Sunday, 7 August 2016

Help! - The Beatles - album review

When I first bought the Beatles' albums on CD, in the mid-1990s, and listened to them in their entirety for the first time in my life, I remember being especially impressed with Help!, because of the pristine clarity of the stereo mix, the prevalence of electric piano and the jolly ambience of some of the songs.

As time has gone on, however, I have come to realize that this record is perhaps the most uneven in the Beatles' illustrious catalogue. It contains songs which are symptomatic of major artistic and philosophical advancement and insight, but these triumphs are interspersed with some rather insipid and lightweight material.

So whilst Help! exhibits clear signs of a growing maturity, it also betrays evidence of the "tiredness" and lack of inspiration which had also been deemed to have characterized Beatles For Sale. However, I would opine that "For Sale" had more coherence and substance.  Some of the "filler" on this 1965 release is little better than that being purveyed by other beat bands of the mid-60s.  The lifestyle changes and influences which the Beatles were encountering in 1964/65 did not have a uniformly beneficial impact on their work, and this may help to explain the inconsistency.

The reason why this album at first appears better than it really is, I think stems from the production and arrangements, which manage to conceal the mediocrity of a few of the songs. "The Night Before" is an example of this. Other tracks which are great performances, rather than masterly songs, would include "Another Girl" and "Your'e Gonna Lose That Girl", with their intricate vocal and guitar parts.

The version of "It's Only" which features here is, I think, inferior to the one later included on the Anthology 2 collection.  "I've Just Seen A Face", though, is Paul McCartney at his best, an engaging gem of spontaneity, exuding an energy and conviction which is sometimes lacking elsewhere.

Little else needs to be said about "Yesterday". It is another one of those Beatles classics which benefits from the group's (and George Martin's) uncanny aptitude for taste and quality control, knowing instinctively how to treat a high-quality idea, creating the requisite mood without blemishing or clouding the essential quality.

"You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" is a simple but sublimely profound song.  Several interpretations of the lyrics are possible, and several were likely intended, I suspect. It doesn't push itself too hard, a hallmark of the group at its best.

The title track also feels very natural and unforced.  Its words hint at some of the pressures which were having a bearing on the combo's output, whilst clearly illustrating their increasing willingness and capacity to articulate such emotions poetically and credibly.

The most energetic and assertive number on the record, "Ticket To Ride", is not totally out of kilter with what was being produced by the Beatles' contemporaries, but it is somehow rendered futuristic by some standout features. Ringo Starr's thundering but idiosyncratic drumming, and McCartney's brilliant harmonies, elevate it beyond the ordinary.

For me, the fly-in-the-ointment, is the cover version of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" which closes out the album. In truth, it is not that bad a rendition, but it rather does signify the confusing and disjointed nature of the work. One expects the final track on a Beatles track to be a hint of impending growth and development, and its presence on the album would have been less egregious if it had been hidden away somewhere in the middle of the running order.

This is a fine record, for all its flaws, but despite the consummate quality of some of the music, as a project it still feels rather thrown together.  The stresses and strains of the treadmill of fame were clearly exerting some effect, but that undefinable magic pulled them through, and they were to go from strength to strength as recording artists.

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