The Beatles Mono Reviews 6: Help!

An edited version of this essay is now included in my book The Beatles In Mono. Hardback paperback

Cover of the Beatles' Help! album

This is actually the stereo cover. Couldn't find a scan of the mono one anywhere.

I’ve never been able to understand why Help! is critically regarded as one of the Beatles’ weaker efforts. Yes, it’s a slightly hazy album, due to it being the first since the Beatles discovered marijuana, and it accompanies a film that’s usually regarded as not very good (though I think it’s far better than people usually give it credit for, myself), but seriously – if any other band in the world had made an album containing Help!, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, Ticket To Ride, I’ve Just Seen A Face and Yesterday it would be regarded as their masterpiece, and talked about in hushed voices for decades.

Of course, as it turned out, Help! wasn’t even the best album the Beatles released that year, but judged against any other band’s work, it’s just astonishing.

Help! and Rubber Soul differ from the other Beatles albums in that they were remixed when the band’s original CD releases came out in 1987. The first four albums were originally issued on CD in mono, as God Martin intended, and everything from Revolver on was issued in stereo, which is at least a defensible position for those albums. For the two 1965 albums, however, it was felt that they deserved reissuing in remixed stereo. So on the mono box we have been given the mono mixes, but also the original 1965 stereo mixes, of those two albums.

Having previously owned all the Beatles albums on vinyl, this gives me a chance to compare the mono and stereo mixes more accurately, and figure out what about the difference in sound is down to the hugely improved clarity of the new masters (and they do sound ASTONISHING) and what is the mix. So with each song on these albums there will be a note about the differences between the mono and stereo mixes.

The main difference between the mono and stereo mixes, noticeable throughout, is that the mono mixes are very bass-heavy, compressed and murky, matching the dopey feel of much of the music, while the stereo mixes are all treble with no bass-response whatsoever – light and fun-sounding, but missing much of the actual musical information.

Help!, the first song on the album, and the second single, is the pivot around which the Beatles’ singles revolve. Before this, every Beatles single had involved romantic relationships of some kind. After this, no songs about romantic relationships (with the possible exceptions of the Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out pairing and Hello Goodbye) would appear on either the A- or B-side of a Beatles single until Don’t Let Me Down, by which point the band had effectively split.

Help! is the first attempt by the band to marry the two biggest influences of the band’s mid-period, Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys. The Dylan influence is most noticeable – the song is based around strummed acoustic guitar, has a confessional lyric, and (other than the intro – many of the songs on Help! have distinct intros, the only Beatles album for which this is really the case) has a very simplistic structure – 16-bar verse and 16-bar chorus alternating. There’s even no third verse, just a repeat of the first – this is structured as a folk song.

The Beach Boys influence is more subtle (unsurprisingly – while Lennon was a fan of the band, he was never as open about his admiration of them as were Harrison and especially McCartney), but starts with the title. Just before this was recorded, the Beach Boys knocked Ticket To Ride off the US number one spot after just one week, with Help Me, Rhonda. But the influence is also shown in the backing vocals. On most other Beatles records up to and including this album the band’s vocal arrangements had been essentially girl-group ones – call-and-response, straight harmony or ‘ooh’ chords. Here they’re anticipating the main vocal line in a way the band had never done before, entering into a much more interesting relationship with the lead.

Sometime around 1965, someone asked Lennon why he didn’t write lyrics more like his books, and his whole writing style changes. I suspect it was just before writing this song…

mono/stereo differences This one has the most obvious differences of all – the lead vocal is actually a totally different take (which means that this is the first legitimate CD release of the version of this track that actually went to number one). The backing vocals are mixed far higher in the stereo mix, and the bass is almost inaudible. The mono mix is generally murkier, with far less separation of instruments, and the opening has less impact in mono (the backing vocals jump out more in stereo), but in stereo there’s practically no drum sound at all, and overall the mono is punchier.

The Night Before, Paul’s first song on the album, is notable mostly for introducing the electric piano based soul-influenced sound that would dominate this album and Rubber Soul. Even though it’s only 2:36 it could have done with cutting down to about half that length, truth be told, although one of Paul’s better vocals redeems it somewhat.

mono/stereo differences The stereo mix of this is pretty horrible. Again there’s much less bass response, and the electric piano is mixed down (making the track sound like much less of a departure from their earlier work). The hi-hat is mixed up at the expense of any other drums, and the whole thing is just a wash of trebly echo.

