#266: Help!, The Beatles
Several years ago, my family went to France for two weeks. I knew that Wi-fi might not be readily accessible abroad, so I prepared (naturally) by downloading a Beatles playlist. As it turns out,
1) I was the only person who sort-of knew how Spotify worked, and
2) Wi-fi was inaccessible.
So I was the only person with any music on their phone, for two weeks, in a country where most of the radio stations played France’s Top 100. And it was all Beatles, baby.
My family is very patient and tolerated me asking questions like “What’s your favorite Beatles song? What’s the worst Beatles album? Who was the best looking Beatle and why was it Paul McCartney?” It was pretty delightful to see my dad request “Yellow Submarine” on one long drive through the French countryside so he could sing along. But my siblings and I shared a room for those two weeks, and it turns out my sister had a limit to how much of the Beatles’ she could take.
“The Beatles’ suck,” she snapped one night while we got ready for dinner.
I stared at her. “Excuse me?” I said, taking it very personally.
Listen, the song that was on right then was “Ticket to Ride,” one of the most fun songs from Help! and one of the most fun songs of all time. I had been putting on eyeshadow and picking a different Beatle to harmonize with on each line.
I don’t know why she’s riding so high/She ought to think twice, she ought to do right by me, they sang.
“Shut up!” she said. “Let her leave! She doesn’t like you!”
My brother sat on the bed behind us, scrolling through his phone and wisely saying nothing.
I hate when people say that the Beatles were overrated or that they suck (You shut up, Erin) but I hate it even more when they say something critical that’s true. I was even more annoyed to find several songs on this record that spoke to her point. The Beatles’ need to get over it when girls don’t like them. Look at a song like “You Like Me Too Much,” which has some lyrics that would be downright disturbing if a man sang them in 2022:
If you leave me
I will follow you and bring you back where you belong…
I wouldn’t let you leave me ’cause it’s true
You like me too much and I like you.
And even though I wouldn’t call it “disturbing,” my sister certainly wouldn’t have good things to say about “Another Girl,” which is up-tempo and infectious but also an unapologetic confession of infidelity. So, fine, the Beatles were a product of their time in terms of singing about women. We’ve covered that before, but every so often I get an annoying reminder.
But let’s leave that behind for now, because I LOVE this album. Like the exclamation in the title song announces, you have to be READY for it to start with a cry for “Help!” Impossible not to sing to either the backing vocals or the lead lyrics, it ramps you up for a good time even while it begs you to stop listening and do something.
Singability is one of the defining characteristics of this one, from the petty-but-sweet “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” to the pleasantly hippie-dippie “Tell Me What You See.” But don’t let that fool you, because the Beatles’ signature trick is disguising complex musicality with simple tunes. “The Night Before” and “I Need You” both have unexpected chords, note progressions, and harmonies that make it even more shocking none of them could read music.
Help! is their fifth album, so it closes the first half of their career — in fact, Rubber Soul (#35) is next, which producer George Martin called “the first album to present a new, growing Beatles to the world.” You can tell that they’re on the cusp of something even in silly little songs like “Act Naturally,” where they experiment with American folk goofiness.
It’s interesting that this is a soundtrack album (though I guess only half of the tracks actually made the cut for the movie) because some of their most famous, arresting songs are here, not including the one my sister spat on. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” would be great even if Oasis didn’t cover it, and “I’ve Just Seen A Face” is so lightly, swiftly lovely. I couldn’t believe it was only 2 minutes long.
And of course I forgot that this is the album with the masterpiece “Yesterday” on it, which I learned is one of the most covered songs in history. That made me think of the movie released 2019, and the beautiful scene where the protagonist covers the song for the first time to a group of people that’s never heard it before. It’s so poignant, isn’t it? If one of the most typical cover songs ever is made unfamiliar, we remember why it’s so popular. God, I love that movie.
(It’s genius to close the record with “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” also, a 12-bar-blues cover that’s so fuzzy you forget you were just listening to a crystal-clear strings-infused ballad.)
So now we’re back to where we started: in France, getting ready for dinner, tensions simmering between my sister and I as the Beatles continue to play. “The Beatles suck,” she says.
If only I’d been as deep into music history then as I am now. I could have given her the names of a dozen people who can articulate better than me why the Beatles DO NOT SUCK. One of the best things I’ve read recently was an essay by Rick Margin where he makes the massive claim that the Beatles “have had the most direct and/or indirect impact on the creation of music,” and then proves it. He gives quite literally the most thorough answer you could ask for, from the micro- to the macro-cultural reasons that the Beatles made music what it is today. I printed it out and have been taking notes on it. Maybe I’ll airmail it to my sister when I’m done.
But I didn’t have any of that prepared. The only argument I had in my arsenal was true, but also weak: “The Beatles were the greatest band of all time.”
She rolled her eyes. Of course she did. It was a stupid, baseless thing to say.
Maybe I love the movie Yesterday so much because when the Beatles reached me, it was like I really was hearing them for the first time. People would say to me that they’d heard their hits so many times, they couldn’t hear what was so great about them anymore. I wanted to tell them to close their eyes and try again.
Other Highlights: All that being said, “It’s Only Love” is not incredibly memorable.