Saturday, July 25, 2009
HELP ME FIND A PLOT FOR THIS MOVIE!
1965 was the year that rock music really matured, with stunningly innovative artists coming to prominence. Dylan recorded and released his two best albums, The Stones brought out "Satisfaction", The Who did "My Generation" and listeners got their first taste of The Byrds. This only represents a small portion of the exciting new sounds that were reshaping radio playlists in rock's golden age. The early part of this fabled year saw The Beatles make a fairly contrived second film through a haze of pot smoke (and contractual obligation) while creating music to accompany their latest adventures in celluloid.
Help! (the film) is excruciating.
Help! (the album) is pretty decent.
Rising to the challenge, Lennon and McCartney were well equipped to match or better the work of their contemporaries. Help! benefits from having just two cover tunes (both good ones) and some outstanding new material. Experimentation drives some pieces in startling new directions ("Ticket to Ride", "Yesterday") and even the weaker ones ("It's Only Love", "You Like Me Too Much") have enough charm to get by.
Each group member was now taking on much more of a distinct "personality" on their respective instrument. Early Beatle recordings were mixed down to two tracks, with voices way out in front of the three guitars and drums. This resulted in a situation where individual parts tended to be submerged in the end product. Technology gradually improved, allowing for greater fidelity and a meatier sonic presence for each player. The engineers at EMI prided themselves in their ability to get the best out of the equipment at their disposal, which was still well behind the eight track desks used in top US studios at that time.
McCartney had steadily been earning a reputation as one of the most dextrous bass players in rock, though he was a guitarist first and plays lead on several tracks here. A natural musical "all rounder", he was adept at most anything that he picked up. Lennon would later name him as one of the best bassists ever to grace four strings. Ringo kept a modest public persona, but had a unique style that was widely imitated. The trick was that the Beatles had two lefties in their midst (McCartney being the obvious one) and while Starr set his kit up for a right handed player, it was backwards for him. He could not naturally do rolls from left to right (snare to toms to cymbals), so he would often give the high hat a quick smack with his left hand and then do a triplet roll on the toms. He was not a technician like Buddy Rich but he had a very distinctive approach, especially with his tunings. Harrison was in usual brilliant form and returned to the composing game with two songs. Indispensable to the group sound, his thoughtful, decorative lines were pivotal in some of their greatest achievements. He was no slouch at arranging either, helping Lennon shape some of his most memorable contributions. John was a fine rhythm player, sometimes taking leads and stretched out on keyboards occasionally (as did Paul). He brought some of the most unorthodox musical passages to a workable conclusion and was a much better player than he was given credit for.
Together, they were a force.
Still with me?
Capitol records reached the height of greed with the US issue of Help! Only seven new songs appeared alongside selections composed by Ken Thorne (these amount to nothing more than James Bond-esque instrumental music from the actual movie soundtrack). They then raised the list price of the disc by a dollar, calling it a souvenir from the movie. Essentially, fans got screwed as the executives held back songs to create more fake LPs for the American market.
Never once have I heard anyone say, "Shit, we should listen to 'In the Tyrol" again, Jim."
Crass commercial interest notwithstanding, the UK version has fourteen songs, with the shimmering title track as an opener.
One very noticeable pattern that was emerging with Lennon's work was a shift toward self reference. Now this doesn't mean that he bragged about himself for two or three minutes straight (that would make him a hip hop artist) but rather that he began to reveal a bit more of himself within the framework of composition.
Disclaimer: Far to many writers/critics have over analyzed Mr. L's output and in doing so have come up with some of the most colorful bullshit that has ever been committed to print. Personally, I tend to go with what the man himself had to say about his songs.
With "Help!", he intended to write a slower paced, brooding piece along the lines of Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely" with the lyric being a thinly veiled expression of just how much he had sacrificed to become "Beatle John" in a traveling flea circus. It was, in his words, his "Fat Elvis" period where he ate and drank like a pig, while struggling to come to terms with success. McCartney often spoke of the deep insecurities that plagued his partner, despite his talent. Lennon much later said that he resented how the record was cut at a faster tempo in an effort to chart another single and promote the movie. He estimated that "Help!" was one of his most honest Beatle songs and even attempted to recut it on piano in the early 70s. Paul helped arrange those "lead in" backing vocals and that descending, jangling arpeggio riff reportedly caused George major headaches while tracking. All worth it in the end as it's just a remarkable song.
Paul plays lead guitar (harmonized lead at that) on "The Night Before" while Lennon comps away on electric piano. Ringo's snare is cranked up fairly tightly, giving it a fairly sharp sound in the mix. Not quite tin can but it did cut through in a pronounced way on nearly every drum track. He had ordered a deeper, custom made snare from Ludwig and kept it very taut to achieve this.
