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The Beatles’ “Help!” — Breaking Down The Vocal Tricks

Beatles Help!

The Beatles were masterful songwriters, composers, musicians, and singers. Their library of music is rich with tricks and techniques that captured the ears (and hearts) of their fans then and now. Their compositions and recordings remain relevant decades later. “Help!” was released in July 1965 and became The Beatles’ 10th overall #1 single. It came out after “Eight Days A Week” in February in the US and after “Ticket to Ride,” which was released in April of that same year, continuing the relentless march of Number 1 singles that the Beatles released in a short window of time.

Help! was The Beatles’ second movie and soundtrack album. Both albums (including A Hard Day’s Night) lead off with a title track that displayed musical magic and several memorable “bits,” as Paul often says to describe their music. In particular, the harmony and backing vocal fill tracks in the verses of “Help!” danced between leading, trailing, and in synch with the lead vocals. John echoed Paul/George and vice versa.

Related: “The Beauty of the Beatles Cast-Offs: ‘Hey Jude’, the Album”

By this time, the collaboration between the four lads and their esteemed producer (and, 5th Beatle), George Martin, was paying tremendous dividends. The title for the movie was presented to them in April. Within two weeks, John had written the song and the first recording was on April 13. The finished product demonstrates how tightly coupled the Beatles were with George and what they could achieve, even under tremendous time pressure.

“Help!” was truly a call out by John as his life ventured from struggling artist to global superstar and was quite a departure from the love songs they wrote which dominated 1964 and early 1965. Originally written as a melancholy blues song, The Beatles “popped” it up to capture the delight of their worldwide fans – most likely encouraged by George Martin to speed up the original pace of the song.

Related: “Quiz: The Beatles in 1963”

As they entered 1965, their ages ranged from 21 to 24. Nothing could have prepared them for the immense popularity they had achieved. Nor could they have anticipated the pressures that mounted with every successful album, movie, concert, and more. Life was no longer simple. The Beatles were no longer “just a rock and roll band,” as John liked to lament.

Let’s start with the first verse. After the opening chorus with all three Beatles singing “Help!” in advance of John’s solo bits such as “I need somebody” and “Not just anybody,” all three sang in pleading voices “Help!” The first verse begins with Paul and George singing “When …” John proceeds to sing the lead.

Within the first three lines of this verse, Paul and George precede John’s lyric, follow immediately in harmony and then sing along together. They continue to bounce from preceding to trailing and synchronously – echoing one another throughout.

 

LEAD – John BACKING – Paul & George Vocal Fills
When Lead
When I was young
When I was young … Lag
… oh so much younger than today
I never need Lead
I never needed anybody’s
… help in any way … help in any way Synchronous
Now Lead
But now these days are gone
These days are gone … Lag
And I’m not so self-assured
And now I find Lead
Now I find, I’ve changed my mind,
I’ve opened up the doors I’ve opened up the doors Synchronous

The song is loaded up with vocal fills and echoes that go back and forth during the verse. The Beatles established an early pattern of Lead-Lag-Lead-Synchronous in the first verse. Additionally, as they did often in their early recordings, there was both a mono and stereo version of the song. The vocal fills remained the same.

“Help!” moves along at a nice pace as it sits on a steady rhythm the lads provided with John’s acoustic guitar, George’s electric guitar, Paul’s bass, and Ringo’s drums and tambourines. Because of the song’s upbeat energy, one almost loses the fact that John is making a plea for support after nearly 2 years of Beatlemania has enveloped the four young lads.

 

In the chorus, John leads with “Help me if you can I’m feeling down and I do appreciate you being ‘round” before Paul and George join back in during “Help me get my feet back on the ground … won’t you please Help! me.” In contrast to the verses, they revert back to instrumental fills of lead guitar by George and drums by Ringo, tying it all together.

The words beg the listener’s emotions to feel sympathy and somberness for John. At the same time, the song moves along with a vibrant gripping pace. “Help!” is filled with lyrics and music that hold steady throughout, almost distracting one from the darker message. Later on, John would acknowledge how happy he was with the song; it was the first of John’s many truly introspective and honest songs.

The second verse provides more of the same back and forth and repeats the Lead-Lag-Lead-Synchronous fills of Paul’s and George’s backup vocals.

