering the themes of its predecessors, Lennon now imagines people laughing at his misfortune to the point where they suggest he never try his luck with a woman ever again.  Pretty brutal.  Already feeling emasculated by the break-up, he just piles on the growing layers of self-loathing.  At times, you can even hear the ache in his voice.  Like I’m A Loser from Beatles For Sale, Lennon’s pessimism is downright devastating to listen to.  You can really start to hear him reveal his own insecure identity in these compelling semi-autobiographical numbers.
 
George Harrison’s I Need You is one of his least remarkable compositions, distinguished mostly by its melody and the constant use of a volume-controlled foot pedal on his electric guitar.  Pleading for the return of his disinterested lover, it’s pretty standard fare but not singing along isn’t an option.  Christopher Walken, take note.  The cowbell returns for the middle eight sections.
 
Another Girl features a coldly diplomatic Paul McCartney trying to convince a persistent ex that he’s moved on.  He dismisses her repeatedly with the line “I ain’t no fool and I don’t take what I don’t want”.  With a straight face, he asserts to his former lover’s face, “I don’t wanna say that I’ve been unhappy with you” and then proceeds to talk up the attributes of his new girlfriend.  Classy.  I like how the chorus leads into the middle eight section.  Very smooth transition, unlike the cad’s girlfriend switching.  McCartney stays low for the verses and aims high for the middle eights.  One of a few Beatle tracks that I didn’t like at first but have warmed to over time.
 
Two more entertaining movie songs take us to the midway point of the album.  You’re Going To Lose That Girl is a breakthrough for John Lennon.  Instead of the usual wallowing in depression over lost love, he’s ready to steal someone else’s girl.  Claiming that his rival doesn’t deserve her, he boldly announces “I’ll make a point of taking her away from you”.  Although he allows the guy countless opportunities to fix his own relationship, you get the feeling Lennon hopes he keeps treating her badly so he can swoop in and save the day.  George Harrison offers a cool Chuck Berry-inspired guitar solo and Ringo keeps the energy up with his bongo playing and drumming.  It’s hard not to be moved by Lennon’s higher register.
 
Ticket To Ride showcases some of the best drumming Ringo ever committed to tape.  Harrison’s unique guitar lick is quite good, too.  Lennon’s back to being the wronged guy again as he complains about his ex abandoning him for a train ride to freedom.  A rare early Beatles number that’s over three minutes long, Lennon’s self-pity is on full display here most especially at the end (“my baby don’t care”).
 
It’s Only Love is one of the best songs of the second half, maybe even of the whole album.  A mostly acoustic affair (with the occasional appearance of a neat sounding electric hook on top), it has a gorgeous melody and features some wonderful lyrics.  In the first verse, Lennon’s heart is aflutter over a beautiful woman (“I get high when I see you walk by/My, oh, my”) he can’t even bring himself to talk to (“Why am I so shy/When I’m beside you?).  By the second, he’s somehow overcome his shyness and they’re now a couple.  Unfortunately, things aren’t going so well (“Is it right that you and I should fight/Every night?”).  He wants to bring an end to that tension but it’s a struggle (“…it’s so hard loving you”).  The stubborn naivety expressed in the band’s earlier numbers where potential problems weren’t foreseen and love is supposed to last forever, has wilted away in favour of more relatable scenarios like this one, one of the strongest tracks in their catalogue.
 
It’s surprising that Paul McCartney sings the beautiful Yesterday because it’s yet another number about a single guy bemoaning a lost relationship.  This is usually the terrain of John Lennon who co-wrote and sang many of these similiarly themed tracks.  Perhaps only because of its high melody line was the idea of Lennon singing it not possible.  Backed by a sympathetic string quartet who confidently play in the key of heartbreak, McCartney softly reveals that a slip of the tongue may have ended his happiness (“I said something wrong”).  Sadly, we never do find out what exactly caused his romance to collapse.  (Could one dopey comment really change everything?)  Like the depressed characters in a good number of the earlier tracks, McCartney’s instinct is to retreat from the world and suffer in silence.  After all these years, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the most covered songs in music history.  It’s a stunner.
 