You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away is the most obviously Dylanesque Lennon song ever, with Lennon practically doing a Dylan impression. Apparently about Brian Epstein’s homosexuality (an interpretation first advanced by bisexual activist singer Tom Robinson in the 1980s, but apparently confirmed by the other Beatles since), this is one of Lennon’s very strongest songs, although the best line (“feeling two foot small”) was apparently an in-studio slip that was then kept in. There’s very little to critique here – it’s just as close to perfection in song, arrangement and performance as you can get, and the remastering allows us to hear every perfect detail that much more clearly.

mono/stereo differences Once again, the stereo version sounds like it’s coming through a tin can in comparison – too much reverb on Lennon’s voice, all treble and no bass. The stereo version is still an improvement on the vinyl – there’s a percussion part I never noticed before that’s very clear on both the mono and stereo versions – but it loses all sense of weight from the tracks, which sound lighter and frothier. This is arguably not so much of a problem with McCartney’s tracks, which are more lightweight on this album, but Lennon’s songs here are very much inspired by a depressive period (what he later called his ‘fat Elvis’ period) and the weightier, heavier sound of the mono versions works infinitely better for them.

I Need You is George’s first song on the album, and his second on any Beatles album. Perfectly serviceable as a song, it doesn’t show many of the signs of his later ability, though it does have the depressive, introspective feel of many of his later songs. Much like The Night Before this could have done with having the repeat of the middle-eight and last verse cut. The most interesting thing about it is the use of the volume pedal on the lead guitar.

mono/stereo differences Again, the stereo mix is echoey, treble-heavy and vocal-heavy (the backing vocals are far more prominent, and sound very lazy and slightly out of tune). One can at least hear Ringo’s bass drum in the stereo mix though, which makes a pleasant change. It’s not until you do direct A-B comparisons of the mono and stereo mixes that you realise just how appaling the stereo mixes really are…

Another Girl, Paul’s second song, is notable mostly for its arrangement – the rhythm guitar is almost reggae, with its emphasis on the off-beats – presumably the same ska influence that crept into She’s A Woman and I Call Your Name, while George’s lead guitar is pure Chet Atkins, mirrored in the bluegrass harmonies. (McCartney is credited as lead guitarist here, but it sounds like there are two separate guitarists here – I think McCartney just played the thicker parts around the 1:19 mark, which sound like his style) The song is typical McCartney – breezy, light and callous, but enjoyable.

mono/stereo differences Surprisingly little. The stereo mix is more reverb-heavy and trebly, but other than that there are no huge differences.

You’re Going To Lose That Girl is John in Shirelles mode – this is from the same mold as My Boyfriend’s Back, and in fact could be an answer song to that from the point of view of the boyfriend. It has an element of Lennon’s occasional psychotic jealousy to it, but played mostly for laughs.

mono/stereo differences The stereo version of this sounds very slightly sped up (and looking at the timings, it’s a second shorter), and the piano and bongos are almost buried in the mix. In the mono mix, Ringo’s bongos percolate away under the whole thing, adding an absolutely delightful extra element, and McCartney’s piano holds the whole thing together. The stereo mix just isn’t as fun.

Ticket To Ride, despite being an utterly John song, is mostly Paul’s record. McCartney definitely did play the lead guitar on here, and while Ringo plays the astonishing drum part, that broken style (which lessens throughout the track and is almost entirely subsumed into a standard rock drum part by the end) is McCartney’s One Drum Idea. I’d also bet good money on McCartney having come up with the coda (which, ending side one, bookends it nicely – it starts and ends with separate sections of songs that aren’t directly connected to the main body of the song).

I imagine, actually, that this started as a fairly straightforward Motown stomper before McCartney got his hands on it – the obsession on one chord until the chorus is very much of a piece with records like Dancing In The Street, though it does of course also presage the band’s later Indian influence.

Either way, though, this is an astonishing record. Just listen to the shiver in John’s voice on ‘sad’. The song is also typically Lennon in its self-obsession – the girl the song is about has only one characteristic, that she doesn’t care for him, and that she thought living with him was ‘bringing her down’.

While I’ve been complaining about the length of some of these, this is actually one song where the repetition pays off – this too could have had the last middle-eight and verse/chorus cut, but it would have been a mistake. The repetition works well with the self-obsessed, circling tone of the record too – it’s the first Beatles original to top three minutes (3:08 in mono, 3:11 in stereo) and the longest thing they’ll do – except You Won’t See Me – until Sgt Pepper.

mono/stereo differencesMore than any of the other songs except Help! itself, this differs between mixes. Here it’s almost all down to the drumming. In mono, RIngo’s drum fill at the beginning jumps out and practically throttles you. In stereo, it’s sedate and sounds like he’s playing on cardboard boxes.