 

LEAD – John BACKING – Paul & George Vocal Fills
Now Lead
And now my life has changed
… in oh so many ways … my life has changed Lag
My independ … Lead
My independence seems to
… vanish in the haze … vanish in the haze Synchronous
But Lead
But ev’ry now and then
… now and then Lag
… I feel so insecure
I know that I Lead
I know that I just need you like
… I’ve never done before … I’ve never done before Synchronous

 

The final verse is a repeat of the opening one, but they changed the pattern just a bit. The first part of the verse has John singing solo with a bit more sadness in his tone. The second half picks up from the earlier pattern of Lead-Lag-Lead-Synchronous backing vocals.

LEAD – John BACKING – Paul & George Vocal Fills
When I was young
… oh so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s
… help in any way
Now Lead
But now these days are gone
These days are gone … Lag
And I’m not so self-assured
And now I find Lead
Now I find, I’ve changed my mind,
I’ve opened up the doors I’ve opened up the doors Synchronous

 

And, in the end, they replay the chorus just as they did the prior two times. To end the song, they truncated the flow with their final “Help me, help me … oooooohhhhhh” and faded out.

 

“Help!” is an example of the Beatles’ creativity and innovation. As singers, songwriters, musicians, and composers, The Beatles developed a bag of musical and lyrical tricks second to none. The vocal fills in “Help!” is an early example of how creative they were despite the time pressure of a looming major movie release.

Clearly, they really did not need much “help” at all.

-Michael Massetti

Photo Credit: The sun rises behind silhouettes of the Beatles, from the film Help, in Liverpool. (Photo by Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

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Michael Massetti was born into a family of music lovers in New York City watching Ed Sullivan every Sunday night. February 9, 1964 was the night that changed it all for him. Seeing The Beatles on TV began a lifelong love of them and their music. In addition to The Beatles, Michael graduated from the University of Notre Dame, is a life-long Yankees fan, is married, has 2 daughters (who tolerate The Beatles), a stepson and stepdaughter, and two grandchildren who sing Yellow Submarine and Ob La Di, Ob La Da with fervor. Michael lives with his wife, JoAnn, in Tampa, Florida, USA.

20 comments on “The Beatles’ “Help!” — Breaking Down The Vocal Tricks

  1. Avatar

    Great Story, my first ever album was Sgt. Pepper, a gift from my parents that brought it back from a trip to London. It came with paper cut outs of the band members ….so fun !
    CRD Keenan Hall/ND’74-79

  2. Avatar

    Arneeeeeee!

    Nice job,

    once there was a way….

  3. Avatar
    Andru J. Reeve

    Very nice and insightful analysis. Thank you.

  4. Avatar
    Dave Budgell

    A tune that is often dismissed because of the ‘silliness’ of the film, it has always been a favourite particularly because of the theme and John’s vocals. Great breakdown of all the elements!
    And what great guitar!

  5. Avatar
    JB Fonfrias

    Great story & song analysis. You could have also added Help’s magical ending with how the final A chord precedes their vocals only 3 part harmony “ooohs” becoming “mmmms” in the key of F#m.

    • Avatar

      That would have required me to have more music knowledge retention from my 8 years of saxophone playing … 40+ years ago! 🙂

  6. Avatar

    One more thing to mention – John sings the next to last “me” alone. If you could call that cri de coeur singing. There’s more pain in that one syllable than in all of “Yer Blues.”

  7. Avatar
    Carlos Blanco

    Wow great story very interesting thank you my favorite group of all time. You can include George Martin as a fifth Beatle he had to do a lot with their success.

  8. Avatar
    Ralph Brooks (on Facebook is the red tele)

    Michael Massetti I just wanted to say thank you for breaking down help in such a way that it was informative and inspirational to draft original music for my musical. Thanks for such a great story and other similar stories you write.

    • Avatar
      Michael A Massetti

      Thank you, Ralph. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  9. Avatar

    Precede, not proceed; preceding, not proceeding. Learn the language, man!

  10. Avatar

    The complexity and unusual lead / lag of the backing vocals drew me to find out more. Perfect analysis. Thanks.

  11. Avatar

    Is there a musical term for the use of “lead and lag” singing style?

    • Avatar
      Michael A Massetti

      That’s a great question. Outside of “echoing” … I really don’t know.

  12. Avatar

    The Buckinghams used this vocal method on their hit, “Kind of A Drag”.

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