In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
A couple of days before Christmas 1964, the Beach Boys were on a plane from Los Angeles to Houston when Brian Wilson suffered a panic attack. Almost immediately, Wilson decided that the stress of staying on the road was too much for him. He decided to stay home while the rest of the band was on the road. (For a few months, session-musician king and future country-pop superstar Glen Campbell filled in for him. I like to imagine that it didn’t last because Campbell towered over the full-time Beach Boys and made them look even more like dweebs.) Wilson devoted himself full-time to the studio, experimenting with weed and acid and seeing where he could push the Beach Boys’ sound.
It didn’t take long for things to change. The 1965 album The Beach Boys Today! is an early stab at a cohesive pop-album statement. It deals with romantic desolation as much as teenage thrills, and its instrumentation is thicker and more expansive than what the group was already doing. This was the beta version of the new Beach Boys. They hadn’t yet become the starry-eyed chamber-pop masters that they’d evolve into soon enough, but they were trying to get there.
“Help Me, Rhonda,” the Beach Boys’ second #1 single, is a total transitional record. Wilson was still chasing Phil Spector, and you can totally tell. The song is full of false fade-outs and harmonic cross-currents. But all this lush experimentation is in service of a song that’s just not that great.
“Help Me, Rhonda” is a plea to a girl. The narrator wants to forget another girl, an ex-fiancée who moved onto another man. He’s looking for a rebound, and he’s not especially romantic about it. If Rhonda hears this song, she knows that the narrator doesn’t really like her; he’s just begging to use her. But we only know this from about four lines of the verses. Almost the entire song is the central hook, repeated over and over and over.
“Help Me, Rhonda” is the first Beach Boys song where Al Jardine sang lead, and his voice — just slightly less buttery and more strained than those of his bandmates — is better-suited for a song like this. The group’s harmonies are, of course, utterly dazzling. They recorded the song with members of the Wrecking Crew, including Campbell and Leon Russell, but Wilson hadn’t fully learned what to do with those guys, the way Spector had. So despite all that’s going on on the song, it sounds small and needly, its lightly mocking ukulele riff overwhelming all the symphonic swells. It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s nowhere near what Wilson would work up in the next few years.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Michael Shannon using “Help Me, Rhonda” as a motivational speaker’s tool in the great 2012 movie Mud: