Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider With A Little Help From My Friends, a terrific pop song from the Beatles’ ground-breaking concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We will review the original by the Beatles, a cover of that song by Joe Cocker, and a parody of Cocker’s performance by John Belushi.
The Beatles and With a Little Help From My Friends:
We briefly discussed the Beatles and their blockbuster concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in our blog post on Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. Due to their unprecedented commercial success, the Beatles had unheard-of control in the studio. Together with their genius producer George Martin, they were free to spend enormous amounts of time tinkering with unusual sounds, weird instruments, sophisticated electronic and feedback effects, literally whatever they could envision.
Although these innovative concepts and arrangements had been appearing in their previous albums Rubber Soul and Revolver, they all came together in the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released in June 1967. The conceit was that the album was an extended performance by this fictional band. The critical reaction to this album was quite fantastic. The album won the Beatles the 1968 Grammy for best album, the first rock album ever to receive this accolade (yet another example of how far behind the times the Grammys were!).
In 2003 the Library of Congress placed Sgt. Pepper in the National Recording Registry, honouring the work as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. That same year Rolling Stone magazine ranked it number one in its list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. As of 2014 it has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums in history. Professor Kevin J Dettmar, writing in the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, described it as “the most important and influential rock and roll album ever recorded”
As a grad student in Oxford when the record was released, I can attest to the tremendous interest in Sgt. Pepper. Although I was mid-way through my doctoral thesis at that time, my friends and I were enthralled by the album. We committed the songs to memory, argued over obscure (and possibly drug-related) references, and treated the record with something approaching reverence.
Below is a photo of the Beatles in August, 1967. Clockwise from upper L: Paul, Ringo, John, George.
And here is the iconic cover of the Sgt. Pepper album. The Beatles appear immediately behind the bass drum in the center.
The song With a Little Help From My Friends was co-written by John and Paul expressly for Ringo. At the time of the Sgt. Pepper release, With a Little Help From My Friends seemed like little more than a light-hearted, upbeat tune. Ringo was generally given one, possibly two, songs on any given Beatles album, and this was a witty and friendly little song that fit well with Ringo’s quite limited vocal range.
The singer appears to be relatively lonely, looking for love, but nevertheless upbeat.
What would you think if I sang out of tune
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song
And I’ll try not to sing out of key
Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends
Mmm, I get high with a little help from my friends
Mmm, gonna try with a little help from my friends
The initial line that refers to singing “out of tune” is quite ironic, seeing that Ringo’s vocals are famously out of tune. In tune or not, Ringo’s deadpan delivery is incredibly effective in this song. The original second line in the song was “Would you throw rotten tomatoes at me?” However that was vetoed by Ringo, who envisioned that if he ever sang the song live, the audience was likely to pelt him with tomatoes. The line “I get high with a little help from my friends,” immediately suggested “drug reference” to millions of listeners, even though the precise meaning is deliberately ambiguous.
The call-and-response format has Ringo’s lines counterposed with answers from the other three Beatles. The song is chock full of unforgettable lines, including the puzzling interchange “What do you see when you turn off the light?” “I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine.”
Over the years, With a Little Help From My Friends has turned out to be a memorable ode to optimism and good cheer. The song positively radiates good vibes. It’s hard to stay depressed after listening to this song. The song has become Ringo’s signature tune – on tour, he invariably performs With a Little Help From My Friends as either the last song or the penultimate song in his concert (since 2008 he has been ending his shows with Give Peace a Chance).
However, the song has also become a classic of 60s pop music. For example, here is a performance, the Prince’s Trust Charity Concert, that took place at London’s Wembley Stadium in June 1987. This is kind of a low-key affair: you get together with a couple dozen superstars and bang out a few songs before an audience of about 60,000 people.
This is of course the final song in the concert, sung by Ringo and backed up on guitar by George Harrison and drums by Phil Collins. The “backup vocals” are by a host of mega-stars, including Jeff Lynne, Elton John and Eric Clapton. Right at the end of the song Eric Clapton provides one of his inimitable blues guitar licks. And I believe there is a very brief glimpse of Prince Charles and Princess Di?
You can see what an iconic song this has become; the entire audience is boogying and singing along with the stars on stage.
And here is audio of the Beatles, from the Sgt. Pepper album.
