Thursday, 27 May 2010

Help! (1)

This post isn’t really about Help! You may have noticed that I’ve been rather slow to write this post, and that’s largely because Help! doesn’t strike me as one of The Beatles’ more interesting albums, or one of their better ones. You could make a case for it being the weakest bar Let It Be, with several tracks failing to rise above generic decent mid-1960s pop, and I wasn’t racing to hear it again on the first day of May. I was, however, gagging to hear ‘Ticket To Ride’.

This is a track I appreciate more and more. According to Ian Macdonald it was trailed in the pop press as a departure for the group, and he is generally right about these things. (At the weekend I was flipping through a friend’s first edition of Revolution in the Head because I seemed to remember he’d got something wrong about ‘Yesterday’ and cut it from the second edition. Turned out he was right – he’d just cut all the material justifying his theory, because it had been proved right when new facts had come to light and the justification was unnecessary. Take THAT, Mark Lewisholn!) You can make a case for loads of Beatles tracks being their most important, but ‘Ticket To Ride’ is the pivot of their entire career. Although a departure, it’s still recognisable as the work of the group which made ‘Please Please Me’; it also slots comfortably into their later career.

In spite of what I’ve said about the previous two albums showing a deepening of subject matter and an interest in studio experimentation, this is the moment when The Beatles truly reveal themselves as the band capable of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper – in fact, the band capable of conceiving that a pop group could make such records, that there was a genuinely higher level of achievement than selling out arenas and making movies. ‘I Feel Fine’ may have had its feedback intro, but the rest of the track is essentially an insanely catchy riff drawn out into a song, built to do nothing more than sound great on the radio. ‘Ticket To Ride’ is (sod it, it’s my blog, I can be as pretentious as I like) an event in sound, designed to be listened to rather than overheard. The complex and ambivalent emotions of its lyric are properly reflected in the music, whilst remaining within the confines of a pop song with a memorable hook. Whilst it catches The Beatles still in their romance period, the lyric lacks the yearning self-pity of most lost-love songs and as such seems to express a great deal more. At a time when practically everyone else was either making big ballads or dancefloor fillers, this was an extraordinary record to put out – especially considering all the record label had asked them for was a hit to stick in their latest cash-in movie.

Drugs presumably played a part in this. The Beatles are visibly stoned throughout the movie. (I still stick up for the film, but I must admit I haven’t seen it for ten years and I was always visibly stoned when watching it.) Yet flip over to Side Two of Help! the album (or, if you only have it on CD, just pretend – it helps my upcoming metaphor) and you can find the flipside (see – metaphor) of making music under the influence of cannabis: McCartney’s ‘Tell Me What You See’. This song is so stoned it can hardly move. Every change feels laborious. When Lennon and McCartney sing ‘open up your eyes now’, they could be talking to each other. It is the little song that can’t be arsed.

By contrast, the lethargy of ‘Ticket To Ride’ is not only more deeply felt and resonant, it is also smartly offset by the brightness of the guitars and the terrifically inventive drumming (worked out by McCartney, brilliantly executed by Starr). It shows all the signs of taking a drug experience or feeling, but translating it onto record with more careful consideration. It constantly surprises, taking unusual twists and turns, repeating and echoing parts of the lyric, going on for longer than you expect, having no solo or instrumental breakdown, instead dropping into Harrison’s superb fills for brief moments before setting off again in search of that new direction. Finally, they sign off by playing a bit of another song altogether.

Help! often sounds more slapdash and hurried than the group would have liked, but this first track they laid down – back when the deadlines weren’t looming – is a perfect record. It’s often overlooked in favour of their early breakthrough singles and their more celebrated later ones, but ‘Ticket To Ride’ is more important in The Beatles’ creative development than any other song they wrote – much more important than ‘Yesterday’ – and strikes at the heart of why people still love them today.


  1. Personally for me this is the weakest of all their albums, not Let It Be. I should also admit that I'm not a huge fan of Ticket To Ride. :-)

  2. It's a close-run thing for me. I think the best tracks on Help! are better than on Let It Be, the weakest tracks are weaker.

  3. I personally don't think anything on Help! comes close to Let It Be, Two Of Us, Get Back or I Me Mine (I'm a big George Harrison fan so sue me!)