200. The Beatles – Help! (1965)

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On 6 August 1965 Elizabeth Lane was appointed as the first female High Court judge. She was assigned to the Family Division. That same day the BBC decided to pull the docu-drama The War Game from transmission as part of its The Wednesday Play strand on BBC1. Directed and produced by Peter Watkins, it portrayed the aftermath of nucelar war. It was deemed too horrifying for public consumption. However, it was publicly screened and shown abroad, and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1966. It was eventually transmitted on 31 July 1985.

The day before, the Beatles scored their eighth number 1 with the title track to their new film and album, Help!

But a few months before all this, John Lennon and George Harrison had their first encounter with LSD. They were having dinner at the house of Harrison’s dentist John Riley, who spiked their drinks with the mind-altering, life-changing drug. Lennon was understandably terrified, but Harrison enjoyed the experience. They both began to use the drug more often. Later that summer, in fact while Help! was number 1, they dropped acid with Ringo Starr for the first time at Zsa Zsa Gabor’s house during an all-star gathering, featuring David Crosby and Jim McGuinn of the Byrds, who turned Harrison on to Indian music, folk singer Joan Baez and Peter Fonda, who inspired the Revolver (1966) track She Said She Said by freaking the band out, continually saying ‘I know what it’s like to be dead’ because he had once accidentally shot himself. Paul McCartney sat out the acid and was converted in 1966.

Nonetheless, LSD was to change all four Beatles over the next few years, and their music, sometimes beyond all recognition from their early years. Help! was the last single of theirs that sounded like their Merseybeat days, but the lyrics were the most direct they had yet attempted.

Lennon was, as he later stated, going through his ‘Fat Elvis’ stage. This rebellious art student with a tragic childhood was struggling to come to terms with the Fab Four’s stratospheric rise. Learning that the Fab Four’s second film was going to be called Help! rather than Eight Arms to Hold You, Lennon took the opportunity to write his most personal lyrics to date. These lyrics were about him and him only. According to McCartney, Lennon asked him to come up with the countermelody, which he did on 4 April at Lennon’s house. On 13 April they entered the studio to record the song, and did so in 12 takes. The following month they re-recorded the vocals for the film version, which marks the Beatles’ first appearance in the movie.

Lennon remained proud of Help! for the rest of his life, and he considered it one of his best songs. But he did express regret that the Beatles weren’t brave enough to record it as he’d originally intended, in a much slower style, to draw out the sorrow of the emotions expressed. Sonically, you could argue that Help! was a step back after Ticket to Ride, but the fact they went at it with breakneck speed and turned it into a straightforward pop song only adds tension between the music and the words and makes it all the more interesting. It’s a tremendous slice of 60s pop, once again showing the band towered above most of their competition. In a year of classic number 1s, Help! is one of the best. It was also the first time a pop song took a negative look at fame, and while you could argue that these type of songs are too self-obsessed and difficult to draw any sympathy from, the Beatles achieve it by going against the grain and wrapping it up in a pop parcel. Those backing vocals… sublime.

The single was released on 23 July, with the film following six days later. As I stated in my blog for Ticket to Ride, I prefer it to A Hard Day’s Night. It’s a riotous, technicolour piece of surreal fun. On the day the single knocked the Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man from number 1, the album was released. Featuring original songs by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison on side one, the second side featured covers (for the last time on any Beatles album other than 1970 swansong Let It Be) and of course, Yesterday, featuring McCartney only alongside a string quartet. It remains the most covered song of all time.

Notable covers of Help! include Tina Turner’s in 1984 and Bananarama’s 1988 Comic Relief single alongside Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Kathy Burke, aka Lananeeneenoonoo.

Now the Beatles were hanging out with the counterculture elite, taking psychedelic drugs and listening to Bob Dylan and the Byrds, among others, their rebellious streaks were growing, along with their hair. Despite this, they were also now Members of the Order of the British Empire. That June, Harold Wilson had nominated the foursome, angering many conservative MBE recipients, some of whom returned theirs in protest.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (5-25 August)

Births:

Children’s television presenter Mark Speight – 6 August 

193. The Beatles – Ticket to Ride (1965)

23 April saw the opening of the Pennine Way. The National Trail runs 267 miles from Edale in the Derbyshire Peak District, up to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. Three days later, Manchester United won the Football League First Division title. In other football news, Liverpool won the FA Cup for the first time, defeating Leeds United 2-1 at Wembley Stadium on 1 May. Elsewhere, on 7 May the Rhodesian Front, led by Ian Smith, won a landslide victory in the general election in Rhodesia.