Remember that on the Sgt. Pepper album, the song With a Little Help From My Friends begins immediately following the title cut, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles end the first cut with a drawn-out Bill-ll-ll-ll-y Shears, and then following a very brief guitar intro, we segue directly into Ringo singing Help From My Friends. The album cut is propelled forward with Paul McCartney’s bouncy bass line.
Joe Cocker and With a Little Help From My Friends:
Joe Cocker was a British blues musician. He is one of my favorite artists, despite the fact that he had relatively few original songs. Most of his best-known songs are covers of other tunes; however, he is a terrific bluesman whose best covers bring an entirely new take to a classic song.
In the late 1950s, Cocker was attracted to music by following the career of British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan, the same artist who inspired the early Beatles. He then became interested in rock and blues. Joe had the good sense to pattern his vocal stylings after rockers like Chuck Berry and in particular soul singers like Ray Charles. Ray Charles in fact inspired an entire generation of British blues singers, artists like Roger Waters, Stevie Winwood and Joe Cocker. You can definitely detect the influence of Ray Charles in Cocker’s vocals.
Cocker next worked his way through the British club circuit. Initially, he made little headway until he hooked up with Denny Cordell, the producer for British progressive-rock groups such as Procul Harum and the Moody Blues. With Cordell’s backing, Cocker was able to book larger venues and to work with more talented studio musicians.
After a couple of minor hits in the UK, Joe Cocker hit the big time with his cover of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends. First off, the record featured terrific studio musicians, with Procul Harum drummer B.J. Wilson and guitar solos from Jimmy Page. Next, as you will hear, Cocker’s cover is absolutely nothing like the Beatles’ original. As Paul McCartney said, Cocker’s version
“was just mind-blowing, totally turned the song into a soul anthem and I was forever grateful to him for doing that.”
Indeed, the Beatles were sufficiently impressed with Cocker’s creative cover of Help From My Friends that they subsequently allowed him to record other Beatles tunes, such as She Came in Through the Bathroom Window and Something.
Although Joe Cocker’s cover of the With a Little Help From My Friends made it into the UK Top 10 Singles chart in 1968, it made little headway in the US, not even cracking the Top 40. However, Cocker’s album was a significantly bigger seller and established him as an up-and-coming young bluesman.
Like many other young artists, Cocker’s appearance at Woodstock, and in particular his version of this song, made him an overnight sensation. His career took off like a rocket. Here is Cocker as he appeared at Woodstock, in his tie-dyed shirt, with his hands splayed out as he sings, in his own unique performing style.
Here is Joe Cocker performing his cover of With a Little Help From My Friends at Woodstock in 1969. I love Cocker’s introduction of this song to the Woodstock audience. “We’re gonna leave you with, uh, the usual thing. The only thing I can say, that I’ve said to many people, this title just about puts it all into focus … remember it.”
My friend Glenn Gass shows this video clip to classes taking his History of Rock Music course at Indiana University. According to him, the reaction from students is virtually always the same. They start out laughing at Cocker’s spastic motions and his jerky air-guitar playing; initially the performance seems like a big joke.
However, after a couple of minutes, the reaction is more like “Holy crap, what a great rendition of this song.” Cocker completely transforms the song – turning it from an iconic pop tune into a hard-rocking blues classic. The organ and guitar work together here to provide the song with a catchy melodic background, and the backup singers are a great complement to Cocker’s blues vocals.
Cocker shouts, screams and implores his audience “gotta get by with your friends, take care o’ your friends.” At about the 6-minute mark, the song builds to a terrific climax. Keyboards, guitar, drums all raise the volume together, while the audience goes wild at the end of Cocker’s performance. “The Grease Band, and meself, thank you all very much indeed. See you all again … beautiful.” Beautiful, indeed!
Once Joe Cocker gained fame through his exposure at the Woodstock Festival and in particular as one of the stars of the Woodstock concert movie, he proceeded to carve out an incredibly successful career as a blues vocalist. Cocker’s cover versions always featured his very creative arrangements.
I particularly recommend Cocker’s versions of The Letter by the Box Tops, Leon Russell’s Delta Lady, and Billy Preston’s You Are So Beautiful; yes, this song is a cover, but Cocker’s version is so famous that it has completely overshadowed the original.
Joe Cocker died from lung cancer in Dec. 2014.
John Belushi and With a Little Help From My Friends:
When Saturday Night Live first began broadcasting in 1975, an Albanian-American comedian named John Belushi was one of the original cast members. Belushi had been a member of Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, and had appeared with Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest in National Lampoon’s Lemmings, an Off-Broadway parody of the Woodstock counter-culture.
