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‘We were smoking marijuana for breakfast’: The Beatles and the making of Help!

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hey smoked pot in the plane all the way to the Bahamas, and jumped in the hotel swimming pool fully clothed. They took over an après-ski party in Austria with a rowdy sing-along and larked about on the slopes barely knowing which way up to hold their poles. They looked for all the world like the ultimate lads on tour; in 2020 they’d probably find themselves the subjects of an Ibiza-based ITV2 reality show, or swiftly deported in handcuffs. In 1965, however, they were merely the biggest pop band in the world, in the middle of the greatest run of musical creativity ever put to tape, letting off celluloid steam.

The Beatles’ second cinematic foray – 1965’s Help!, which began filming 55 years ago today – has long lingered in the shadow of the previous year’s screen debut, A Hard Day’s Night. Though both were directed by Dick Lester, the first film’s documentary conceit and black and white stock lent it an authenticity that perfectly reflected both the Beatlemania phenomenon and the band’s individual characters and wit. It encapsulated a seismic shift in British pop culture; Help!, on the other hand, encapsulated only the cinema trends of the day.

The Beatles claimed the film was inspired by the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, but in practice the flimsy, Tintin-level story of an evil eastern cult hunting down the sacred sacrificial ring which had ended up stuck on Ringo’s finger satirised the technicolour intrigue and exotic plotlines of early Bond to such a ludicrous degree that it almost sat alongside the recent Carry on Spying, and was close kin to Peter Sellers’ 1963 classic The Pink Panther. Indeed, Sellers had been offered an early version of the Help! script, devised by Marc Behm and co-written with Charles Wood, so heavily was it drenched in Goon Show concepts such as abstract interludes and quips delivered direct to camera.

Over time, however, Help! the movie has grown in stature and significance. Not only did the music capture The Beatles at a turning point – a creative second wind after the half-baked Beatles for Sale, the end of their age of innocence, their first surreptitious howl from within the mania, the dawning of a new form of mainstream pop sophistication – but the film’s legendary song segments lay the roots of televised music for decades to come.

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

1 /12 The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

12. Yellow Submarine (1969)

Not as bad as popular myth would have it, nevertheless, the soundtrack to the band’s animated movie is the one Beatles album that comes closest to a “file under – for completists only” rating. The best-known songs – “All You Need Is Love” and “Yellow Submarine” are available on innumerable compilations, and of the four new songs, only Lennon’s raw and menacing “Hey Bulldog” hits the mark.

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

11. Beatles For Sale (1964)

With three albums, a clutch of classic singles, a landmark movie and a hectic touring schedule including their conquest of America to their name, a weary band retreated to Abbey Road to record their fourth album in less than two years. The results were variable on a covers-heavy set with folk and country influences on some downbeat but effective originals such as “No Reply” and “I’m a Loser”, while “Eight Days a Week” represents the pinnacle of the Lennon/McCartney writing partnership before they began to write less and less together. However, with too much filler and some perfunctory covers, Beatles For Sale hasn’t stood the test of time as well as any of their other 1962-1966 (“The Red Album”) era long players, resulting in its low position here.

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

10. Let It Be (1970)

The messy break-up album recorded under trying circumstances contains a few tracks I would be happy never to hear again but any album that includes “Get Back”, “Let It Be”, “The Long and Winding Road” (with or without Phil Spector’s ethereal choir and strings which McCartney hated), and Lennon and McCartney harmonising together for the first time in years on “Two of Us“ has to have something going for it. Ultimately, therefore, Let It Be proved something of a sad but not entirely unworthy epitaph for the greatest pop group ever.

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

9. With the Beatles (1963)

Between their first and second albums The Beatles had three No 1 singles – “From Me to You”, “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – but the temptation to include any of them on their second long-player was resisted. However, with 14 tracks on With the Beatles, the band couldn’t be accused of not giving value for money, even if it duplicated their first album with six covers, including several impressive nods to their love of Motown on “Please Mr Postman”, “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Money”. Elsewhere, George, who surprisingly has three solo vocals on the album, as many as Paul, tears up “Roll Over Beethoven” while McCartney’s “All My Loving” is still one of the group’s most loved early songs. It’s an album largely dominated by Lennon however, and he excels on “It Won’t Be Long” “Not a Second Time” and the aforementioned “Money”.