With its honky tonk piano tinkling and catchy melody, Harrison’s You Like Me Too Much is the strongest of his two contributions here.  I like how the piano and the guitar trade licks during the solo.  A straightforward tale about a cocksure, not entirely nice fellow who is absolutely convinced that, despite threats to the contrary, his woman will never truly leave him, this is the best song the lead guitarist had written up to this point.  He would easily top it many times over during the course of the next several albums.
 
Lennon and McCartney trade lines on Tell Me What You See, a mid-tempo number that would’ve fit comfortably on Beatles For Sale.  Ringo’s nicely restrained drum work and that cool Hammond organ are the elements that stand out the most in the arrangement, most especially during those moments when there isn’t any singing.  Both men try to reassure an uncertain love interest about their devotion to her (“If you put your trust in me/I’ll make bright your day”).  She’s a difficult one to reach because of an unexplained depression that McCartney insists isn’t permanent (“Big and black the clouds may be/Time will pass away”).  On earlier records, the lyrics wouldn’t have been this interesting.  What could’ve easily been a throwaway is instead an admirable attempt to branch out a bit from the usual subject matter.  Romance is still an important theme for the songwriting duo but the characters in their songs are quickly learning it’s not all wine and roses.
 
I’ve Just Seen A Face is an endearing, fast-paced country skiffle that has a misleading introduction.  The lovely open-picked acoustic guitar opening leads you to believe you’re about to hear a ballad but then, the pace picks up and McCartney can’t contain his excitement about this new woman who’s interested in him.  After years of unhappiness, this new love interest has taken center stage in his life.  You sense the euphoria in his singing.
 
Two covers bookend the originals on the second half of the album.  Act Naturally, a remake of the famous Buck Owens hit, is an appropriate choice for Ringo’s vocal showcase.  Even more overtly country than I’ve Just Seen A Face, its cinematic theme makes it a suitable selection.  The guitar playing really sucks you in while Ringo delivers a good performance.  He even harmonizes with himself on this one.  Dizzy Miss Lizzy is the traditional album-ending screamer.  Originally a Larry Williams song, when he’s not singing pleasantly, John Lennon shrieks, whoops, yelps, groans and wails about a chick who’s so hot he can’t contain his feelings for her.  It’s nice to hear him have fun and not sound so woeful, for once.  The band is right there with him every step of the way.
 
Those who complained about the 1987 CD version of Help! (not me) will be pleased with this 2009 update.  It sounds great and there’s no reason to hang your head and moan.  Early pressings are enhanced with a brief documentary about the making of the movie and the subsequent album.  (You’ll need QuickTime and at least Windows 2000 to have a look at it.  Check the back cover for more details.)  You’ll hear commentary from most of The Beatles (no John Lennon this time, for some reason) and producer George Martin.  Like some of these reissues, the audio sounds pretty terrible and there are the ever present sync problems no matter how many times you run through it.  (I stopped at three.)  Once again, not a lot of revelation here although there’s plenty of Help! clips where Ringo wears an incredibly silly hat.  There’s a funny inside-the-studio moment where someone (it sounds like John but it could be Paul) does a very funny high pitched goof on the Ticket To Ride melody.  Harrison makes a funny remark at the top, as well.  I love the bit where McCartney talks about how either him or Lennon would mention a title of a song one of them had an idea for and that would be what they would work on that particular day.  So cool.  Other than that, you’ve seen and heard it all before, and that includes the Shea Stadium footage. 
 
The liner notes have lots of pictures and the standard Historical and Recording Notes sections, common to all fourteen of these reissues.  However, like the documentary, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen or read elsewhere. 
 
Two years after the release of the Please Please Me album, despite their incredibly hectic schedule and tight deadlines, The Beatles were evolving.  The words were becoming more personal and complex, the music moving further away from pop and closer to rock.  Help! isn’t one of the great albums in their catalogue but it is a good one proving that the foursome were getting somewhere with their experiments and their timeless melodicism.  If you don’t own the original CD, pick this one up.  You’ll be singing along to these 14 cuts again and again and again.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, February 5, 2010
12:50 a.m. 
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Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 12:50 am  Leave a Comment  

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