Realizing John’s songwriting pen had struck gold, the Beatles raced to Abbey Road on the evening of April 13, 1965 (after spending a long day filming, then doing a lengthy radio interview from a car in the studio parking lot — I’m telling you, their calendars were packed) and emerged with not only a massive hit single, but also the film’s official title.
“Help!” the song is arguably one of the all-time greatest Beatles singles. Its gutsy lead vocal from John, and innovative backing vocals from Paul and George (the lyrics in the backing vocals at times actually precede the lead vocals — a minor but notable twist to the formula), backed by the powerful, Ritchie Havens-like pounding of John’s acoustic rhythm guitar (a Framus 12-string), Ringo’s flawless drumming, and the jangling, descending lead guitar lines of George (played on a Gretsch Tennessean) that almost single-handedly launched everyone from the Byrds to R.E.M, combine to create something that was probably much, much better than a song called “Eight Arms To Hold You” would have been. That name was gratefully relegated to the scrap heap.
The opening title sequence where the band performs the song was filmed on April 22.
There is an eerie, odd moment when the Beatles are in the departure lounge of Heathrow Airport (filmed at Twickenham on April 27) fleeing to the Bahamas in disguise. John’s disguise — big beard and round, wire-rimmed glasses — is exactly how he would look four years later — check the cover of 1969’s Abbey Road.
SIDE NOTE: Is Help! racist? Some modern internet reviews display a very laudable 21st-century concern that the film’s treatment of Eastern religion is, shall we say, not the most enlightened. George Harrison’s most recent biographer, Graeme Thomson, sniffs haughtily that “Help! is their least soulful, least committed project, in which alternative spirituality is mockingly played for the broadest of laughs.” Thomson may be overstating the case somewhat (and the remark was a sufficient enough irritant to the Holy Bee to inspire these blog posts.) The unnamed cult in the film does not seem to be a jibe at Hinduism, Krishnaism, or any other form of real religious worship. What they actually seem to be based on is the Thuggee, a bloodthirsty group of thieves and murderers that once terrorized the Indian subcontinent. If that’s Thomson’s idea of “alternative spirituality,” then he certainly has more issues than the film.
The Thuggee were also the villains in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which has had its own accusations of presenting institutionalized colonial racism as if it were acceptable. The Thuggee were definitely devotees of Kali, but unlike the demon goddess demanding blood sacrifice depicted here and in Temple of Doom, Kali is a loved and accepted (if not always benevolent) member of the pantheon of Hindu gods. In this case, I suppose both films are guilty of fostering a misapprehension. However, this is Help!, the goofy, written-in-ten-days musical romp that’s a half-century old. Anyone expecting documentary-style accuracy on actual Hindu religious rites should look elsewhere.
And not that any religion is treated with reverence in the Help! universe. “They have to paint me red before they chop me,” Ringo patiently explains at one point. “It’s a different religion from ours. [Long pause]…I think.”
Some also decry the fact that all of the “Indians” are played by lily-white English actors. That, of course, is part of the overall joke, and the English are the butts of it. Despite their Empire being long gone, the English are so childishly pleased with themselves and their way of life that they suspect that everyone, deep down, is really just like them. (As Clang is growling instructions to the henchmen in Hindi, Bhuta looks on helplessly. “I don’t speak the language,” he admits to no one in particular. “Latin, yes, but this Eastern babble…” he concludes with a resigned shrug, like a good British public-school boy.)
In general, the film is just a mild culture clash, with the working-class Scouser/Cockney attitudes toward the “mystic East” tending more toward tolerant befuddlement or innocent cluelessness. If you’re really looking for something to be offended about, I suppose you could find it in Help!, but you’d need to put forth the effort. Keep in mind, Harrison’s and the Beatles’ sincere interest in Indian religion inspired by their work on the film did lead directly to a more educated and informed view in subsequent years.
At some point in late April or May, the band dug out their heavy Austrian ski outfits to be photographed for the promotional materials, including the movie poster and album cover. Photographer Robert Freeman’s original intention was to have them spell out H-E-L-P with their arms in semaphore. That formation looked awkward and didn’t photograph well, so, in Freeman’s words, “we decided to improvise and ended up with the best graphic positioning of the arms.” They roughly spell out “NUJV” or “NVUJ”, depending on which version of the picture you’re looking at.