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

8. Please Please Me (1963)

The tone of the thrilling debut that launched the Fab Four into pop music history is set by Paul on the opening track as he counts in “I Saw Her Standing There” (“One, Two, Three, Four!”). Lennon’s justly lauded, throat-tearing version of “Twist and Shout” bookends the album and in between there’s a mix of originals and covers including a fine Harrison vocal on “Do You Want to Know a Secret” and the first two hits “Love Me Do” and the euphoric title track as the band struck up an immediate rapport with producer George Martin, even if George (Harrison) didn’t like his tie. Almost half the 14 tracks were cover versions, and as such, Please Please Me is an undeniably raw, but breathless and brilliant rush through the band’s live act of the day, with Ringo proving conclusively that he was the right man for the job. It also points to the future of pop music as acts more and more began to write their own material, and remains one of the great debut albums.

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

7. Help! (1965)

A tie-in with the band’s second film, Help! was a considerable improvement on previous album Beatles For Sale, and in truth is a bit of a mixed bag, but the best songs are very good indeed, rising to classic status with “Ticket to Ride”, McCartney’s “Yesterday” – the ultimate Beatles standard – and the title track, which was Lennon’s very real cry for help. Bob Dylan’s influence permeated Lennon’s superb “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and McCartney’s countrified “I’ve Just Seen a Face” rolls and tumbles sumptuously, and then there’s the bittersweet “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” – a cavalcade of riches that emphatically compensate for some of the lesser tracks on show.

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

6. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Partly the soundtrack of their first movie which amounts to their first quantum leap with all 13 tracks penned by Lennon and McCartney. The Beatles’ third album was light years ahead of the opposition in their homeland in 1964, from the moment it announced itself with the epochal opening chord on George’s new Rickenbacker 12-string on the famous title track. Lennon sang or composed the bulk of the songs, with “I Should Have Known Better” and “I’ll Be Back” particular highlights, but McCartney owned three of the most lustrous jewels in “And I Love Her”, “Can’t Buy Me Love” and the band’s most sophisticated song to date, “Things We Said Today”.

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

5. Rubber Soul (1965)

The Beatles entered their seminal middle period with another seismic leap in quality with their first true masterpiece which, although influenced by soul and Dylan, proved so influential itself that it spurred contemporaries such as Brian Wilson to hitherto unimagined heights. The quality control barely lapsed over the fourteen tracks with the band never tighter than on the opening “Drive My Car” and then the innovations flowed. Harrison’s sitar on Lennon’s sublime confessional ”Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown”), double-tracked vocals on several tracks, fuzz bass on Harrison’s “Think For Yourself”, which along with ”If I Needed Someone” demonstrated that Harrison had arrived as a songwriter of note, and who can forget Lennon’s intake of breath on the superlative “Girl”? McCartney tossed off another standard in ”Michelle”.

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

4. The Beatles (1968)

The sprawling “White Album” was recorded in an atmosphere of tension and strained relationships as the group disintegrated, yet somehow a work of great quality emerged, even if it was the product of the four individual members pulling in different directions. There’s little cohesion here in the scattershot mix of styles, just a lot of great songs interspersed with some not so great songs, and some rubbish. With 30 tracks, there is much merit in the oft-repeated claim that with some judicious pruning, The Beatles could have been the greatest single album of all time. A snapshot of just some of the great songs includes McCartney’s “Blackbird”, “Helter Skelter”, “Back in the USSR” and “Birthday”; Lennon’s “Julia”, “Dear Prudence”, “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Revolution 1”, while Harrison’s stellar contributions include “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Long, Long, Long”. With that quality, single album or not, it would still have to be a heck of a long album.

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

3. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Five decades and more since its release, Sgt Pepper, with its “band within a band” concept and drugs-influenced vibe still reigns imperiously as the most famous pop record ever made. It may now not be considered the greatest album ever recorded, or indeed the greatest Beatles album, but with George Martin at the peak of his powers and the band now retired from touring, they were able to hone their mastery of the studio. Sgt Pepper remains a piece of art that in terms of experimentation, innovation and influence has rarely, if ever, been bettered. It contains some of the band’s most-loved songs – “With a Little Help From My Friends”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, a genuine masterpiece for the ages in “She’s Leaving Home”, and their greatest, “A Day in the Life”, but overall, the album’s greatness lies in the old cliche of the sum being greater than the parts.

