Friday, June 8, 2012

Serious Contenders: Beach Boys, "Help Me Rhonda"

The Beach Boys are touring again. And although there's no word on whether John Stamos will be filling in for one of the departed Wilson Brothers, the fact that both Brian Wilson and Mike Love can stop trying to destroy each other long enough to collaborate on an actual album is pretty heartening.

This is one of my favourite Beach Boys songs, right behind "Good Vibrations" and maybe ahead of "Wouldn't It Be Nice," both of which were in the somewhat distant future when this song was conceived. The Beach Boys were already known for the way they combined Chuck Berry rock & roll with Four Seasons-style harmonies. If this isn't the best example of them, it's certainly one of the best usages, as the voices intertwine and underscore this plea for "Help." Serious, the harmonies on this may not be immaculate, but they're gorgeous for rock and roll, and really serve the song well, as does the lead vocal. The way Al Jardine chants the title phrase stretches the boundaries of what, in 1965, a radio pop hit single would be. Shit was getting real.

I have a weirdly personal attachment to the song. Oldies radio was always on when I was a kid. I had a vague knowledge that this music came from a different era, but it seemed very present to me. Mostly, songs from the 50's and 60's were not hard for a 6-year-old to comprehend: Herman's Hermits sang about meeting a girl and being "into something good." Chuck Berry lamented being unable to unfasten his safety belt in "No Particular Place To Go." But my wee brain couldn't exactly figure out who "Rhonda" was supposed to be, or how she was going to help "get her outta my heart." When this song came on, I would try to explain my grasp of the meaning of the song, and my dad would tell me I didn't quite have it right. I think I thought it had something to do with cheating, which I knew from a hundred other songs, but that's only incidental. It's basically an ode to a potential rebound.

In retrospect, it's not an overly complex narrative: "She was gonna be my wife and I was gonna be her man / But she let another guy come between us an it shattered our plans / But Rhonda, you caught my eye..." but it's a great demonstration of how to deal with character dynamics and complicated emotions in a 3-minute pop song. He doesn't want to marry Rhonda, he just wants to forget his ex.

A few months later, a certain popular group from Britain would release a song asking for a different kind of "Help!" sparking a pop songcraft arms race that led both bands (and many others) to record their definitive work of the decade.

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