My favorite 100 albums of all time: #3 ("Help!")
Here's how it all started. When I was seven, I came home from Sunday school (yes, really) and turned on the TV. There was usually a movie playing on the local non-network affliate channel around Noon on Sundays, and on one day I cranked the TV just in time to catch Help!.
If you've seen the movie, you know it starts with an attempted human sacrifice that fails because the victim isn't wearing the sacrificial ring. Where's the ring? Cut to a shot of Ringo Starr's hand while he's playing the drums as The Beatles play "Help!"
It was like a bolt of lightning down my spine. I loved everything about it. The joyous harmonies, Ringo's drumming, the "thrum thrum thrum" of the bass bit, the jangly guitar, the 12-string acoustic. And the close, with John, George, and Paul on "help meeee, oooh." This was probably my first music video, too. (That pretty much is what Help! and Hard Day's Night are, after all.)
The music was foremost, but I loved everything about The Beatles at the time. At seven, I didn't realize they'd been split up since 1970, and imagined they were still tromping around the planet having adventures and being great friends. Well, so much for that. Still, it looked pretty damn cool. Also, British accents made everything at least 30% cooler.
"The Night Before" is a great Lennon/McCartney original, lead vocals by McCartney and fantastic harmonies. This is a standard pop/rock number with a great beat, and Ringo really keeping the cymbals buzzing.
Lennon breaks out his best faux-Bob Dylan on "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." This is one of my all-time favorite Beatles numbers, right up there with "In My Life" off Rubber Soul.
"I Need You" is one of two Harrison contributions to Help! This is a lovely little tune, and it has plenty of cowbell. Interesting guitar effects on this one, too. It almost sounds like a synthesizer or electric organ, but it's heavily processed 12-string electric guitar (apparently).
"You're Going to Lose that Girl" is another highlight of the album. Lennon's vocals are especially cutting, and the call and response effect is quite pleasing. Starr's drumming stands out here too, not too fancy, but authoritative and crisp.
The ringing intro to "Ticket to Ride" always grabs my attention, and I love the roll on the drums here. Everything is on point here, and it's clear (at least to me) why The Beatles stood head and shoulders above their contemporaries. McCartney's bass work is particularly nice on this one as well, and I love the guitar riffs as they play off the song to fade.
The cover of "Act Naturally" gives Starr his sole turn on vocals for the album. Help! features fewer covers than previous albums, and none of the tracks are written by Starr. It might not be genius like "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," but it's still a lot of fun.
I think "I've Just Seen a Face" is under-rated in The Beatles' catalog. It's one of my favorite mid-period Beatles tunes, anyway. Simple, but extremely catchy. The acoustic guitar on this is charming.
"Yesterday," on the other hand, is not under-rated, but it deserves its status. It's tempting to downgrade "Yesterday" because it's considered over-played, but that doesn't reflect on the actual quality of the song. It's probably not an exaggeration to say I've listened to this one thousands of times, and I still get lost in it.
I might have closed the album on "Yesterday," but the Parlophone pressing goes out with a blistering cover of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" by Larry Williams. (Probably better known for "Bony Maronie" these days.) Lennon is putting everything he's got into the vocals, and there's just a trace of hoarseness. I prefer The Beatles' version to Williams, though it might be improved with the original's saxophone.
You could argue that The Beatles' later work surpasses Help!, and that's not entirely wrong. But this is the one that ignited my passion for music. For a long time, I was just obsessed with The Beatles (as kids tend to hyper-focus), but over time I've gotten a lot of joy out of music that all started here. That adds to my enjoyment of Help!, as well as the fact that many of the tracks are practically hard-wired into my brain.