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

2. Abbey Road (1969)

With Let it Be in the can but not yet deemed fit for release due to the fractious nature of the recordings, Abbey Road was chronologically the last Beatles album to be recorded. Fittingly, although many of the tracks were the products of the individual members, Abbey Road reunited the band for one last magnificent stand. Abbey Road is justly celebrated for the McCartney-led 16 minute medley on side two commencing with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and concluding beautifully and with appropriately with ”The End”, but it’s also a side that begins with Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”.

The Beatles’ studio albums ranked in order of greatness

1. Revolver (1966)

For a good number of years, Revolver lay in Sgt Pepper’s shadow – universally admired to be sure, but somehow a little harder to love than previous simpler pleasures and Pepper itself. Part of that may be due to the mind-blowing eclecticism and scale of ambition of the album, which all these years later still astounds. The influence of drugs, psychedelia, and Eastern religion came to the fore on Revolver with double-tracked guitars, reversed tape loops, varispeed and various sound effects as the band, with George Martin an equal partner, fully explored the boundless sonic possibilities of the studio.

The Beatles, signed to a three-film deal with United Artists, had originally looked into making an adaptation of Richard Condon’s sexually charged surrealist western A Talent for Loving as their second movie, but as self-confessed copyists of Goon Show humour they found much to suit them in Help!.

“We didn’t just want The Beatles to make a colour version of A Hard Day’s Night, another fictionalised documentary,” Lester said in 2013. “We couldn’t show them in their private life, which would be the next logical extension to it, because that was by then certainly X-rated . So they have to become passive recipients of an outside plot or an outside threat brought on by a weakness within themselves… The dialogue was more complex [which] meant they needed a little bit more concentration, and in those days by ‘concentration’ I meant ‘please don’t lose your script in the first week’.”

With a bigger budget at his disposal thanks to the success of A Hard Day’s Night, Lester was able to use colour film stock and explore far-flung locations for a similarly song-spattered film with such suggested titles as Beatles 2, The Day the Clowns Collapsed and, if George had had his way, Who’s Been Sleeping in my Porridge?. The working title was settled on Ringo’s suggestion of Eight Arms to Hold You and the songs put together for the shoot – often landing in Dick Lester’s lap the day before they were due to be filmed – were a significant step on from the hurried Beatles for Sale, which had marked a retreat towards their early reliance on rock’n’roll covers. The dark folk and country tones of that record had matured into a rich melodic seam that bonded The Beatles’ energy with the depths of Dylan. “I had these two guys who used to write songs whenever we needed some,” Harrison joked in a documentary on the film. “I think we just called them up and said, ‘Look, we’ll be doing a movie now lads, could you come up with a couple of catchy hits?’”

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A comedy-friendly cast was assembled, including That Was the Week That Was regular Roy Kinnear, acclaimed character actor Leo McKern, Beatles favourite Victor Spinetti and relative unknown Eleanor Bron, fresh from several years embroiled in the New York jazz club scene, as the seductive Ahme. “It was frightening, frankly,” Bron says today. “It was the first feature film I was in. I hadn’t a clue [who The Beatles were]. There was a photograph when we got back of these four people leaping into the air on the King’s Road with strange haircuts.”

With the entire world as their potential film set, shooting began in the Bahamas on 23 February 1965. Legend has it that they filmed in the Caribbean because The Beatles wanted to use the project as an excuse for an exotic round-the-world holiday – in fact, the Bahamas were chosen because the band’s financial advisor, Dr Walter Strach, had set up a tax shelter on the islands, and the band agreed to film there as an act of goodwill.

If the band were expecting a fortnight in paradise when they rolled bleary-eyed off their chartered plane at New Providence Island, they were in for a rude awakening. Shoot days ran from 8.30am to 5.30pm, the islands were chillier than their beach attire costumes suggested, and they found the poverty around them shocking. One location used as a temple in the film was actually a hospital for people with disabilities and elderly. On arrival The Beatles thought it must be a disused army camp and were horrified when they were told its true purpose.

“There was some kind of very crooked administration,” Bron recalls. “It was actually a very horrible experience . half the island was living in shanties and shacks. We had a big dinner in our honour and the aristocrats, who should have known better, were so rude to The Beatles, it set a very bad example. The Beatles behaved very well [but] they patronised them, dismissed them and were extremely unpleasant.”