Meanwhile, the Beatles were at number 1 for the seventh time, with their most adventurous single to date.

In February, they had begun filming, and recording the soundtrack album, for their second movie (their first in colour), provisionally called Eight Arms to Hold You. Just as weird as the title was the film itself. Once again directed by Richard Lester, this was a more surreal, loose, knockabout comedy than A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and with a bigger budget, too. Intended as a spoof of spy films, it essentially became an excuse for the Fab Four to travel to exotic locations. The Beatles spent most of the time stoned out of their minds, and would often struggle to stop themselves laughing while filming. In some scenes, their eyes are bloodshot from all the smoking they indulged in. Lads.

Fortunately for everyone, the Beatles on marijuana didn’t result in self-indulgent dribble. It made for their best film. That’s nothing compared to the impact on their music, though.

Ticket to Ride was the first track worked on for their fifth album. In 1980, Lennon claimed in Playboy that the song was pretty much his own. He also proudly stated it invented heavy metal. The jury’s out on both, but it began one hell of a creative patch. None of their singles had sounded like this, musically or lyrically. He said Paul McCartney was only responsible for Ringo Starr’s drum sound, whereas McCartney later stated they wrote it together in three hours.

Even if Lennon was right, you can’t underestimate the drums on Ticket to Ride, so McCartney clearly made an important contribution. Making Starr play in such a stop-start fashion created an epic, proto-pyschedelic sound, which isn’t that far removed from the still-startling Tomorrow Never Knows, created a year later. George Harrison once said that the drums were also influenced by the equally important jagged guitar riff, which he claimed ownership of, having played it on his Rickenbacker. Whoever came up with what, this track was breaking new ground.

Although the Beatles were innovative with their songwriting from the start, those first few years were often full of basic lyrics about love. Not this time. The combination of an adoration of Bob Dylan and drugs made the words in Ticket to Ride more adult, oblique and interesting. A woman is leaving the narrator, that much we know. So far, so ‘blues’. But where to? Some suggest the woman has become a prostitute. McCartney once claimed she’s simply off to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. I find the former more likely. The prefix of ‘I think’ adds so much to the song, without explaining itself. And although the narrator isn’t sure exactly whether he’s upset or not, he says his baby definitely isn’t. It was rare at the time to allow a woman in a break-up to have the upper hand in a pop song.

Ticket to Ride was also a first for the Beatles for the way in which it was recorded. They were taking an increased interest in the way their songs sounded, and from now on they would tape rehearsals and concentrate on backing tracks, before overdubbing more instruments and the vocals.

Although most of the rest of the album it came from was fairly straightforward, Ticket to Ride marked the start of the band’s psychedelic period, and that’s easily my favourite era of my favourite band. The slow pace of the drumming, combined with the drone of the guitars, gives it an Indian feel. It seems this was a coincidence rather than by design, as it was later, during the making of the film, that Harrison became interested in Indian music (it seems the decidedly un-PC comedy Indian characters in Help! had their uses after all). The middle-eight was your more standard Beatles fare, but I can still find the switch back to the main riff spine-tingling, even after all these years. The ‘My baby don’t care’ refrain in the coda is a thrilling climax, with great guitar licks from McCartney.

Ticket to Ride enjoyed a lengthy (by 1965 standards – most number 1s only lasted a week) three-week stint at the top. It was their longest track to date, running for over three minutes. Singles were getting longer, hair was getting longer, things were getting weirder. They promoted the song on Top of the Pops, and a brief clip of the performance was also shown on Doctor Who in May, as part of the story The Chase.

The most famous performance of the song was in their second movie. By the time of its release it was known as Help!, and Ticket to Ride featured in a sequence in which the band learned to ski in the Austrian Alps while also avoiding the assassins attempting to steal Ringo’s ring. A highly influential part of the film, some say it was a big influence on the idea of music videos and eventually MTV.

As I mentioned in my blog for I Feel Fine though, the Beatles were already making promo films to save them having to be everywhere at once. That November, they made promos for their next single, Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, and also made one for Ticket to Ride to feature on a festive edition of Top of the Pops. The foursome mimed in front of a backdrop of large tickets, with John, Paul and George sat in director’s chairs.

She Loves You is perhaps the greatest pop song of all time, but I think Ticket to Ride may be my favourite song of the early years of the Beatles. Time will never dull its magnificence.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (22 April-12 May)

Births:

Actress Anna Chancellor – 27 April 
Television presenter Alice Beer – 1 May 
Wrestler Darren Matthews – 10 May

Deaths:

Welsh novelist Howard Spring – 3 May