Act Naturally is the song given to Ringo to sing, a cover of a comedy song by Buck Owens, and seems to have had very little attention paid to it, although George Harrison once again gets to do a Chet Atkins impression while Paul’s high harmony actually manages to make RIngo’s voice sound good in those sections.
mono/stereo differences Not that many – there’s not that much to the recording, although McCartney’s vocal is buried in the stereo mix.

It’s Only Love is one of the great disappointments in the Beatles’ discography. The melody is actually one of Lennon’s strongest, and his double-tracked vocals in the chorus show what it could have been, sounding absolutely astonishing, but he obviously knocked off the verse lyrics in about half a nanosecond, and his evident contempt for them shines through in the verses. It’s a shame, as there’s a great *idea* for a song here, just not an actual great song. The most notable thing about this is it’s the first Beatles track with a Leslied lead guitar.

mono/stereo differences Not a huge difference, though once again the lead vocal is mixed up at the expense of every other instrument, and the lead guitar almost vanishes in stereo as a result.

You Like Me Too Much is another George song, and another one with the slight country flavour that permeates much of this album. Nothing much to say about this, which has some of the same feel as Harrison’s then-unreleased You Know What To Do. Nice electric piano by Lennon, and the intro is fun (Lennon, McCartney and Martin all playing the same piano part), but this is the third filler track in a row on side two.

mono/stereo differences Again, the stereo mix is too trebly and echoey, but otherwise little difference.

Tell Me What You See on the other hand should be a filler track, being mostly McCartney winking his way winningly through two chords (though like a lot of his songs from this time it has a fairly impatient lyric, hinting at his strained relationship with Jane Asher at the time), but the combination of McCartney’s superb melodic gifts and the arrangement make this something rather special. Especially of note are the way McCartney is almost impersonating Lennon when he double-tracks himself (though of course Lennon also harmonises in spots) and the instrumental breaks where it drops down to just electric piano before McCartney’s One Drum Idea comes in again briefly.

mono/stereo differences The big differences here (apart from the constant echo/treble difference and the usual way the vocals overpower everything else) are that Lennon’s harmony vocal is mixed far higher relative to McCartney’s melody, and that the various bits of hand-held percussion are far more audible in stereo.

I’ve Just Seen A Face is McCartney finally stepping up and offering a song as good as his collaborator’s songs from the first side. Still as lightweight as his other songs on the album, this one has a quite astonishing melody and lyrics that fit it perfectly, with some of McCartney’s cleverest internal rhymes. It continues the country feel of the rest of the album, being a bluegrass track (with McCartney singing two part harmony with himself) and like much of the rest of the album has a separately composed introduction. It’s just a fun, clever, enjoyable track that sits in your head for days after hearing it. Stylistically a world away from Lennon’s depressed tracks on this album, and less ‘intense’ than them, it sounds like nothing so much as a precursor to Mike Nesmith’s work. A minor classic.

mono/stereo differences relatively few. There’s little bass end to the track as it is (bluegrass style songs being very trebly anyway, this has no bass guitar but three acoustics) so while the melody on the bass strings of an acoustic guitar, and Starr’s scuffing on a snare drum, are slightly lower, this is one of the closer mixes.

Yesterday is one of those hidden little tracks that nobody knows about…
To tell the truth I’ve never regarded the track as anywhere near as special as most people do – and it’s yet another song on this album that has an unnecessarily repeated middle eight and last verse – but you can’t really argue with the consensus on this one. It may not be McCartney’s best song, but it’s still a good ‘un, and you can’t fault the craftsmanship. But the track is really more about George Martin’s string arrangement than anything McCartney’s doing.

I do find it odd, though, that pretty much nobody notices the little joke in the second verse – he’s not singing ‘oh yesterday came suddenly’ (which would make no sense) but ‘oh yes today came suddenly’…

mono/stereo differences There are very few, for the most part, other than McCartney’s vocal being higher in the mix relative to his guitar on the mono mix, but one that does stand out is the treatment given to the vocal track. On the mono track this is dry until the strings come in, gets a smidgen of reverb from there on in, and gets a thick extra layer of reverb to emphasise ‘something wrong, now I long’ on the middle eight, where he double-tracks himself (the double-tracking, just on this spot, is almost inaudible and sounds like a mistake on the stereo mix, like leakage from an earlier take, but is clearly deliberate on the mono mix). On the stereo mix, on the other hand, there’s a constant (small) level of reverb throughout. Other than that, the viola countermelody in the last verse seems more prominent on the mono mix, but that’s all.