Also, even in this supposedly remote part of the world, Beatlemania caught up with them. After splashing around in the surf of Balmoral Island while filming the sequence for “Another Girl”, a temporary dressing room made of towels was constructed on the beach for them to change their wet clothes, only to be invaded by fans. “Someone would just leap across with a piece of paper saying, ‘Sign this,’” Ringo said later.

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Their solution was to make the film in what the band would describe as a “haze of marijuana”. “A Hard Day’s Night I was on pills,” Lennon said in a 1970 Rolling Stone interview. “That’s drugs, that’s bigger drugs than pot . The only way to survive in Hamburg, to play eight hours a night, was to take pills… Help! was where we turned on to pot and we dropped drink, simple as that. I’ve always needed a drug to survive. The others, too, but I always had more, more pills, more of everything because I’m more crazy probably.”

“If you look at pictures of us you can see a lot of red-eyed shots; they were red from the dope we were smoking,” Ringo said in Anthology. “And these were those clean-cut boys! Dick Lester knew that very little would get done after lunch. In the afternoon we very seldom got past the first line of the script. We had such hysterics that no one could do anything.”

Were the band permanently stoned during filming? “They probably were but I wouldn’t notice,” says Bron. “It’s hard to believe how ill-informed I was about what was going on around me . John and I were sitting by the ocean and he offered me something and I took a puff and then I thought, ‘This must be terribly expensive,’ and I gave it back.”

Their addled state, and the experience of filming scenes from the end of the movie first, may have contributed to the sense that they were extras in their own film. “The film was out of our control,” Lennon said in 1970. “With A Hard Day’s Night, we had a lot of input, and it was semi-realistic. But with Help!, Dick Lester didn’t tell us what it was all about.” He’d also claim, “it was like being a frog in a movie about clams”, and partly blamed the drug intake. “We were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period. Nobody could communicate with us, it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time. In our own world. It’s like doing nothing most of the time, but still having to rise at 7am, so we became bored.”

Yet, as the band frolicked fully clothed in the pool at the Nassau Beach Hotel, shot scenes on schooners and cycled around the island pretending to search for an abducted Ringo, Bron remembers them as a lively, eager-to-learn gang. “They made the most of it,” she says. “They had company, they could be themselves when they were together and boost each other when they needed to be. They were all up for it, whatever it was. They were very keen. I’ve always been incredibly impressed by the fact that they’d done this one film and they wanted to know how to act, they wanted to learn how to do it. You had to look as if you didn’t care but I think they really did care.” How did they handle the early starts? “They probably just didn’t bother going to bed.”

The Beatles returned to the UK on 9 March, before setting off for a week at the film’s second foreign location on 14 March. The small Austrian town of Obertauern was chosen for the ski scenes in order to avoid the larger resorts where more British tourists might recognise them. Filming began on the slopes outside the band’s hotel Edelweiss. “I said to them, ‘Have you ever ski’d?’” Lester said. “None of them had. I said, ‘Don’t try it until we get the cameras out.’ We put three cameras on them and I said, ‘Now learn how to ski, there’s a hill, do it.’ We filmed everything that happened, it all happened for real.”

As the band fooled around on the slopes filming the “Ticket to Ride” sequence, riding snow ploughs and log trains and having riotous picnics, on-set photographer Robert Freeman struck on a concept for the album sleeve while watching them wave their arms around to the music. “I had the idea of semaphore spelling out the letters HELP,” he said. “But when we came to do the shot, the arrangement of the arms with those letters didn’t look good. So we decided to improvise and ended up with the best graphic positioning of the arms.” On the finished sleeve, shot later in Twickenham Film Studios, The Beatles actually spell out the semaphore for NUJV.

In Obertauern, the larks continued. They hosted après-ski parties for the 60-strong crew, played their only ever Austrian concert at the Hotel Marietta to celebrate a crew member’s birthday and continued to make Dick Lester’s life a trial. “In one of the scenes, Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear are playing curling, sliding along those big stones,” Ringo said. “One of the stones has a bomb in it and we find out that it’s going to blow up, and have to run away. Well, Paul and I ran about seven miles, we ran and ran, just so we could stop and have a joint before we came back. We could have run all the way to Switzerland.”

