If A Hard Day’s Night and Beatles For Sale sounded like a band chafing at the confines of their own success, Help! was more like a meditation: four people seeking solace from inside a storm they’d never seen gather. Lennon, in particular, was miserable: drinking a lot, numbed out, riding the tail of a crumbling marriage for which he had plenty to atone from a 17-room mansion adjacent to a golf course over which he’d never imagined living—a stretch he later called his “Fat Elvis” period.
Where Beatles For Sale had captured the vitality of angry young men, the songs on Help!—Lennon’s “Help!” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” McCartney’s “Yesterday” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face”—felt naked to the point of abstraction, the heat of the feelings stripped away to reveal something pining, innocent, planted on the ground but strangely displaced: alienation without angst.
Cannabis, which the band had been smoking with heroic regularity, probably didn’t hurt: You had the sense that they were singing not from themselves, but about themselves, even to themselves, pieces on a great existential chessboard observed from a place of melancholic remove. (McCartney said the drug made him feel like he was thinking for the first time; Ringo, recalling the filming of the movie that accompanied this album, said—in charming Ringo fashion—that the crew got used to the fact that the band didn’t get much done after lunch.) Even Ringo’s “Act Naturally”—a lighthearted, Kinks-y country song—seemed tinted by a new, more ruminative frame of mind: The guy in the song is an actor playing himself.
And while you could still hear the sweaty club band lurking underneath (“Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Help!”), most of the album tilted toward classical austerity: “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” was the band’s first fully acoustic arrangement (and featured the eternally un-rock sound of flutes); “Yesterday”—a song that seemed so comforting and eternal that McCartney was reportedly haunted by the feeling that it had somehow, somewhere already been written—had a string quartet (a move suggested to a hesitant McCartney by producer George Martin). Having spent their youth in extroversion, the Beatles were turning inward.
About a week after the album came out, the band played a show to 56,000 screaming people at Shea Stadium, a scenario and scale so unprecedented that Vox had designed special amplifiers for the event. A week or so after that, they took a few much-needed days off at a rented house in Beverly Hills (featuring a moat and a drawbridge), only to be discovered by four teenage female fans. When security guards turned the girls away, they went home, opened the Yellow Pages, and rented a helicopter. Help!—that sounds right.