And Dizzy Miss Lizzy is the last cover version ever on a Beatles album, a pounding Larry Williams cover led by doubled bass and piano, with Starr’s clomping cowbell, some fantastically powerful fills from Starr, slightly out-of-tune but effective lead guitar, and one of Lennon’s best screamer vocals. It feels like it’s constantly about to fall over into incoherence, but never quite does, thanks mostly to Starr’s fantastic performance holding everything together. It’s no coincidence that this was one of only two songs he’d recorded with the Beatles that Lennon performed at his first solo gig.

mono/stereo differences Oh dear. What a difference a mix makes. The bass end of the piano is completely lost, the out-of-tune guitar is higher in the mix (and more obviously double-tracked, with the two guitars not even in tune with each other), Starr sounds like he’s playing cardboard boxes, and the hi-hat is ludicrously high in the mix. The exact same performance sounds like a sloppy, incoherent mess.

Help! might not be the Beatles’ strongest album, but it’s the one where their production tricks come together, where John realises that lyrics can be *about* something, where George starts writing songs, where Paul finally comes up with a couple of classics rather than one good one per album, and with some of Ringo’s best playing. Really, what’s not to like?

Of course, the next album was *very* special…

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29 Responses to The Beatles Mono Reviews 6: Help!

  1. Tilt Araiza says:

    >gets a thick extra layer of reverb to emphasise ’something wrong, now I long’ on the middle eight<

    That line is flown in from a different take where McCartney was singing along with an earlier vocal being played over the studio speakers for some reason. Martin felt that one line was better performed on the earlier take and decided to splice that in, figuring no-one would really care or notice that the vocal's double tracked for a few words.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Really?! I never knew that.

      But they must have decided to emphasise it – there’s clearly additional reverb on there as well, at least on the mono version…

      • Tilt Araiza says:

        There’s a little more reverb on the vocal from “Suddenly, I’m not half..”, but you’re right that it’s then stepped up a little more from our trip to doubletrack land.

        When you get to the White Album, be merciless. There’s at least one bad mix on there and another song with an unforgivable bit of bad engineering.

  2. Prankster says:

    “Yesterday came suddenly” may not make any literal sense, but it’s a rather poetic way of describing the feeling of getting older. Not that I’m claiming you’re wrong about that not being the line. Your Beatles knowledge is rather frightening. It’s like you’re some kind of…maniac…for the Beatles.

  3. Wesley says:

    My ears are so used to the stereo version of “Help” (the song, not the album) that the mono version just sounds wrong, for “mysterious island covered in non-euclidean architecture” values of wrong.

    I’ve listened to the entire box set at this point, and this is the only song for which this was the case.

  4. Musically, George’s two tracks are a bit fillery, but I very much enjoy them lyrically. They both have this lazy, resigned attitude to love that stands in contrast to Lennon’s stalkerish tendencies and McCartney’s now-sit-down-and-listen-to-me lyrics. I’ve always liked “I could never really live without you” in I Need You for that sense that “Yeah, I could get by, but not REALLY, you know?” Then there’s the obvious nonromantic sentiment in the title of You Like Me Too Much, but the real killer for me is “And it’s nice when you believe me.” It’s funny and a little sad, nicely underplayed.

    Neither song is quite as “sophisticated” as Lennon gets on the album, but what’s interesting to me is that although all three Beatles writers’ love songs are very self-centered, only George seems to really be aware of it and play around with it.

    Also, You’re Going To Lose That Girl: In my top 3 of any Beatles songs. It’s how the harmonies diverge with the lead vocal and then match up with it again in places.

  5. Re: the Dylan & Beach Boys influence. Couldn’t that be another way of saying a Byrds influence? “Ticket to Ride” especially has that combo of weighty drums, soaring guitar, and high harmonies. Add the country sound — mostly in George’s solos? — and it seems plausible. The Byrds’ style definitely influence the sound on the subsequent pair of albums!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No – George, at least, was influenced by the Byrds later, but Mr Tambourine Man didn’t come out until April 12, 1965. Help! – the single which I was specifically referring to – was recorded the next day, and even given the Beatles’ quick response time they wouldn’t have had a response the very next day ;)
      As for Ticket To Ride, that was recorded two months before that.
      At this point, the similarities are just down to both bands being influenced by Dylan and the Beach Boys, and the Byrds having taken the 12-string jangle sound from Hard Day’s Night (though being closer in sound to the Searchers). Mr Tambourine Man was very consciously a melding by Terry Melcher (who had been involved in Beach Boys knockoffs the Rip Chords and would later produce the band’s last two, appaling, albums) of the rhythm of Don’t Worry Baby, the Dylan song and the guitar sound of A Hard Day’s Night…

      • Gotcha. I had it in my head that the Byrds’ first singles came out in late ’64. I hope you’ll explore the Byrds’ influence (& others) in the next few posts. Your excellent series has reached the stage when the Beatles are reacting partly to their own influence on other bands & artists. Keep up the great work!

