Monday, 31 May 2010

Help! (2)

Ages ago I mentioned that I’d share with you my rejigged running order for Help! This erroneously suggests that I’d properly finalised it. I’ve been trying to do so for years, in fact. It was prompted, before I’d ever even heard Help!, by the fact that it’s the last Beatles album to contain cover versions. It contains two. The B-sides of the album’s two singles are not present, as they were on A Hard Day’s Night (and indeed Please Please Me). In a sort of obsessive-compulsive way it bugged me that The Beatles hadn’t just stuck those tracks on there, as there was already a precedent for doing so: the discography would look marginally neater if they had.

Then I actually heard the album, and felt even more strongly that this is what they should have done. This isn’t so much because of ‘Act Naturally’, which isn’t going to change anyone’s life but is a decent enough vehicle for Starr in this context. (It may depend how much time you have for country music – I like the Buck Owens original as well.) It’s more because of ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’ which is, like all The Beatles’ Larry Williams covers, rubbish. A monotonous performance by a tired and uninspired group, it was recorded at Capitol’s request (along with ‘Bad Boy’) to pad out the latest collection of tracks the label had cribbed from earlier releases, sequenced poorly and put out under a title which had about four seconds’ thought into it, in this case Beatles VI. It doesn’t appear to have been intended for Help!, and was probably a late replacement for ‘That Means A Lot’, McCartney’s fudged attempt to replicate the success of ‘Ticket To Ride’ (just as ‘Act Naturally’ was hastily recorded to replace ‘If You’ve Got Trouble’). They even managed to misspell the title – it should be ‘Lizzie’.

Even more offensively, the flipside of ‘Help!’ (the single) would have made a perfect closing number. The group evidently agreed, closing their Shea Stadium gig with it. Look, here it is.

So let’s resequence Help! as an all-original album. I admit I’m contradicting myself here because I’ve already criticised A Hard Day’s Night for lacking a Ringo track and here I am scrubbing one from the tracklist of Help! Anyway, it’s just a bit of fun. Side One of Help! needs no improvement in terms of sequencing, but Side Two could run as follows:

1.I’ve Just Seen A Face
2.It’s Only Love
3.Tell Me What You See
4.You Like Me Too Much
5.Yes It Is
7.I’m Down

Although I slag off the Capitol albums, I did take inspiration from their placing of ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ as the opening track on Rubber Soul. The only problem I have with this line-up is that it’s a bit lethargic in the middle, which the addition of ‘Yes It Is’ really doesn’t help with. With that in mind, perhaps ‘Yes It Is’ should be omitted in favour of ‘If You’ve Got Trouble’, even if the latter is a bit shit. I don’t think it’s as bad as it’s often been made out to be, even if the performance is half-arsed in places (Lennon’s backing vocal is staggeringly unconvincing) and the decision to pull it in favour of ‘Act Naturally’ entirely justified.

What I think this rejig usefully emphasises is how quickly McCartney kicked into gear during this album. Having taken a back seat to Lennon for much of 1964, his two contributions to the film soundtrack aren’t much to write home about – nice breezy pop tunes, but neither as good as any of Lennon’s four varied and accomplished tracks. ‘Tell Me What You See’ was ready in time for the film but clearly wasn’t up to scratch.

But then, look at what McCartney comes up when the film’s finished and they need to get more tracks in the can: whilst a creatively-spent Lennon offers only the amiable but lightweight ‘It’s Only Love’, McCartney contributes ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’, ‘Yesterday’ and ‘I’m Down’. (There is some confusion about how long McCartney had been mulling over the melody for ‘Yesterday’ - it may have been more than a year – but the lyric only fell into place after filming for Help! had concluded.) The three songs cover an even wider range of tone and style than Lennon had managed in his efforts for the album, and it suddenly becomes apparent that this is what McCartney is really, really good at. You can find earlier examples of McCartney’s versatility, but this is where it emerges as the fuel which will keep him going for the rest of his career: an ability to pick up almost any aspect of music and find a use for it.

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.