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Monday, November 21, 2011

Help! b/w I'm Down

Shea Stadium - August 15th, 1965
 
An exclamation point made all the difference.

As was the case with A Hard Day's Night, the Fab Four's second movie went into production without a title.  The original script was merely called Beatles Two.  Ringo suggested Eight Arms to Hold You because of the statue of the goddess Kaili, and this was actually used as the working title for a while.  When the producers came up with the title Help, they were told they could not use it because another project in development already had the rights to that title.  According to director Richard Lester, it was only after adding the exclamation point that the rights were secured, and John and Paul were once again ordered to come up with a title song.  And, as before, it was John who came in with the goods.

Although he had to write a composition with a predetermined title, Lennon somehow managed to write a deeply personal song.  He picked up the same theme he had tackled in I'm a Loser several months earlier.  If anything, as the group was in the midst of shooting this silly James Bond parody, John was feeling even more trapped by his fame as a Beatle.  Years later, he would describe this time as his "fat Elvis" period (even though Elvis himself hadn't reached that point yet in 1965).  The lyrics reveal his vulnerability beneath his alternating happy-go-lucky and smart-ass exteriors.

There are no electronic tricks to catch the ear this time, just an immediate vocal attack at a frantic pace by John, Paul and George.  Once they settle into the verses, they employ an ingenious device that has the backing vocals by Paul and George anticipating every line sung by John, then linking up with him to finish alternating lines.  There is also no instrumental break here as in other recent singles.  Instead, most of the band drops out and John repeats the first verse solo, with the others slowly joining back in both vocally and instrumentally until they recapture the original momentum.  John later complained that his message was lost because they had to speed up the song for the purposes of the film, but the tempo actually drives home the sense of being caught up in forces beyond one's control - a true feeling of helplessness.

Despite the fact that it was late in the process, Lester actually shot a black and white sequence of the Beatles performing the song in a stage setting.  When we first see it, we do not realize that the film is being projected in the temple of Kaili until brightly-colored darts begin hitting the screen and the high priest, played by the wonderful Leo McKern, exclaims, "Shocking!"

The American single version is a case of one mix being unlike all others.  It seems to be a completely different lead vocal by John, with examples being "And now these days are gone..." instead of "But now these days are gone..." and different phrasing of the final line of the first verse.  This version later appeared on the American LP Rarities in 1980.

I'm Down, the B-side of the single, is a screaming rocker by McCartney.  It was recorded during sessions for the non-soundtrack songs for the album in mid-June of 1965.  Paul was clearly attempting to write a song in the same vein as the Little Richard numbers he had been performing for years, and he succeeded in a big way.  The band tears into this song as if it were an old, familiar part of their repertoire.  Paul's raucous lead vocal is supported by certifiably goofy backup vocals by John and George.  And the instrumental breaks by George on guitar and John on Hammond organ are equally wacky.

The Beatles added both of these songs to their live set.  In fact, the first live performance of Help! is on Anthology 2 from Blackpool Night Out, featuring John stumbling on the lyrics.  For a real treat, go to YouTube and find the performance of I'm Down from the Shea Stadium concert.  The boys are having themselves an absolute blast, with John playing the organ with his elbows at one point.

Naturally, the song Help! appeared as both a single and the lead track of the differing soundtrack albums in both the UK and the US.  I'm Down was a true rarity in both countries, appearing only as this B-side during the group's career.  It did not surface again until the compilation album Rock and Roll Music in 1976.

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