The Beatles needed a holiday. United Artists needed a film. What better way to resolve these issues than by combining the two? Surprisingly, given what we’ve seen so far, there was no touring at all between the end of the run of Christmas shows and June, when they set off to tour France, Italy and Spain. in the meantime, they spent time making a film, and in Ringo’s case, getting married. The relative restfulness of this period allowed them not only to recharge the batteries, but also to spend time crafting new songs. Filming was scheduled for places the band had never been to, although the demands of scheduling meant that Bermuda was not a whole lot warmer than the Alps, in spite of the summer wardrobes.
If you’ve never seen ‘Help!’ I recommend it, although with some caveats. It is relentlessly daft, and – let’s be honest – not very well acted. There was more than enough budget, so not only was it filmed on location, it was – gasp – in colour! The story is ridiculous and owes more than a little to the Marx Brothers, while the boys are definitely channelling the Goon Show, although most of their acting is being done through a haze of pot smoke. Famously, they were all pretty much off their faces for the whole thing, and part of the reason it’s a bit patchy is that Dick Lester was left to make the best of whatever takes he could salvage from the general giggling and silliness. Oh, and if you are going to watch it, you should be aware that Leo McKern, John Bluthal, Eleanor Bron and a host of other perfectly respectable British actors spend the entire film in odd, only just this side of offensive, parodic Indian accents. No-one notices or comments because, hey, it was the Sixties.
Other notable elements – Lennon had been out in the Alps for a couple of weeks before filming started, and he can more or less ski; the others, not so much. He also shoehorns in a pretty blatant piece of product placement, ostentatiously reading his own book ‘A Spaniard in the Works’. There’s also a scene in an Indian restaurant (more stalwart Brits playing the staff, although without even bothering to try the accents) in which George Harrison is introduced to the sitar. We’ll be hearing more of that.
Meanwhile, things had been pretty quiet on the record-releasing front, even in America, where only one album, ‘Beatles VI’ came out between the start of the year and the release of ‘Help!’. Confusingly, it was the seventh Capitol release, and the ninth overall (and we still haven’t got to the one with the famous cover). It is, as with most of the previous releases, a cobbling-together of bits which hadn’t yet seen the light of day in the US, including ‘Bad Boy’, which was only released in the US, for some reason. The only activity in the UK charts were two EPs, called, with startling originality, ‘Beatles for Sale’ and ‘Beatles for Sale 2’. There was no new music on either, and but for the continued churning out of press releases, you might have been forgiven for wondering if all was well in the world of the Beatles.
The first new material since ‘Beatles For Sale’ appeared in April – ‘Ticket To Ride’ shot to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. I haven’t been doing B-sides, but I do think this one is worth your time – ‘Yes It Is’ is a significant musical departure in that it’s in an unusual time signature and features some astoundingly complex three-part harmonies:
As a taste of what was to come, the two tracks cranked Beatlemania back up to where it had been, but also indicated that perhaps the rest had done its job, in that they were clearly creating terrific songs again. With the film and album completed, and pausing only to collect their MBEs (awarded, among some controversy, for services to exports) they set off around Europe. The next (and perhaps most famous of all) tour was lined up for August, but that will have to wait…
Meanwhile, as you’d expect, the ‘Help!’ album in the US is – exactly as ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was – a different beast from the UK version. Released by Capitol (no idea what happened to the UA licensing deal), it features only the seven soundtracked songs and excerpts from the orchestral score by Ken Thorne, which means that there are orchestral versions of some of the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ songs, plus a cheeky rip-off of the James Bond theme. Of course, this means the ‘Help!’ in the US does not feature the UK album’s most famous song.
Divorced from the film, what does ‘Help!’ the album sound like?
Well, put yourself in the place of someone who has been waiting anxiously since December to see if the bubble has burst, or if they’re back on form. ‘Ticket to Ride’ had been promising, but could they really still do it? Drop the needle on side 1, and all doubts are banished with that extraordinary explosion of sound. It may have been a genuine cry for help, but the decision to dress it up in the clothes of the early songs gives it a life all its own; it’s only after you’ve learned all the words and are singing along at the top of your voice that you begin to hear what it’s actually about.
As with ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, the first side is the film soundtrack, but it covers even more bases, from Harrison’s sound experiments to Lennon’s direct channeling of Bob Dylan. The skiffle of ‘Another Girl’ leads directly into two more Beatles classics, after which..
After which we flip it over and drum our fingers impatiently while Ringo gets the only just bearable ‘Act Naturally’ out of the way. Most of the rest of side 2 is not as well known – partly because they’re not in the soundtrack, and didn’t get the exposure, and partly because they are utterly overshadowed to the point of obscurity by one of the greatest songs ever written.
‘Yesterday’ is problematic only because you’ve heard it so often that you’re numb to its charms, so I’d recommend taking it out of its context here, strapping on some decent noise-cancelling headphones and trying to listen to it as if you’d never heard it before. It’s properly spine-tingling, and the most clear indication there has yet been that this is so much more than just a pop group. Paul McCartney is, of course, the only Beatle on the track – the decision to add just a string quartet was a brave one, but it marks the beginning of the understanding among all of them that the needs of the song would come first, and is just another step on the elevation of The Beatles to something no other band has ever achieved. Oh, and in case you hadn’t noticed it clocks in at two minutes and six seconds. There are songs which haven’t even cleared their throat in that time.
Before moving on, reflect on the fact that ‘Yesterday’ was recorded in the week McCartney turned 23.
Now we’ve got that out of the way, go back and listen to just the run from ‘It’s Only Love’ to ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’. Brilliant, aren’t they? You can skip ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’; it’s disposable and only there to appeal to the US market. And ultimately, for me, the two covers are the reason this doesn’t get full marks. In fact, I’d suggest that with a bit of thought and some rearranging of the track listing, this could have been as perfect as the next couple of albums – but as it stands, it’s pretty damn close, because it sounds like 1965, and there’s really only one other album which does that.
Oh, and one other fun fact – the four semaphore signs on the front don’t spell ‘H E L P’ as you might expect, but ‘N U J V’ because it looked better. The US cover has them in a different order…