In the Beatles’ second movie, the sacrificial ring from a bloodthirsty cult lands on Starr’s finger, and the sect resolves to kill him. Most of the screen time features the boys trying to escape the villains in what was intended as a parody of the James Bond series. Originally the film was to be entitled Eight Arms to Hold You, a pun both on the number of Beatle arms and the arms of Kali, the Hindu goddess. But while many Beatlemaniacs may not have minded being held by all four Beatles simultaneously, some wise soul came up with the less creepy title Help!. The release of “Help Me, Rhonda” on March 8 may have subliminally contributed. Another “help” song, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” was released on April 23.
John banged out the theme in one night that April, just as he had written the theme to A Hard Day’s Night in one evening a year earlier. At the time, Lennon didn’t think much about it. But a comparison of the two tracks shows him feeling galvanized in the earlier song and desperate twelve months later.
Journalist Maureen Cleave, with whom Lennon was having an affair, asked him why he never used words with more than one syllable, so he included “insecure,” “independence,” “self-assured,” and “appreciate” in the lyrics.8 She still wasn’t impressed, which was probably one reason he liked her.
Lennon sings that when he was younger he never needed help, but now he’s changed his mind and opened up the doors. The part about being younger may have been inspired by the chorus of Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” And as for the “doors,” they could have been inspired by Aldous Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception, about his experiences with hallucinogens. The book takes its title from the line by poet William Blake “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.” Lennon wrote the song two weeks after his first acid trip. Perhaps when Lennon and Harrison recounted their LSD experience to friends, someone told them to check out Huxley’s book. While psychedelics and the literature about them were still largely unknown, McCartney’s good friend Barry Miles worked at Better Books, one of London’s countercultural hubs, where Ginsberg read that spring.
The group recorded “Help!” in a four-hour session at Abbey Road on April 13. The other Beatles encouraged Lennon to speed it up to make it more pop. McCartney added a countermelody; he and Harrison sang the lyrics a half beat before Lennon did. On the twelfth take, Harrison added the lead guitar arpeggios, and then overdubbed the descending guitar notes in the vein of Nashville’s Chet Atkins.9
Rolling Stone later rated it the twenty-ninth greatest song of all time. It was a precursor to the stark honesty of Lennon’s solo album Plastic Ono Band. When Lennon recorded that album, in the midst of undergoing “primal scream” psychotherapy, he remarked that the lyric of “Help!” was still “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.”10
The genius of the group was that, at the height of Beatlemania, when they were the most successful band on earth, they let us in on their insecurities. While the lyrics were simple, they were no longer adolescent. Their music was now adult; they acted their age.
The song was so strangely confessional for its time that it’s surprising that it became one of the top five worldwide best sellers of the year. But it resonated because it mirrored the insecurity of the culture at large. To parents who had survived the Depression and World War II, America’s rampant consumerism represented security, but it left many of their children feeling empty as they began to question age-old assumptions about sex, patriotism, race, religion, and drugs. Soon the baby boomers would begin seeking out new cures to their anomie. “Help!” served as both Lennon’s and his generation’s theme song as they journeyed through the many self-help options the new global village offered, from pharmacology to psychotherapy, religion, meditation, and activist politics.
“Help!” resonated, too, because of the camaraderie implicit in the group’s performance. Wrote critic Dave Marsh, Lennon “sounds triumphant, because he’s found a group of kindred spirits who are offering the very spiritual assistance and emotional support for which he’s begging. Paul’s echoing harmonies, Ringo’s jaunty drums, the boom of George’s guitar speak to the heart of Lennon’s passion, and though they can’t cure the wound, at least they add a note of reassurance that he’s not alone with his pain. You can make some great music on that basis. And they did.”11
8. Beatles, The Beatles Anthology, 173.
9. Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, 58.
10. Wenner, “January 1971 Rolling Stone Interview.”
11. Marsh, The Heart of Rock & Soul, 185.