(Welcome to the first part of a very special, two-part episode of Cover Story, and be sure to check out the second half here.)
The George Martin Orchestra - “Help!”
When the popular fan topic of the legendary “fifth Beatle” arises, one of the names that’s sure to be mentioned is that of George Martin, the group’s producer.1 During the early years of their recording career, Martin served as a guide to the world of recording and arranging music. His contributions ranged from suggesting that the group speed up the then ballad “Please Please Me” to transcribing a melody for the trumpet part in “Penny Lane” from Paul McCartney’s hums. His technical musical knowledge allowed him to act as a lightning rod for the talents of the young group. Basically, it’s tough to understate his contribution to the music of the Beatles.
That’s what makes Help! such a mind-boggling record. Not the Beatles album, mind you, but the George Martin Orchestra’s identically titled album of Beatles covers. Released in the same year as the Beatles’ Help!, this album found the band’s closest musical collaborator conducting easy-listening-style, instrumental covers that drain every bit of energy, innovation, or excitement from the originals. It’s an utterly unnecessary collection of songs that run the gambit from inert to lethargic to soporific.
While most of the songs on this version of Help! are essentially predecessors of the Vitamin String Quartet tributes that line bargain-bins the world over, Martin’s adaptation of the album’s title track somehow manages to take an even more loathsome route. Instead of merely arranging the track for a classical ensemble, Martin chooses to remake the energetic “Help!” into a sleazy bit of lounge exotica. The track is chock full of every stereotypical element of a ~classy~ jazz club, from gaudy saxophone parts to showy piano runs to, of course, bongos. Listening to it will transport you to a scene that takes place at The Blue Parrot Club in an old Hollywood B movie.
But, more than anything else, the track above is surprising. Somehow, the man who was so heavily involved in the creation of such a classic pop song managed to make an absolutely wretched version of it just a few months later.
And yet, what may be more surprising is the fact that this isn’t the worst Beatles cover project that Martin was involved in. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow.
1. Other commonly mentioned names: Stuart Sutcliffe, Pete Best, Brian Epstein, Neil Aspinall, Derek Taylor, Billy Preston, Tony Sheridan, Jimmie Nicol, and the Volkswagen Beetle on the cover of Abbey Road.