alan w. pollack's
notes on ...

Notes on "Help!"


Notes on ... Series #6.1 (H.1)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: A Major
     Meter: 4/4
                   ----- 3X --------
      Form: Intro | Verse | Refrain | Outro
        CD: "Help!", Track 1 (Parlophone CDP7 46439-2)
  Recorded: 13th April 1965, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 23rd July 1965 (A Single / "I'm Down")
US-release: 19th July 1965 (A Single / "I'm Down")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note Even while you're totally riveted by "Help's" hard driving beat and desperately anxious lyrics, its flat ballad form and prominent part for acoustic rhythm guitar are at work, adding a folksy stylistic cross current.
  Next note The folk ballad form, with its repetitious alternation of verse with refrain, is no stranger in the Beatles song book, but it appears much less frequently than the more familiar one or two-bridge pop song forms.
  Next note In absence of the continuing story line upon which the typical folksong relies in order to sustain interest, "Help!" makes a couple of formal adjustments to avoid rote monotony:
  • The lyrics of the three verses create an A-B-A pattern.
  • The texture of the instrumental arrangement is dramatically lightened up for the first half of the last verse by thinning out the drum part and eliminating the backing vocal part.
  Next note But I'd argue that this relatively small amount of relief is frankly not enough to dispel an overall closed, static feeling in the song created by the following factors, independent of, or in addition to, the flat form:
  • The harmonic rhythm is fairly slow and unvarying throughout. In the verse, except for the phrase "help in any way" where the chords change twice within a measure, the rest of the chords last two whole measures each. In the refrain, the chords last four measures each!
  • The sixteen measure verse is built out of a musically identical repetition of the same eight measures.
  • The harmony from an architectural viewpoint is unrelievedly in one key (A) throughout. In spite of the nice effect with the G chord, the refrain provides no relief in terms of excursion to, or flirtation with a different key. (By contrast, think about the space opened up by the middle eight of a song like "From Me To You".)
  Next note All this is not to say that "Help!" is ineffective or unsuccessful; common sense and experience tells us you don't need to be versed in music theory to recognize a great song when you hear it; right!?
  Next note If anything, I find myself pondering that perhaps, this unusual unrelieved closedness is intentional and actually part of what makes the impact of the song so strong. The music underscores the urgent single-mindedness of the message contained within the lyrics; shades of "got no time for trivialities" from a slightly earlier song of the same composer.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note With the exception of the extraordinary upward leap of a sixth to a high C# sung in screaming falsetto (on the word "please," the climax of each refrain), the tune is centered within a small range of just a fifth, from A up to E. The narrowness of the range is further emphasized by the predominance in the tune of motifs that are either triadic or in short downward scale fragments of three or four notes; the latter all serving to greatly accent the exceptional impact of the big leap.
  Next note An unusually large number of chords are used: six out of the seven diatonically available to the home key, plus the modal flat-VII (G-Major).
  Next note The flat-VII chord was obviously not "invented" by the Beatles, but they were to use it quite a bit starting from around the time of the "Hard Day's Night" album, and I dare say that they are at least partly responsible for the chord's becoming somewhat of a cliché in late sixties / early seventies pop music.
  Next note Flat-VII appears repeatedly in this song, alternately serving two very different purposes; sort of like a character actor filling two different roles in the same play. In the verse it is used to make what Wilfrid Meller's was talking about when he used the much ridiculed but very apt label, "Aeolian cadence." The Aeolian mode is the white note scale on A, and is one of the modes in which the flat-VII chord naturally occurs, and is used in place of V to make a complete cadence with I. By contrast, in the intro and refrains, the flat-VII chord appears in the midst of an unusual chromatic chord progression.


