Help! was perhaps the albums on which The Beatles began maturing, beginning a process that would result in the breathtaking creativity of their later 1960s work. The album took in country and western, bluegrass, folk, classical and rock styles, making it their most diverse collection to date.
In 1965 Bob Dylan was a key influence on British music, with folk-rock, numerous covers of his own songs, and various unsubtle pastiches vying for chart space. The folk-rock explosion came shortly after Help! was released, but the album perhaps helped the trend gain momentum.
The Beatles had been introduced to marijuana by Dylan, while on tour in New York on 28 August 1964. The drug became a key influence on Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. John Lennon and George Harrison also took LSD for the first time sometime between March and July 1965, during the recording period for Help!, although the drug didn’t significantly change The Beatles’ songwriting for another year.
We were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period. Nobody could communicate with us because it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time. In our own world.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
While Lennon was exploring depths of his emotions with his lyrics, in 1965 Paul McCartney wrote the most famous song of his lifetime. ‘Yesterday’ went on to be recorded by more than 3,000 different artists, making it the song with the most cover versions in existence. It was performed an estimated seven million times in the 20th century, and regularly tops polls to find the greatest songs ever written.
It wasn’t really a Beatles record and I discussed this with Brian Epstein: ‘You know, this is Paul’s song… Shall we call it Paul McCartney?’ He said, ‘No, whatever we do we are not splitting up The Beatles.’ So even though none of the others appeared on the record, it was still The Beatles – that was the creed of the day.
McCartney’s masterpiece was contrasted by the slightly-retitled version of Larry Williams’ ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzie’ which closed the album. The Beatles may have lacked the boldness to end the album with ‘Yesterday’, but they clearly underestimated their audience by thinking a rock ‘n’ roll classic from their Cavern Club days would be more palatable to their audiences.
The other cover version on Help!, ‘Act Naturally’, was The Beatles’ last to be recorded until the Let It Be sessions of January 1969. The group had tended to rely on cover versions for their early LPs, but by the mid 1960s had largely abandoned the practice.
I sang ‘Act Naturally’ in Help!. I found it on a Buck Owens record and I said, ‘This is the one I am going to be doing,’ and they said ‘OK’. We were listening to all kinds of things. John sang ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’. We were all listening to that, too. Paul, of course, had written his ‘Yesterday’; the most recorded song in history. What a guy!
In the studio
Help! was recorded over 12 non-consecutive days in February, April and June 1965, with a number of additional editing and mixing sessions. Work on the album started just before shooting began on the film.
The Beatles began recording Help! on 15 February 1965, in Studio Two at EMI Studios on Abbey Road, London. They worked on the songs ‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘Another Girl’, and ‘I Need You’. In June they completed six songs for the soundtrack; the majority of non-soundtrack songs were recorded in June once filming was complete.
Help! involved a new method of recording for The Beatles. Instead of a number of takes being made by the group, from which the best was selected for further work, they began to record the rhythm track first, later adding a series of unnumbered overdubs of vocals and extra instruments. This meant that while it could be claimed that a finished song was recorded in just one or two takes, it often involved numerous hours of work on the various elements.
The Beatles also began taping their studio rehearsals as they worked on songs, and on occasion used these as the basis for a final song. This flexibility meant the group were able to use the most apt recording techniques for the songs, rather than having to record proper takes each time, although it did typically mean the songs required more studio work to complete.
Furthermore, the song ‘Help!’ was The Beatles’ first to involve a reduction mix, by which the four-track tape was ‘bounced down’ to a subsequent copy, with two vocal tracks combined, to free up a spare track for a guitar overdub. Reduction mixes played a key role in The Beatles’ increasingly elaborate studio work, prior to the availability of eight-track recording in summer 1968.
The Beatles also began to explore different sounds on Help!, with Ringo Starr in particular bringing in a range of percussive instruments. Paul McCartney overdubbed lead guitar onto three of the songs; George Harrison utilised a volume/tone guitar pedal onto three others; and electric piano and acoustic 12-string guitars were used elsewhere.
‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ was the first Beatles recording since ‘Love Me Do’ to feature a session musician. Johnnie Scott was paid a standard £6 fee for his tenor and alto flute parts, which were recorded on 18 February 1965. The tenor flute part was taped while The Beatles recorded the backing track, and the alto part was overdubbed afterwards.
They told me roughly what they wanted, ¾ time, and the best way of fulfilling their needs was to play both tenor flute and alto flute, the second as an overdub. As I recall, all four of them were there and Ringo was full of marital joys; he’d just come back from his honeymoon.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
Of all the Help! sessions, perhaps none was as significant as 14 June 1965, the day The Beatles recorded three Paul McCartney songs: ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’, ‘I’m Down’, and ‘Yesterday’. The latter was the first Beatles recording to feature just one member of the group, with McCartney’s vocals and acoustic guitar augmented by a string quartet. This was the also first time The Beatles had recorded with a string arrangement, although they would continue to work with the instruments right up until their final releases.
‘Yesterday’ was a breakthrough: it was recorded by just Paul and a group of other musicians. No other Beatle was on that recording and no other Beatle heard the song until we played it back. John listened to it, and there’s a particular bit where the cello moves into a bluesy note which he thought was terrific, so it was applauded.