I had naturally assumed the “semaphore” photos were shot on location in Austria, but soon remembered that was almost a month before the title had been conceived. (Add to that fact that no version of the semaphore photos with an actual Austrian background can be found — they’re always superimposed onto other things: record sleeves, posters, books, etc., which indicates a later studio shoot against a blank backing. There is a brief arms-extended shot in the “Ticket To Ride” sequence that may have sparked the idea.) The official still photographer on the set of Help! was not Freeman, but Emilio Lari.
The first three days of May were spent creating a visually striking sequence on the windswept Salisbury Plain with a noticably freezing, shivering band playing “I Need You” and “The Night Before.” (In the film, this was an presented as an unorthodox outdoor recording session, so that the Beatles — a national treasure — could be protected from all the nefarious forces out to do them harm by a ring of armored tanks while cutting their latest record.)
The last few days of the shoot were spent at Cliveden House, a 19th century mansion in the Berkshire countryside, whose large, paneled rooms were a believable stand-in for the interiors of Buckingham Palace.
Practically as soon as “cut” was called on their last scene on May 11, the Beatles hit the recording studio again (in fact, they had begun the night before.) This time they turned their attention to the second half of the Help! album, the material that would not be in the film. Through May and June, the Beatles bounced between the Twickenham recording studio, doing post-sync sound work on the final cut of Help!, and their regular recording studio on Abbey Road, laying down “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Bad Boy,” “I’m Down,” “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “It’s Only Love,” “Act Naturally,” and “Yesterday.” The Vox Continental organ replaced the Hohner Pianet as the keyboard flavor-of-the-week during these sessions. (The Hammond organ, mellotron, and Moog were all waiting in the wings…)
They also recorded the appropriately-titled “Wait,” which would end up on Rubber Soul later in ‘65. “If You’ve Got Trouble” and “That Means A Lot” were shit-canned, until both were resurrected for the outtake-based Anthology project in the 1990s.
On June 20, they steeled themselves for another round of touring the world, playing the usual 30-minute inaudible shows into a maelstrom of hysterical screams. On July 23, the “Help!” single was released (backed by “I’m Down”) to whet the public’s appetite for the upcoming film and album.
Help! received a Royal Premiere at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus on July 29, 1965, the same day it hit cinemas throughout Britain. The band was on a break between the European and American legs of their tour, and were able to put on their tuxes and attend. It was a box-office hit, although critics, as we’ve seen, were noticeably more lukewarm compared to the raves they gave A Hard Day’s Night.
The British and American soundtrack albums were two very different entities, following the pattern established by the A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack. In the UK, both A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were released as proper Beatles albums, with two full sides of original music. The first side featured songs from the film, and the second side featured additional “album-only” songs. The only deviation from standard Beatles recording policy on the British soundtracks was the inclusion of singles, which ordinarily would not be included on a UK album. United Artists dictated, however, that the title song of the movie be released as a single around the same time as the movie/album release, and that the movie/album include an already-released proven hit single of recent vintage (“Can’t Buy Me Love” in the case of A Hard Day’s Night, “Ticket To Ride” for Help!).
On the American versions, only the seven songs heard in each film were included on the A Hard Day’s Night and Help! records, spread over both sides and interspersed with sections of the orchestral scores by George Martin and Ken Thorne, respectively. Kind of a rip-off, really, to be paying full album price for what was essentially a half-album of Beatles songs. In fact, the American Help! was packaged as a “deluxe” album with a gatefold sleeve, and priced $1 higher than a standard album when it hit shelves on August 13, 1965.
George Martin was not invited back to provide the score for Help!. Martin later complained that Letser “fancied himself a musician,” and constantly second-guessed Martin’s scoring choices in an undiplomatic and overbearing manner, leading to some bitter arguments. Lester’s choice of composer Ken Thorne to score the film is not without interest, however unwelcome his presence on a supposed Beatles album might be. His score for Help! consists mostly of orchestral and Indian re-workings of the Beatles songs “A Hard Day’s Night,” “From Me To You,” and “You Can’t Do That,” along with a few snippets of classical pieces, and, naturally, the “James Bond Theme.” Continue reading