The pleasures of record collecting aren’t always obvious. Some albums avoid the shop-front glare to modestly wait in a gloomy rack, whispering anecdotes like Dostoevsky said happens in forgotten churchyards. An interesting cover might provoke a quick pull up, thinking we knew every name under the sun, then comes decision time guided by that sweet frisson of excitement or a heavy sigh. In the case of Help, if one can get over the less-than-prepossessing moniker, the surprise will be something like “How come I missed this nugget – after all it’s on Decca for Christ’s sake?” or words to that effect.
There are actually two Decca albums from one year to choose from (plus two lifted singles) with enigmatic sleeves: suggestions of leafy autumn side-streets coloured by summer’s recent adventures. This also fits the band’s brief life, featuring a snapshot of a great (and much-loved) musician who had one fleeting chance at the big time, snatched away as mysteriously as it was given. Jack Merrill (guitar, vocals), Ron ‘Bobby’ Rochan (bass, vocals) and Chet McCracken (drums, vocals) formed Help in 1969, in the clubs and studios of North California. It was the dawn of titanic trios such as Cream, Taste and Hendrix – but with three singers? This is just one surprise from a band with its own sound which soon led to a prestigious label deal.
It was a natural progression for drummer Chet, who started in Skip Battin’s Evergreen Blueshoes based in LA, the band of the legendary bassist who went on to fame with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Their period-typical ’69 LP on Amos, The Ballad Of Evergreen Blueshoes, was picked up by London for UK release – the frolicking nudies in the wood had a lot going for it at the time (and probably later). It’s a weird potpourri: hardy perennial Dylan, Leonard Cohen’s obscure Mrs Cohen’s Little Boy, The Incredible String Band’s The Hedgehog’s Song, a track based on Poe’s Raven, and a bizarre cover of Johnny B Goode for a single. No slavish copying like Corporal Gander’s Firedog Brigade, bless ’em, just quirky originality. Chet McCracken became a sought-after sessionman before Jack Merrill appeared on the scene.
Help’s eponymous debut first appeared in Germany in 1970, on MCA, then stateside as Decca DL-75257 with the barest of information for nine co-written originals, and a cover produced by Val Garay and Mark Hopkins MacNabb. The latter went into film music production, most notably with The Cure and The Mask, while Garay has a stellar career of Grammy Best Album Awards (Michael Jackson/Quincy Jones; Paul Simon’s Graceland; Tina Turner etc). He recalls working in ’71 with young musicians at the renowned Sound Factory on Hollywood’s Selma Avenue, and that was where Help cut their teeth too. It’s interesting that Decca issued the album soon after, as it coincided with one of their biggest declines after the Stones left them in 1970 (as did Genesis and Bowie). Help would not improve that situation.
For some the debut is a grower, for others it hits the mark straight away. The lyrics prove the band’s name is better chosen than first assumed. They don’t proselytise against selfishness, including a still-relevant obsession with money, but let’s see this another way. It’s refreshing, but never saccharine: it was a new decade after all. There’s Merrill’s tempo-shifting wah-wah and Rochan’s innovative, hyperactive bass drive, like Grand Funk Railroad when they lived up to their name. The track Runaway boasts maracas for a bouncy samba beat, then a Stax-feel solo through the foot pedals. Shared vocals, with a tasty bass-to-the-fore interlude adding a progressive touch, convinced the label to issue it as a debut single (Decca 32783), backed with Keep In Touch, which is so melodic one can bathe in it and imagine a blue lagoon. The album closes with a speedy version of Tennessee Waltz, the King/Stewart classic but more like Leonard Cohen’s rendition on his first live album. The debut is more Man or Blossom Toes than Brinsley Schwartz in terms of a British equivalent.
by Brian R Banks
1. For Sale (Jack Merrill) - 4:34
2. Open Up The Door (Bob Rochan) - 2:32
3. I Tried Too Hard (Bob Rochan, Jack Merrill) - 1:45
4. Easy To Be Free (Rick Nelson) - 3:09
5. Run Away (Bob Rochan) - 6:51
6. Keep In Touch (Jack Merrill) - 4:00
7. Take A Look At Yourself (Bob Rochan, Jack Merrill, Chet McCracken) - 4:43
8. Commit Yourself (Bob Rochan, Jack Merrill, Chet McCracken) - 2:59
9. Help Me, Help You, Help Me (Bob Rochan, Jack Merrill) - 4:06
10.Tennessee Waltz (Redd Stewart, Pee Wee King) - 4:03
*Jack Merrill - Guitar, Vocals
*Bob Rochan - Bass, Vocals
*Chet McCracken - Drums