Thursday, August 06, 2015

Everyone Needs a Little 'Help!' Now and Then

Fifty years ago today, the Beatles stood on the brink of an historic shift in popular music. In a few months, they would enter uncharted creative waters. They would release "Rubber Soul," which included the almost obligatory love songs with which early Beatles albums had become inextricably linked but also boasted an increasing number of songs that showcased the evolving maturity of each Beatle and gave listeners a glimpse of what was to come. Rolling Stone ranked "Rubber Soul" fifth on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

In 1966, the Beatles would follow "Rubber Soul" with "Revolver," Rolling Stone's third–greatest album of all time.

"Help!" the British version of which was released 50 years ago today, didn't fare poorly with Rolling Stone, either; it was named the 331st album on the magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It was really more of the same that the Beatles had been peddling for a couple of years — many routine love songs with some cover tunes and a few unique numbers thrown in.

(Actually, all of the Beatles' albums deserved to be ranked among the Top 500 of all time — and most of them were.)

In hindsight, change was clearly in the air — even if the Beatles themselves didn't realize it. At this point in the Beatlemania phenomenon, I think the Beatles were being carried along by their own momentum — and the formula that had made that momentum possible had been established for quite awhile. But if the Beatles were going to continue to be the dominant force in popular music, some changes would have to come. In 1965, the Beatles were beginning to face some real challenges to their musical creativity.

The British "Help!" was sort of a semi–soundtrack. Half of the 14 songs on the British album were in the movie "Help!" which was in theaters in late July 1965 whereas the American version really was a traditional soundtrack from the movie — which, according to the Beatles themselves, was made in a "haze of marijuana." The American album had fewer tracks than the British album and featured three tracks from the movie by non–Beatles. So the British version of "Help!" really was more of a Beatles album than the American version — which was also more of the same. American marketers routinely and shamelessly cut songs from the British counterparts and tried to squeeze more profits from the Beatles by slicing and dicing Beatles records to make extra albums.

(I've never seen the movie "Help!" It's the only Beatles movie I haven't seen, which is why I didn't write about it on the 50th anniversary of its premiere last week. But I've read some interesting interpretations by others, especially Martin King of The Independent: "The representation of masculinity embodied in 'Help!' is a key stepping stone to more obvious displays of gender fluidity that were to emerge in later decades," King wrote. He went on to discuss how, in "Help!" the Beatles heralded the coming of the metrosexual male decades before the word was coined. I never really thought of that. I just liked the music.

(Not much seems to have been written about the 50th anniversary of the release of the British edition of the "Help!" album. About the movie? Yes. But not about the albums, either the British or American versions.)

Both records had two very successful singles — "Ticket to Ride" and the title song "Help!" — but the British album also contained the tune that may be the most covered song not just in the annals of Beatles music but in the history of all recorded music, "Yesterday."

To be sure, there were other songs on "Help!" that had that unique Beatles brand and probably should never be sung by anyone else — even a Beatles tribute band. "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" was such a song, as was "I've Just Seen a Face."

But there were also songs that merited little more than a minor mention. George Harrison's two songwriting efforts — "I Need You" and "You Like Me Too Much" — showed potential, but his compositions were not yet up to the level they would reach in later albums.

Personally, I have always been fond of "Act Naturally," the Beatles' cover of Buck Owens' tongue–in–cheek 1963 country chart–topper that made him a star. It was a song that went unrecorded for a few years after it was written because music publishers didn't think songs about the movie business would sell.

After Owens made it a hit, others began to cover it, and so did the Beatles. I have heard some of those covers, and I have concluded that, apart from Owens, only Ringo Starr could have sung it plausibly, and sing it he did.

Nearly a quarter of a century after Ringo recorded the cover for the Beatles, he and Owens got together to record a duet of the song.

It wound up spending a few weeks on the country charts, but Ringo didn't have the distinction of being the first Beatle to make the country charts. That honor went to Paul McCartney and Wings with "Sally G." in 1974.