  Next note Lewisohn points out how it was in the sessions for the "Help!" album that the Beatles first really locked on in a big way to the procedure of recording backing tracks before laying down vocals and other finishing touches as successive overdubs. This is amply borne out by the rough early takes of "Help!", fortunately available in unofficial release.
  Next note The basic track includes acoustic rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass, and drums. Initial attempts to capture the signature rapid arpeggios in the lead guitar at this point are abandoned after George complains it's too hard to perform the rapid eighth notes evenly in tempo. In addition to all vocals, also missing at this point is the tambourine and the heavily doubly downward bassline of the refrain.
  Next note There is much to admire in the detailed arrangement:
  • Ringo uses a short, one-beat roll to pickup the first verse and round off each refrain, but to lead into the refrains he opts for the insistent pattern of seven even eighth notes starting on the half beat after 1. In the first half of the final verse he plays only on the downbeats where the chords change.
  • Paul uses the dotted rhythmic pattern we noted back in "She Loves You" for just the verses.
  • The lead guitar has no part in the verses. In the refrain, it plays percussive chords on the offbeats (where it is doubled by the tambourine), and it doubles the descending bassline during the big build up. At the section's climax it overdubs that funky series of chromatically descending arpeggios.
  Next note John, of course, provides the double-tracked lead vocal with a complex backing part for Paul and George.
  Next note The backers fascinatingly alternate between adding points of bold-font-like emphasis to the lead part with chordal doubling, and providing a form of melodic counterpoint in which both the words and notes they sing subtly intertwine and overlap with the lead. If you listen carefully, the two sets of words are almost but not quite exactly matching, nor does either of the parts consistently lead or follow. Is this a Greek chorus of friendly observers commenting on the protagonist, or is it more likely the protagonist's inner dialog?
  Next note The most precious vocal detail is found at the end of the first line of the verse:
          1 2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3   4   1  2  3  4
   Lead: |- C# C# C#|C# C# C# C#|C# C# C#E  C#|-  -  B A- |
                                       *    *        * *

Backers: |A -  -  - |-  -  B  A |G# -  -   -  |-  C# E C#B|A
                                                  *  * * * *

   [Figure 6.1]
  Next note Note how near the end of the line the backers sing the identical pattern of five notes as the lead, but they trail by a few beats, by which time they not only have to "jump over" the lead (in terms of range), but best of all, they sing the figure with very different points of rhythmic emphasis; John puts the main emphasis on the syncopated second C# (on the second syllable of "today") of the figure, but the backers put the accent on the E at its apex (on the first syllable of "never"), which in their part falls smack on the third beat of the measure.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro is an eight-measure long compressed version of what will turn out to be the refrain section:
      |b           |-           |G           |-           |
   A:  ii                        flat-VII

      |E           |-           |A           |-           |
       V                         I

   [Figure 6.2]
  Next note The chord progression of the intro is a classic harmonic example of starting a piece out in left field; "classic" in the sense that early Romantic song writers like Schubert and Schumann loved this gambit. At what point in "Help!" do you know for sure what key we're in? Below are some of the ways in which I believe the opening chords can be heard; I think that several of the possibilities below are quickly rejected in retrospect by the ear but I list them all to underscore the ambiguity.
                  b     -»   G    -»   E    -»   A
   Is it      b:  i          VI        V-of-flat-VII, huh ???
   or         g:  iii        I         V-of-ii, huh ???
   or         D:  vi         IV        V-of-V    V, maybe ???

       it's   A:  ii         flat-VII  V         I

   [Figure 6.3]
  Next note This is more than just mental gymnastics on paper. Try and put yourself in a frame of mind as though you're hearing this for the first time (try!), and play it out "Name That Tune" style, dealing out one chord at a time. Ask yourself at each step, "what key am I in?", "where am I heading?" I think you'll get the picture.
  Next note I think one isn't certain of the key being A until the verse actually begins; the possibility of the A at the end of the intro actually being a V which will go the D as the I chord is very real to the ear.
  Next note Once you get used to this progression I believe you hear the overall motion as being from the ii -» V -» I; a nice subdominant -» dominant -» tonic cadence. But what of the G chord? I put a flat-VII under it but I don't hear it that way at all in this context; flat-VII is a surrogate dominant (V-like) function. What I hear in this context is more of a hard to pigeon-hole "filler" chord between the ii and the V. In the final analysis (ugh!) I'm not even sure what Roman numeral to give it, or whether to give it one at all. What makes it work is the contrapuntal movement in the outer voices:
      Top:  F#             -» G              -» G#

