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.
Help!, the Beatles’ second movie, was originally supposed to be called Eight Arms To Hold You. The movie’s title was changed at the last minute, and so John Lennon had to write a song with that as the title, just has he’d done a year earlier with A Hard Day’s Night. The movie Help!, a silly spy-comedy romp, basically served as the template for the Beatles-takeoff sitcom The Monkees. And so, associating the song with the movie, I’ve always thought of “Help!” as a vaguely happy song. It’s not, of course. Duh.
Years after writing “Help!,” John Lennon said that the song was essentially his version of a public freakout. The Beatles had gotten too big, too fast, and he didn’t know how to handle himself. “I was fat and depressed and I was crying out for help,” he told Playboy. At only 25, he was already nostalgic about being “younger, so much younger than today.” And when he hits the falsetto on the chorus, he really does sound, just for a second, desperate.
Lennon, who wrote most of the song, intended it to be a ballad. Squint your ears, and you can hear the lament he had in mind. Instead, he and the band knocked it out in a brisk two minutes and change, which is probably a big part of the reason the song hit #1. (“Help!” is the song that blocked Bob Dylan’s thrice-longer freakout and #2 hit “Like A Rolling Stone” from getting to #1, so the Beatles’ choice paid off.) But in its trebly rush, “Help!” loses some of the gravitas that Lennon had in mind. If you’re not listening closely, it can come off as a joyous bleat, its lyrics pure insincere fun.
But if there’s a disconnect between Lennon’s lyrics and the hooky brightness of the music, that hooky brightness is still something worth celebrating. On “Help!,” the Beatles were playing with ferocity, and yet the song is full of cool little tricks: the buried-in-the-mix acoustic jangle of the bridge, the twangly descending 12-string riff, the slick layers of harmony. Who knows, maybe those harmonies are the moment the Beatles first started trying to beat the Beach Boys at their own game. More would follow.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Damned’s even-faster cover of “Help!,” from the B-side of their vastly important 1976 single “New Rose”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne rapping over a “Help!” sample on his 2007 mixtape track “Help”: