When was it recorded? Apr. 13, 1965
When was it first released, and on which album? Jul. 23, 1965 as a single (later on “Help!”)
Who wrote it? Lennon (with noteworthy contribution from McCartney)
Have I heard this song before? Yes
What my research dug up:
According to the Anthology series, John “wrote the lyrics of the song to express his stress after the Beatles’ quick rise to success” (Wikipedia).
“When ‘Help!’ came out, I was actually crying out for help. Most people think it’s just a fast rock ‘n’ roll song. I didn’t realize it at the time; I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie. But later, I knew I really was crying out for help. So it was my fat Elvis period. You see the movie: he – I – is very fat, very insecure, and he’s completely lost himself. And I am singing about when I was so much younger and all the rest, looking back at how easy it was.” — John Lennon (David Sheff, All We Are Saying)
I can’t say I see the “fat” part, but John’s depression is understandable. Although he says above it was commissioned for the movie “Help!,” John said in a 1970 Rolling Stone interview that he felt “Help!” was one of his most honest Beatles songs.
Initially, the movie “Help!” was to be called “Eight Arms to Hold You,” with “Eight Days a Week” a potential theme song. According to Paul, either John or film director Dick Lester proposed the new title at the start of April. As with “A Hard Day’s Night,” John took it upon himself to compose the title song and hashed most of it out alone at his home in Weybridge. Then Paul helped concoct the counter-melody during a writing session on Apr. 4, 1965. Interestingly, John imagined “Help!” as a ballad (which upon examining the lyrics make sense), but the composition was sped up “to satisfy the group’s commercial instincts” (Beatles Bible) during recording. Here’s a snippet of John’s piano demo.
Musically, “Help!” is uncomplicated and unvarying. According to Alan Pollack, “The music underscores the urgent single-mindedness of the message contained within the lyrics; shades of ‘got no time for trivialities’…” Pollack also wrote, “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 persona.”
“Help!” was recorded and completed Apr. 13 from 7:00 PM to 11:00 PM.
On May 24, CTS Studios had the Beatles re-record the vocals, partly to help sync to what they were filming for the movie and partly to get rid of the tambourine part (which had originally been recorded on the same track as the vocals). This mix – different vocals, no tambourine – appeared on the mono version of the “Help!” album.
“Help!” was released as a single two weeks before “Help!” the album was released. Appearing Jul. 19 in the US and Jul. 23 in the UK, the song quickly shot to the top of both countries’ music charts. “Help!” also reached #1 in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden. The RIAA certified the song Gold.
Naturally, the song “Help!” opens the film “Help!” Footage was filmed Apr. 22 for the movie; the same footage was used with the credits omitted as a proto-music video that aired on TV music programs of the time.
The Beatles made another ‘promotional clip’ of “Help!” on Nov. 23 for the TV special “Top of the Pops.” Quoth Wikipedia, “Directed by Joseph McGrath, the black-and-white clip shows the group miming to the song while sitting astride a workbench.”
The Beatles performed “Help!” live a number of times; it was on their 1965 American tour set list, and they performed it on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in Aug. 1965. A live performance from the Aug. 1 program “Blackpool Night Out,” the audio of which was included on “Anthology 2.”