   Bottom:  B     -» A     -» G     -» F#    -» E

        A:  ii                ??                V

   [Figure 6.4]
  Next note Scale-wise motion, particularly in a bassline or particularly when any line moves chromatically as the top line does here, can make the ear follow and "accept" some of the craziest chord progressions. In music of the late nineteenth century (for examples see Chopin or Wagner) this technique could be extended through very long passages creating a rather floating tonal experience. Our example from "Help!" is a very tiny example of this technique — it extends over only three chords, the outer two of which are clear tonal anchors like the towers of a suspension bridge. If you'll allow me to quickly change metaphors yet again, I like to think of that G chord here making a harmonic "pleat" between it's two neighboring chords.
  Next note It's a very pleasing effect; given that the harmonic rhythm is rather slow throughout, this unusual chord progression which is repeated four times in the course of the song is a conspicuous touch which adds a much needed feeling of forward and outward movement.
  Next note On a visceral level you might say that what otherwise is a cock-sured sense of kinetic motion in this progression is subtly belied by an uncertainty over its exact direction; kind of like the late-adolescent tale told by the lyrics.
  Next note The four-fold repeat of the title in this outro appears to violate some rhetorical rule of three, but more than makes up for it in the way the final one is literally screamed out; "Ouch!" indeed.


  Next note The verse is sixteen measures long; built out of a repetition of the following eight-measure phrase which, itself, breaks down into a 4+4 AA' pattern:
   |A           |-           |c#          |-           |
    I                         iii

   |f#          |-           |D     G     |A           |
    vi                        IV  flat-VII I

   [Figure 6.5]


  Next note The refrain is based on the same musical design as the intro, but here is stretched out to double the length (sixteen measures) by multiplying the harmonic rhythm by a factor of two. This latter change reveals a hidden element of "slow build up" not at all apparent in the faster/shorter intro version:
      |b       |-       |-       |-       |
   A:  ii

      |G       |-       |-       |-       |

      |E       |-       |-       |-       |

      |A       |-       |-       |-       |

   [Figure 6.6]


  Next note I always hear the final phrase of the refrain as follows with a V chord on the word "help" which, though not on the rhythm track, is strongly implied by the voices:
    Please       please help   me
   |A           |-     (E)    |A           |-           |
    I                  (V)     I

   [Figure 6.7]
  Next note This pattern is changed in the final refrain and made into a beautiful example of a deceptive cadence, in pure Bach style; i.e. the word "me" in the final refrain is given an f# (vi) chord. As in all such cadences, things are quickly put "right" in the following and final phrase.
  Next note The final chord of this song is another added sixth chord. In contrast to the splat-like attack on this chord at the end of "She Loves You", the boys use it in "Help!" with great subtlety; the plain A chord is given on the down beat, and the sixth is added as a melodic neighboring tone, off the beat, in falsetto voice on the phoneme "Ooh"; but you already knew that :-).

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note The public relations hype said that we were all affected especially hard by John's more confessional songs because they revealed a surprising vulnerability we'd never have expected was lurking beneath his tough, cool, and zany public persona. The fact that such songs can be found from one end of the songbook (e.g. "Misery") to the other (e.g. "I Want You / She's So Heavy") should have mitigated anything in the way of "surprise" but that's PR for you.
  Next note Even in this context, though, the song "Help!" would appear to have pushed the envelope, given its chronological place within the cannon, just shy of mid-career, and its rather "psychiatric" choice of words. Check your lyrical concordance; it's the only Beatles song where you'll find the words "independence," "self-assured," or "insecure."
  Next note But don't be fooled into thinking that we're dealing with a kind of perverse impulse to recklessly cast John "against type," running the risk, big time, of blowing such a carefully cultivated image.
  Next note Rather it's precisely because of the cross casting here that the overall production works as well as it does! Consider the alternatives. Tough guy singing tough songs is okay but predictable. Nebbish singing nebbishy songs is, yech, pathetic. Nebbish singing tough songs is not fully believable. But take the one who always jokes and laughs like a clown and have him admit to his private indulgence in copious tears that fall like rain from the sky — and now you've really got something. Maybe those PR folks really knew what they were doing :-)
  Next note A final footnote on lyrical concordances: the only other Beatles song in which I could find the phrase "(need) you like I've never done before" other than in this song is in the Quarrymen's parodistic "You'll Be Mine"; just change the opening verb from "need" to "love." Is this merely a coincidence or does it suggest the phrase having been on John's tongue "for years" just waiting for the right moment to be free?
  Alan (033000#6.1)
Revision History
070989 6.0 Original release
033000 6.1 Revise, expand and adapt to series template
Copyright © 2000 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.