"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" was the first all acoustic Beatle recording, coincidentally cooked up at the same time Dylan was incorporating electric backing while doing Bringing it All Back Home. Influences were flying in both directions across the Atlantic. Lennon's creations remained consistent, scoring high marks for the vocal transitions of "You're Gonna Lose That Girl", with a cutting, trebly Harrison solo on his newly acquired Fender Strat. "Ticket To Ride' is the highlight of the pack. It is a drone, with a neatly chopped drum pattern and fine triplets courtesy of Starr. To me, The Kinks "See My Friends" would take a page from this book (the drone part) and the memorable riff is broken up only by the excellent bridge. McCartney plays the lead breaks and provides sterling high harmony throughout. The lyric would be the cause of speculation as to the meaning and got Lennon tagged as a misogynistic cynic. It is a very heavy record for its time, keeping them in step with the crop of serious virtuosos that began to leave their mark on the mid sixties scene.
Side two of Help! begins with a very shrewd cover of the 1963 Buck Owens hit, "Act Naturally". It was an inspired last minute replacement for the the dreadful "If You've Got Trouble", which collected dust in the EMI tape archive until 1995.
Working quickly, McCartney adds stellar Nashville harmony to Starr's vocal showcase, while George executes some very authentic, chicken-fried licks. These guys skipped effortlessly amongst genres, though I think they may be one of the most underrated practitioners of early country rock. This is definitely where their affinities had always lain (especially Starr) and where they often gravitated when jamming together.
There are few better examples than this.
Paul McCartney continued to develop his craft in the most surprising fashion. He was de facto band whip and generally had a much better grasp of what he wanted to hear in the finished product than the others did. His guiding hand would fashion the drum part for "Ticket to Ride", steer the band through the rough spots in pulling "Help!" (the song) together and produce thoughtful, rock solid bass lines for all that he touched. Just watch any video of the band playing live and you'll see him all over the count ins, often signaling Ringo by shaking the neck of his bass to indicate transitions and endings.
His definitive moment on Help! comes with "Yesterday". Anyone who is even remotely familiar with Beatle history knows this song and will either write it off completely or see it as a modern standard. So why do people gravitate toward this selection, despite having heard it so many times? Simply because it is a very unorthodox piece of writing, as the main melodic phrase is seven measures long. This plays havoc with most listeners expectations as most pop/rock music is divided into either the four or eight measure phrase unit. When he got his first taste of marijuana, McCartney was filled with the revelatory thoughts that generally occur to novice smokers. He insisted that Mal Evans take dictation as he at once had found the key answer to the meaning of life. When he looked at what was transcribed the next day, he saw one sentence that read:
"There are seven levels"
Bizarre indeed, though it is seven measures that make "Yesterday" so compelling. The strings (scored for a quartet by George Martin) add another dimension to the recording. At Paul's insistence, no vibrato was to be employed as the session players executed their parts. This was a masterstroke, keeping things from getting overly soppy. Again, this is the most covered song (next to Happy Fuckin' Birthday) in the history of pop and one that sealed McCartney's reputation as a composer of some depth and versatility. That it was buried on side two as merely an album track just seems incredible. It did get forty-fived in the US and went to number one.
Needless to say, it appealed to a wide age demographic.
He also hit paydirt with a fresh, almost bluegrass concoction called "I've Just Seen a Face" that he saw fit to drag into the mid 70s Wings set list. It is a great tune that does wonders to pick up the pace as the LP heads toward the finish line. "Another Girl" is the sleeper in the bunch as it has a catchy melody and goes to a surprising C major in the bridge. It also features Paul on lead guitar. Harrison gets two numbers in, "I Need You" being the best, although he had yet to come up to the standard set by Lennon/McCartney. He would soon begin to turn out very thoughtful work though he received little encouragement for his initial forays into writing.
John kept up his fascination with Larry Williams by shouting "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" to close out the disc.
I dislike posting anything from the '65 Shea Stadium show, as this may be one of their poorest live performances. They just could not hear anything. What you generally get is an audio reconstruction of their parts taken from overdubbing sessions done in January 1966. This is certainly not representative of what they actually played that night, as it would have been a real mess. I threw it in because Ringo completely turns the beat around to start and the others whip around as if to say "What the hell is going on??!!??" No fault of his as he can't hear them. They manage the trainwreck, though what you see and hear are two completely different deals.
In short, it's fake.
Enjoyable on many levels, Help! could be viewed as the project where they made peace with the past and began an incredible cycle where they would push back all previous boundaries. Never again would they wax other people's songs to fill out their LPs. Not even the most optimistic follower would be prepared for the landmark album that they would deliver next.
Three songs on Help! had the working titles of: Auntie Gin's Theme, That's A Nice Hat and Scrambled Eggs. What did each become?