      • TAD says:

        I think you’ve said more than enough about Terry Melcher (he’s one of the least talented people of the rock era).

    • Ousetunes says:

      Am I the only person who thinks that they never sing ‘ticket to ride’ but more like ‘ticket to Rye’? Isn’t Rye in Essex?

      George plays the arpegio riff and Paul adds some Epiphone Casino licks.

      It’s a shame Ringo didn’t hold the drum pattern throughout; even when performing the song live he seemed to struggled to remember the McCartney-influence pattern (first half of the song!).

      Lennon gives us a wonderful Dylanesque ‘aaah’ on the second to last chorus.

  6. S. Barrios says:

    your commentary is much appreciated, sir / ‘specially your remarks on “ticket to ride.” looking very forward to future installments !

  7. Sonia says:

    Thanks for the post. It’s interesting to hear other takes on the different mixes. But I do have a question: re: “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” you don’t really say which mix is which.

  8. robin28 says:

    after lots of searching to find a picture of the mono cover of help for my ipod, i finally found one.

  9. anonymous internet user says:

    Just wondering – when you compared songs, were you using speakers, headphones, or did you try both?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I used both speakers and headphones – I listened to these multiple times – but I was using a mixture of very low-end stereo systems and my computer to play them (can’t afford a really good stereo system). Even on those though, the differences stood out a mile.

  10. same anonymous guy says:

    Cool, thanks for the info. The mono set seems more enticing. Also, sometimes their wide panning in stereo can be a bit nauseating under headphones!

    • Ousetunes says:

      The Help! album sounds so much heavier in mono, it’s a different album completely.

      The stereo mix, along with CD’s higher eq levels makes it sound, well, twee by comparison.

      If you can find a decent vinyl copy in mono – and you can afford it – get it.

  11. Tom Wotus says:

    I just wish they would’ve mixed the “single” version of HELP for STEREO. The absolute WORST track on the album has to be TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE ! The then-unreleased IF YOU’VE GOT TROUBLES would have made a better choice’ but there was already a “Ringo” vocal.

  12. Tom Wotus says:

    Over the years, I have heard THREE “Stereo” versions of DIZZY MISS LIZZIE. On one, John’s vocal has a trace of reverb–two: his vocal is completely “Dry”–three: the CD version from the late eighties’…with a lot of “slap-back” echo. Is there a definitive or Proper stere mix?? Personally, I prefer the first-mentioned,with only slight reverb.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’ve only heard two stereo versions of the track myself, but the Capitol versions of the Beatles’ records were well-known for having a lot of extra reverb slapped on them, as that was considered to be what the American audience wanted. So what I presume you’ve heard are 1) The US mix from Beatles VI, 2) The original stereo mix from Help! and 3) the 80s CD mix. As to what’s definitive, the Beatles and George Martin consider the 80s remix to be the definitive stereo mix for both Help! and Rubber Soul, though you could make an argument for the original stereo mix. The only one that definitely *isn’t* the ‘proper’ mix is the Capitol one, which will have been done without the involvement of Martin or the band.

    • Ousetunes says:

      My argument is, that Dizzy Miss Lizzy is hack-work and an horrendous way to close the album. How Yesterday was not chosen to close the album staggers me!

      I would have preferred that album to be a song short than end with this horrible, tired, ‘let’s-get-it-finished’ cover version!

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  14. elgobbes says:

    I thought the first Beatle album which The Beatles smoked marijuana during writing/recording was Beatles for Sale?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yes and no — Dylan introduced the band to marijuana on August 28, 1964. Beatles For Sale was recorded on August 11-14, September 29 & October 26 1964 — and the October date was pretty much all actually mono mixdown, with the only new recordings on that date being Honey Don’t and a remake of What You’re Doing. It’s possible that Every Little Thing, What You’re Doing and I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party were written after that first marijuana experience, but we don’t have precise dates for them being written. So the vast bulk of Beatles For Sale is pre-marijuana. Help! is the first album to have been entirely written and recorded post-marijuana (apart from the melody to Yesterday, which McCartney had had for a long time, of course).

  15. elgobbes says:

    It’s crazy to think where their music careers would have gone had they never smoked pot, or dropped acid.

  16. Simon says:

    Thank God ! For years and years I’ve thought I was the only person in the world who thought ‘yes, today came suddenly’ was the real line. I even had a letter printed in Mojo magazine about it. How many hundreds of performers covering the song haven’t thought about what they were singing ?!

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