The title track to The Beatles’ fifth album and second film, ‘Help!’ was written mainly by John Lennon at his home in Weybridge.

When ‘Help!’ came out, I was actually crying out for help. Most people think it’s just a fast rock ‘n’ roll song. I didn’t realise it at the time; I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie. But later, I knew I really was crying out for help. So it was my fat Elvis period. You see the movie: he – I – is very fat, very insecure, and he’s completely lost himself. And I am singing about when I was so much younger and all the rest, looking back at how easy it was.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

The film was originally to be called Eight Arms To Hold You, and was announced to the press as such on 17 March 1965. The title had been mooted for some time, with ‘Eight Days A Week’ initially considered for the theme tune.

I think we wrote [‘Eight Days A Week’] when we were trying to write the title song for Help! because there was at one time the thought of calling the film Eight Arms To Hold You.
John Lennon
Hit Parader, April 1972

In mid-April the title Help! was settled upon, probably chosen by director Richard Lester. Paul McCartney later described the genesis behind the title and the song of the same name.

I seem to remember Dick Lester, Brian Epstein, Walter Shenson and ourselves sitting around, maybe Victor Spinetti was there, and thinking, What are we going to call this one? Somehow Help! came out. I didn’t suggest it; John might have suggested it or Dick Lester. It was one of them. John went home and thought about it and got the basis of it, then we had a writing session on it. We sat at his house and wrote it, so he obviously didn’t have that much of it. I would have to credit it to John for original inspiration 70-30. My main contribution is the countermelody to John.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

Following the song’s completion, Lennon and McCartney performed the song on guitars for Cynthia Lennon and visiting journalist Maureen Cleave, a long-time associate of the group.

Once we’d done our writing session there was nothing left to be done except put the instruments on. That’s what I was there for; to complete it. Had John just been left on his own he might have taken weeks to do it, but just one visit and we would go right in and complete it. So we came down and played the intro, into the verse, descant coming in on the second verse. It was all crafted, it was all there, the final verses and the end. ‘Very nice,’ they said. ‘Like it.’
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

John Lennon's handwritten lyrics for Help!

Although originally conceived as a ballad, The Beatles performed ‘Help!’ faster in the studio, as they had done with ‘Please Please Me’, to satisfy the group’s commercial instincts.

I remember Maureen Cleave, a writer – the one who did the famous ‘We’re more popular than Jesus’ story in the Evening Standard – asked me, ‘Why don’t you ever write songs with more than one syllable?’ So in ‘Help!’ there are two- or three-syllable words and I very proudly showed them to her and she still didn’t like them. I was insecure then, and things like that happened more than once. I never considered it before. So after that I put a few words with three syllables in, but she didn’t think much of them when I played it for her, anyway.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Lennon had been a user of marijuana since August 1964, and within six months was introduced to LSD. Introspection increasingly became a hallmark of his songwriting throughout Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver.

I meant it – it’s real. The lyric is as good now as it was then. It is no different, and it makes me feel secure to know that I was aware of myself then. It was just me singing ‘help’ and I meant it.

I don’t like the recording too much; we did it too fast trying to be commercial… I might do ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Help!’ again, because I like them and I can sing them.

John Lennon
Rolling Stone, 1970

A live version of ‘Help!’, recorded for the BBC television show Blackpool Night Out, was included on Anthology 2. The performance took place at the ABC Theatre on 1 August 1965.

In the studio

The Beatles recorded ‘Help!’ in a single night, on 13 April 1965. The four-hour session took place from 7pm at Abbey Road’s studio two.

Twelve takes of the song were recorded. The first eight were of the rhythm track only, with vocals appearing for the first time on take nine.

Some discussion at the beginning of take four indicates that George Harrison is having a little trouble executing the complicated, fast riffs; he’s also worried about having to play and sing at the same time, though Paul assures him that won’t be necessary, as there are two voice tracks available.
The Unreleased Beatles
Richie Unterberger

The final attempt was the best, and onto this Ringo Starr overdubbed a tambourine, and George Harrison added the series of descending Chet Atkins-style guitar notes which close each chorus.

Chart success

‘Help!’ was released as a single in the US on 19 July 1965, and in the UK on 23 July 1965, two weeks ahead of the album of the same name. It topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

The ‘Help!’ single sold much better than the two before it: ‘I Feel Fine’ and ‘Ticket To Ride’. But there were still a lot of fans who didn’t like ‘Help!’. They said, ‘Ah, The Beatles are dropping us. This isn’t as good as ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.’ So you can’t win. Trying to please everybody is impossible – if you did that, you’d end up in the middle with nobody liking you. You’ve just got to make the decision about what you think is your best, and do it.

People think of us as machines. They pay 6s 8d for a record and we have to do what they say – like a jack-in-the-box. I don’t like that side of it much. Some people have got it all wrong. We produce something, something great every time. The onus is on the public to decide whether they like it or not. It’s annoying when people turn round and say, ‘But we made you, you ungrateful swines.’ I know they did, in a way, but there’s a limit to what we’re bound to live up to, as if it’s a duty.

John Lennon

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