By 1965, The Beatles had been international superstars for nearly two years. They were releasing singles and albums at an otherworldly pace, touring the world to screaming fans, starring in films, and were single-handedly changing the shape of popular music with every new single they released. But, off the back of a whirlwind 1964 which saw the release of a full length film, two studio albums and accompanying singles, and a tour which saw them going everywhere from the United States to New Zealand, the Beatles were already showing signs of disenchantment with their fame, and it had become clear that the constant movement – namely, recording and touring, had taken its toll. The cover of their third studio album released in a 12 month span, Beatles for Sale, show the Beatles being very clearly worn out, wary and tired as a result of Beatlemania, and the songs on the album represented a marked step down from the quality that they had exhibited on albums like Please Please Me and especially A Hard Day’s Night.
John Lennon, who had already been exhibiting his ability to write songs outside of the typical standard tales of boy meets girl and themes of love, was also famously depressed by the time 1965 rolled around (Lennon himself referred to this time as his “fat Elvis period.”) By the middle of that year, Lennon’s songwriting had matured by leaps and bounds as a result of depression and disillusionment, quickly becoming a songwriter who was more willing to reveal his true emotions instead of following simple pop tropes and the typical tried and true Beatles formula. In terms of the mythical “Beatles timeline,” “Help!,” represented a turning point for the band because it was the first time that any of the three songwriters had openly confronted how Beatlemania was affecting them on a personal and emotional level.
The lyrics to “Help!” are some of the most direct and straight forward that Lennon wrote during his time with The Beatles, though, if you were just singing along to the song, you might not take them at face value thanks to the deceptively poppy and upbeat instrumental track that’s driving it. Lennon’s statements are abundantly clear throughout the track: he’s literally pleading for help from anyone who will listen to him. During the song’s abrupt intro and choruses, he’s more direct with his pleas in the verses – asking for “somebody, not just anybody/you know I need someone” and “I’m feeling down…help me get my feet back on the ground.”
Lennon’s lyrics hiding behind such a poppy tune is meta in nature – if “somebody/not just anybody” can hear him throughout the commercial machine of Beatlemania, “help.” As it turns out everybody heard him, but no one really understood him, and Beatlemania kept rolling unabated throughout the next year.
What really takes “Help!” above and beyond is the outstanding vocal counterpoint and harmony tracks by Paul McCartney and George Harrison, as well as the instrumental track provided by the entire band. McCartney and Harrison echo Lennon’s statements during the verses, adding depth to the song, and metaphorically providing support to Lennon’s claims. The layering of their voices goes into the red when Lennon pleads “help me get my feet back on the ground” brings the before a rapid fire guitar lick brings it back down to Earth.
In contrast to all that’s happening in the vocals tracks, the music that backs “Help!” is surprisingly upbeat for a song with such a down subject matter, chock full of tambourine, the aforementioned guitar line that bridges the choruses to the verses, and is given a fuller quality via a rollicking, folky acoustic guitar part. Paul McCartney’s bass line, though understated and often slightly lost in the mix amid all of these conflicting forces, plays a prevalent role in giving the song its unique atmosphere.
The Beatles were doing so much at the time that “Help!” was released that it not only became the lead track of the album of the same name, but it also featured prominently in the Beatles second film and soundtrack of the same name. They also somehow found the time to make a quick promotional film (i.e. a music video) for the track, which had become almost become customary for the band at a time when other artists solely relied on live television performances for promotion. But, the demand for seeing the Beatles in any form was so high that shows like Top of the Pops showed promo videos instead, nearly twenty years before MTV popularized the idea. In the black and white video, the Beatles are sitting on a workbench facing the camera, with Ringo in the back holding an umbrella trying to get some screen time, only for it to start snowing. It’s a fun clip that shows off all four of the Beatles’ marketed personalities effectively.
At the time, was just another in a long line of the Beatles eventual 21 number one hits, hitting number one for three consecutive weeks from September 4 through September 18th, 1965. But, in retrospect, “Help!” has stood out among the band’s discography as one of their most innovative straight up pop songs, and is a great starting point to dive into their pre-Rubber Soul output.