You can understand The Beatles’ need to run away from it all. When they returned to Britain to shoot interior scenes at Twickenham Film Studios, where A Hard Day’s Night had been filmed, they were plunged straight back into the chaos. The Beatles For Sale EP, featuring a selection of songs from the album, was making its way towards the top spot, swiftly followed by “Ticket to Ride”. So there were radio interviews and appearances on Thank Your Lucky Stars and Top of the Pops to fit in between days on set, alongside post-shoot evening sessions at Abbey Road to complete “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”, “That Means a Lot” (unreleased until 1996), “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “Bad Boy”, and audiences with Bob Dylan, holding court at the Savoy with Allen Ginsberg. Celebrities would show up on set to present them with awards on camera, which the band would sabotage by playing with Simon Dee’s Bell Award or singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” in Spanish accents with Peter Sellers, or “Mr Ustinov” as John called him.

At the studios, Beatlemania showed no sign of abating. “They would throw themselves on to the car and everything,” Bron recalls. “That was an early lesson which has stood me in good stead – fame is not the spur, fame has its own way of kicking back.” On a three-day excursion to film Harrison’s “I Need You” on a mock studio set up on a windswept Salisbury Plain surrounded by tanks lent by the 3rd Division, Royal Artillery, fans broke into their Austin Princess limousine parked back at the Antrobus Arms hotel and stole any clothes, cigarette butts and souvenirs they could find.

Considering the surreal fill-in scenes they were shooting at Twickenham, it’s no wonder an already drug- and fame-muddled Beatles felt even more confused by the whole escapade. One day they might be fending off a Bengal tiger in a pub basement, the next they could be chased by a gang of bagpipers, have their shirts pulled off by overactive hand dryers, get shrunk to microscopic size or fight off eastern assassins hiding inside letterboxes. “I’m not sure anyone knew the script,” Paul said in Anthology. “I think we used to learn it on the way to the set.“

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Hence, when John came to write the title track for a movie now called Help!, his relief at not having to pen a song called “Who’s Been Sleeping in my Porridge?” was tempered by an authentic desperation.

“When ‘Help!’ came out in ’65, I was actually crying out for help,” he told Rolling Stone of a song recorded in just four hours on 13 April. “It was my fat Elvis period . I may be very positive – yes, yes – but I also go through deep depressions where I would like to jump out the window, you know. It becomes easier to deal with as I get older; I don’t know whether you learn control or, when you grow up, you calm down a little. Anyway, I was fat and depressed and I was crying out for help… I meant it – it’s real.”

If “Help!” marked a distinct step towards the darker personal themes the band’s music would soon explore in depth, on set another culture-defining musical revelation occurred. While filming interior scenes for the Rajahama Indian restaurant at Twickenham on 5 April, Harrison became fascinated by the sounds of the Indian instruments brought in for musicians to play in the background.

“I remember picking up the sitar and trying to hold it and thinking, ‘This is a funny sound,’” Harrison told Billboard in 1992. “It was an incidental thing, but somewhere down the line I began to hear Ravi Shankar’s name. The third time I heard it, I thought, ‘This is an odd coincidence.’ I went and bought a Ravi record; I put it on and it hit a certain spot in me that I can’t explain, but it seemed very familiar to me … my intellect didn’t know what was going on and yet this other part of me identified with it. It just called on me.”

“The first time that we were aware of anything Indian was when we were making Help!,” Lennon said in 1972, recalling an additional Indian influence the band had encountered in the Bahamas. “A little yogi runs over to us . and gives us a book each, signed to us, on yoga. We didn’t look at it, we just stuck it along with all the other things people would give us. Then, about two years later, George had started getting into hatha yoga. He’d got involved in Indian music from looking at the instruments in the set. All from that crazy movie. Years later he met this yogi who gave us each that book.”

John Lennon recalled glazed eyes and giggling on Dick Lester’s zany Bond spoof – now recognised as the film that invented pop video, as well as the moment The Beatles’ songwriting left Merseybeat far behind. Mark Beaumont on how a classic was created out of chaos

John lennon smoking weed

Tracking The Beatles’ substance intake provides a something of barometer for ‘60s rock as a whole. Jittery, amphetamine-aided R&B/teeny-bop pop gave way to mellower, blunted folk rock (Help!, Rubber Soul), then to head-blown psychedelia (Revolver, Sgt. Pepper), and finally to coked-up eclecticism (The White Album, Let It Be). While the band’s well-publicized popularization of LSD might have been the bigger overall contribution to drug culture, the Fab Four also clearly loved to smoke herb.

Using anecdotal evidence, archival interviews, and an analysis of some reefer rumors, we’ve attempted to answer an almighty question: Which Beatle was most fond of the sweet leaf? ]]>