What kind of Beatles fan are you? Maybe the obsessive type, the sort who whistles the chorus to Honey Pie without even realising. Perhaps you’re a Beatles wannabe, like my uncle who quit school, got the haircut and devoted his youth to learning all their songs by heart. Or a diehard fan who makes an annual pilgrimage to the site of the Star Club in Hamburg, even though it was knocked down decades ago. You might have a favourite: John, Paul, George or Ringo. Just possibly, you’re one of those unfortunates who claim, in all seriousness, that the Beatles weren’t that fab.
In my life, I’ve met all these types and more. But to date, I have yet to meet a single person who shares my heartfelt conviction about the UK’s best-loved band: that Help! is their finest album. I cannot find any online, either, with their 1965 release rarely troubling the top places in any lists ranking their canon. The Independent placed Help! at No7 and Rolling Stone’s readers did the same. NME shifted it up a place, but still five below where it should be. Ultimate Classic Rock had the cheek to put it at No10.
Revolver often takes first place in such lists, as it did in a quick poll of my Beatles-loving friends. It’s easy to see why. The album is an explosion of creativity and musical prowess, a band exploring and perfecting sounds that no one before had even thought of, let alone mastered at the first time of asking. But – and it’s an enormous, brightly coloured but – Revolver is also where you will find the song that very nearly torpedoes their claim to be the greatest band of all time.
Yellow Submarine should never have survived beyond the first humming. If you’re evaluating an album, you cannot just exalt its highs: you must also consider its lows, and Yellow Submarine, an irritating, dirge-like nursery rhyme, single-handedly destroys any claim Revolver has to top spot. The fact that it barges in straight after the sublime Here, There And Everywhere only adds insult to aural injury.
By contrast, Help! maintains an exceptionally high standard throughout. This is a collection of wonderfully crafted tunes that show depth, invention and the band’s signature melodic genius. The best-known tracks reflect a growing songwriting maturity, as heard in Ticket To Ride, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away and the opening title track. The album closes strongly as well, with a rip-roaring cover of Dizzy Miss Lizzy, a 1958 song by Larry Williams.
Was this frantic closer a deliberate move to reassure any fans unsure about this new, more expansive sound? Go back one album – Beatles For Sale – and almost half the tracks are covers of rock ‘n’ roll standards. On Help! there are only two. This is another significant feature of the album: it marks the transition from the raucous early Beatles, a sound honed in the Cavern Club and the Reeperbahn, to the more thoughtful, reflective songwriting for which they are so rightly lauded.
Songs in this latter bracket include I’ve Just Seen A Face, Tell Me What You See and the hugely underrated It’s Only Love. And then there’s Yesterday, by many accounts the most covered song in history. On most albums – even most Beatles albums – it would be the leading track; instead, they snuck it away on Side Two, and this at a time when LPs were heavily frontloaded with big hitters. When a song this remarkable is tucked away in the spot usually reserved for an album filler track, you know you’re listening to something special.
Selecting a favourite from such a plentiful banquet is no easy task, but I Need You has many reasons for affection. It is, like so many of the greatest tunes, sorrowful and yearning; who wants to hear people singing about happiness, after all? George Harrison wrote it for Pattie Boyd, the first of many songs he would write about his soon-to-be wife. The sentiment he shares is one most of us can understand, and hearing someone else express it gives us that endorphin hit of empathy that makes music mean so much.
It’s the second Beatles track composed by Harrison, but offers a first hint of the genius that was to follow (Don’t Bother Me, on With The Beatles, is fairly run of the mill). There are also some clever quirks to I Need You, such as the little ‘echoes’ at the end of most lines, where the guitar mimics the melody, albeit sometimes a tone higher. It also has a proper ending, a triumphant last chord rather than a fade-out. And, as with all the best Beatles songs, it has a tune to kill for. And here it is on an album many people consider their seventh best.
I Need You features in the Help! film. I can’t recall exactly how it fits in with the plot – a cult wants to sacrifice Ringo because he’s got a magic ring, in a nutshell – but the video was set on Salisbury Plain, and develops little further than the band standing among some tanks, strumming away and smiling. It’s one of the film’s more tranquil moments, a welcome lull amid all that wackiness. And a low-key video is fitting for what the Beatles Bible describes as a ‘simple, rather melancholic love song’. Simple, yes – but in the most wonderful way.
In the spirit of balance, it’s only fair to judge Help! by the same standards I applied to Revolver. There are, admittedly, one or two weaker tracks on there. Act Naturally is one, a cover of a song originally recorded by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. You Like Me Too Much, Harrison’s other contribution, is not as good as I Need You, either. But both are a damn sight better than Yellow Submarine.
Which makes it a mystery that no one else in the world seems to agree with me. And, after banging this particular drum for over 30 years, I would be delighted if someone did. Music is about connections, after all: about sharing our love of a particular album, song, band, lyric, chord change, guitar solo. It’s been the foundation of many millions of conversations over the centuries. It’s the reason this website exists.
So, if there are any other devotees out there, join me on my pedestal, and we can debate into the night how Help! plays such a pivotal role in the Beatles story; which is its most memorable track; and the numerous qualities that mean it is not simply our favourite album, but the band’s greatest work.
Thanks to Mike Woods for his help with this article