With Beatles For Sale, the Fab Four displayed their exhaustion both in the increased number of covers to give the Lennon/McCartney team a break as well as the evident bite in many of the lyrics. Label pressures and megastardom were taking their toll, and the album, uneven and occasionally weak though it was, was the group's most intense, edgy album to date. Now, however, the Beatles finally saw competition in the form of the other British Invasion bands, many of whom -- the Stones, the Kinks, the Who -- could more readily tap into a harder R&B sound than the delightfully poppy Beatles. Oh, there was edge and exploration in these early records, but I'll be honest: I'd take "Satisfaction" alone over just about any early Beatles track you can name. So, while these new, harder (at least in image) bands were cutting proto-hard rock tunes, the Beatles were being corralled around the world to shoot their baffling second film. They were also knighted in June of '65, the biggest sign yet of mainstream conservative acceptance. Remember, this is back when knighthood was reserved for military heroes and civic leaders; more than the film deal, more than getting on The Ed Sullivan Show, this was the ultimate threat to the image of the Beatles as hell-raisers at a time when their peers were demonstrating a much heavier and rocking sound.
Fortunately, the band did not seek to simply run to straight rock 'n' roll with Help!, as that would have been only too obvious. Instead, it displays the group's most pronounced musical exploration yet. The opening title track plays on that growing sense of vulnerability that Lennon was betraying, and "Help!" stands today as one of his most personal and pleading numbers. That's all the more impressive considering how, even compared to the bouncy quality of "I'm a Loser," "Help!" is one of the most upbeat depressing numbers ever crafted. But one can look at those airy falsettos backing up Lennon's light but sincere lines as sing-song mockeries of his cries for aid. It alone is worth the price of the album.
Elsewhere, the band displays a truly impressive desire to evolve. The Beatles flirted with C&W with Beatles For Sale, but they go for the whole hog with "I've Just Seen a Face," an outright country track played at such a fast tempo that all it needs is a banjo to be a fine bluegrass number. They also rope Ringo into a terrific cover of Buck Owens' "Act Naturally," a song for which he proves perfectly suited (though he was as old as Lennon, Ringo always had a more "adult" sounding voice with a hint of twang) and one that amusingly pokes fun at their unease with staying in the movie biz.
Apart from his title track, Lennon scores big with a handful of tunes. "Ticket to Ride" shows the band experimenting with Indian music for the first time, its droning 12-string guitar propelled by some of Ringo's finest drumming. The Indian influence is subtle, though, and Harrison's guitar work ended up chiefly inspiring the Byrds to effectively break folk-rock to the masses. Just as "Help!" attempted to cover up its seriousness with jaunty pop, so too does "Ticket to Ride" mask its deep emotional pain under ironic arrangement and complexity. He also offers up "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," yet another attempt to emulate his new hero Dylan. If that sounds a insult or a dismissal, consider that the tunes where Lennon displays a clear Dylan influence ("Yes It Is," "I'm a Loser," "I Should Have Known Better") are some of his and the group's finest tunes from the era. "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" sounds more like Bob than any of those other tracks, down to the sing/shout hey's and the gruff vocals.
This time around, however, McCartney shares in the glory. Not as prominent a contributor to Beatles For Sale, he penned the aforementioned "I've Just Seen a Face," and he has a few other aces up his sleeve. "You're Gonna Lose That Girl" is the perfect counterpoint to Lennon's doubt and insecurity in "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." McCartney comes from a place of supreme confidence, where the vulnerability Lennon voices in his own work is replaced by some of the giddiest vocals he's ever sung. Yes, you're going to lose that girl, and John's gonna be there to sweep her off her feet. This is never remotely in question. It's also one of those handful of songs from the early days that should be put forth as evidence that nobody can hold a candle to the band when it comes to vocal harmonies: their call-response between lead and harmony exponentially increases the happiness audible in both.
McCartney also contributes the album's most important number in the ballad "Yesterday." The most-covered number in the Beatles' canon, it almost exclusively features McCartney, as opposed to the typical group number. Though the lyric is a bit on the mushy side, even for early Paul, McCartney sings it in an understated, melancholic manner, never losing himself to melodrama. George Martin, understanding that the nostalgic, reflective number simply wouldn't do within a rock setting, he arranged a string quartet to back up McCartney. A revolutionary idea, as the use of classical instrumentation in pop at the time typically signified it as a schmaltzy number desperately seeking to craft an illusion of class. "Yesterday," however, uses its strings to striking effect, highlighting the haunting, universal theme of the lyrics, and it's one of the most achingly beautiful songs to come from a man who built his legacy upon them.
After getting only one chance to prove his songwriting ability in the past, Harrison gets two moments at the plate, but though he doesn't strike out, neither "I Need You" nor "You Like Me Too Much" particularly resonates. Nevertheless, they do show a marked improvement in Harrison's writing, and both of his tunes sit effortlessly with Lennon and McCartney's filler tracks on the album. I must say, however, that the ending number, a cover of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," grates mightily. For one thing, its rollicking feel is too abrupt a transition from the beautiful ending of "Yesterday" and, once again, the desire to score another "Twist and Shout" is transparent. Now, I'm fine with them doing that for "Money"; it came nowhere close to the fire of their first big ending cover, but it was a damn fine tune nonetheless. Now it's just getting silly, and it's a big regression on an album of surprising exploration.
Despite the return to some level of consistency, I find myself slightly preferring Beatles For Sale, warts 'n' all, for its edge. Still, one cannot deny the impressive way in which the band can be so eclectic and pull it all together into a cohesive whole that to a casual listener might sound almost as unified as A Hard Day's Night. Help! marks a fantastic middle point in the second stage of the Beatles' stylistic evolution, mixing the harder edged For Sale with the pop sound of A Hard Day's Night, complete with their most impressive sonic leap yet. But their most spectacular leap was just on the horizon...