Notes on "Help!" (H.1)

KEY	A Major

                 ------ 3X ------
FORM	Intro -> Verse -> Refrain -> Outro


Style and Form

- Even while you're totally riveted by "Help's" hard driving beat and desparately anxious lyrics, its flat ballad form and prominent part for acoustic rhythm guitar are at work, adding a folksy stylistic cross current.

- 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.

- 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:

- But I'd argue that this relatively small amount of relief is frankly not enough to dispell an overall closed, static feeling in the song created by the following factors, independent of, or in addition to, the flat form:

- 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!?

- 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

- 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 or 3 or 4 notes; the latter all serving to greatly accent the exceptional impact of the big leap.

- An unusually large number of chords are used: 6 out of the 7 diatonically available to the home key, plus the modal flat-VII (G Major).

- 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 cliche in late 60s/ early 70s pop music.

- 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 Wilifred 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.


- 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.

- 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.

- There is much to admire in the detailed arrangement:

- John, of course, provides the double-tracked lead vocal with a complex backing part for Paul and George.

- The backers fascinatingly alternate between adding points of bold fontlike 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 interwine 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?

- 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
                                                 *  * * * *

- 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 3rd beat of the measure.



- The intro is an eight-measure long compressed version of what will turn out to be the refrain section:

        |b	|-	|G	|-	|E	|-	|A	|-	|
A:	 ii              flat-VII        V               I

- 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 ???
        g:	iii		I		V-of-ii, huh ???
        D:	vi		VI		V-of-V		V, maybe ???
  *Actually* it's
        A:      ii		flat-VII	V		I

- 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.

- 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 the D as the I chord is very real to the ear.

- 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

- 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.

- 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.

- 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.

- 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.


- 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


- The refrain based on the same musical design as the outro, but here is stretched out to double the length (16 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	|-	|-	|-	|E	|-	|-	|-	|
A:	 ii                              flat-VII

        |E	|-	|-	|-	|A	|-	|-	|-	|
         V                               I


- 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

- 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, thing are quickly put "right" in the following and final phrase.

- 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 :-).


- 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 personna. 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.

- 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."

- 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.

- Rather it's precisely *because* of the cross casting here that the overall production it work 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 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 :-)

- A final footnote on lyrical concordances: the only other Beatles song in which I could find the phrase " 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 coinicidence or does it suggest the phrase having been on John's tongue "for years" just waiting for the right moment to be free?


Alan (


"...I know for a fact within four weeks he'll be suffering from a
 violent inferiority complex and loss of status..."          033000#6.1


Revision History
070989	6.0	Original release
033000	6.1	Revise, expand and adapt to series template

                Copyright (c) 2000 by Alan W. Pollack
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