SNL’s first big star was Chevy Chase, but after Chase left the show in 1976 Belushi and his mates in SNL’s Not Ready for Prime Time Players became the creative core of a true comedy powerhouse. Belushi’s wacky creativity and over-the-top parodies made him a genuine superstar. He has been voted the most talented performer ever on Saturday Night Live.
Belushi’s fortunes continued to rise when he teamed up with director John Landis. Their first joint effort was the blockbuster 1978 comedy hit National Lampoon’s Animal House. It featured Belushi’s portrayal of Delta Tau Chi fraternity member Bluto Blutarsky — in his seventh year of college, Blutarsky manages to achieve a GPA of 0.0. From an initial budget of $2.8 million, the film has currently grossed over $141 million to become one of the most profitable films ever. At left is a photo of Belushi as Bluto Blutarsky in Animal House.
Landis and Belushi’s SNL mate Dan Aykroyd then wrote the script for the movie Blues Brothers, which starred Belushi and Aykroyd as brothers Jake and Elwood Blues, respectively. The plot could hardly be less substantial: upon his release from prison, Jake joins with brother Elwood to re-form their old band the Blues Brothers, in an attempt to raise sufficient funds to save the Catholic boys’ home where they were raised. Below is a publicity photo of the Blues Brothers for their movie.
The movie made great use of Belushi and Aykroyd’s love of the blues. Landis assembled a terrific band for the Blues Brothers. He brought in Lou Marini on sax and Tom Malone on trombone from Blood, Sweat and Tears, and guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Duck Dunn from Booker T and the MGs. The film featured guest appearances by blues greats such as Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin and James Brown.
Belushi and Aykroyd turned out to be fine blues musicians, and also surprisingly good dancers. Aykroyd is a very talented harmonica player, and Belushi became an accomplished blues vocalist. Several of the Blues Brothers’ covers were essentially note-for-note re-creations of the originals, in some cases using the same musicians who performed on the original recordings.
Here is John Belushi’s parody of Joe Cocker singing With a Little Help From My Friends.
As you can see, Belushi’s performance is a rather brutal take-off on Cocker’s spasmodic performing style. Initially, some viewers felt that this was an unnecessarily cruel parody of Cocker – notably when Belushi attempts unsuccessfully to obtain a drink of water, and at the end when ‘Cocker’ falls to the ground writhing, and is unable to get up.
However, Joe Cocker took it in good humor, and in fact Cocker and Belushi performed together on SNL in 1976. Here is “bonus footage” of Joe Cocker on SNL in October 1976. Cocker begins to perform a cover of Dave Mason’s blues classic Feelin’ Alright? In the midst of his performance, John Belushi appears next to Cocker as Belushi goes into his “Cocker impression.”
Listen carefully when Belushi sings – his vocals are essentially indistinguishable from Cocker’s. In fact, when Cocker first saw Belushi’s parody of With a Little Help From My Friends, he initially was convinced that Belushi was lip-synching to a tape of Cocker (Belushi wasn’t – it was his own voice). In addition, Belushi gives a spot-on imitation of Cocker – the facial expressions, swinging his arms, arching his back.
And by the way, kudos to SNL for sticking to live music throughout their wonderful 40-years-and-counting run on television. No crappy lip-synching allowed on this program! SNL invariably featured a terrific studio band, backing up memorable live music. If a group couldn’t cut it in live performance, they didn’t appear on SNL.
Unfortunately, John Belushi’s personal life was seriously out of control. His drug and alcohol abuse was so excessive that on several occasions he was fired, and subsequently re-hired, on Saturday Night Live.
Although his friends and associates made serious efforts to keep him clean and sober, on March 4, 1982 Belushi was partying with friends at Chateau Marmont on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. A woman at that party, Catherine Smith, later injected Belushi with a “speedball,” a mixture of cocaine and heroin. Belushi was found dead the next morning of a drug overdose. Smith was
arrested and charged with first-degree murder. A plea bargain reduced the charge to involuntary manslaughter, and she served fifteen months in prison.
Belushi was 33 years old at the time of his death. What a tragic end for one of the most talented comedians of his era.
Wikipedia, With a Little Help From My Friends
Wikipedia, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Wikipedia, The Beatles
Wikipedia, Ringo Starr
Wikipedia, Joe Cocker
Wikipedia, John Belushi