Due to the overwhelmingly positive response to my last Deep Beatles column on “The Night Before,” this week shines the spotlight on another underrated Help! track: “I Need You,” an early George Harrison composition that still sounds haunting and airy. Its tender lyrics, along with the shrewd use of a volume pedal, add up to one of the Beatles’ most distinctive, yet unheard, songs.
The melancholy lyrics are thought to address Harrison’s burgeoning relationship with future wife Patti Boyd. More significantly, “I Need You” represents the second Harrison composition included on a Beatles album, the first being “Don’t Bother Me” from With the Beatles. Recorded over two days, the song features an unusual lineup and interesting sonic effects.
According to the Beatles Bible and George Martin’s book Playback, Harrison played Spanish guitar and Paul McCartney wielded his usual Hofner bass. However, Ringo Starr added very different percussion, namely by hitting the back of a Gibson Jumbo acoustic guitar. John Lennon supplemented the rhythm by striking the snare drum on beats two and four. Lennon and McCartney also contributed backing vocals, and Starr provided additional accompaniment on cowbell.
Recording began on February 15, 1965 — the initial day of the Help! sessions. First, the group laid down the rhythm track in five takes; next, Harrison performed his guide vocals on track two of the tape. After adding more guide vocals with McCartney on track three, Starr contributed his cowbell section on track four. When the Beatles reentered Abbey Road Studios the following day, they erased track four so Harrison could record his lead vocal. Lennon and McCartney added their backing harmonies, thereby erasing track two (Harrison’s original guide vocal).
Starr replayed his cowbell section, while Harrison performed the song’s crucial ingredient: the distorted guitar. Playing a twelve-string Rickenbacker, Harrison plucked the notes while Lennon kneeled in front of him manipulating the guitar’s volume control. Clearly they group liked the jangling sound, as they would reemploy it for the track “Yes It Is.”
While “I Need You” did not receive airplay, it earned a featured spot in the film Help!: The group performs the song in the Salisbury Plain sequence; the scene is memorable not only for the great track, but for Starr’s visible shivering in the cold while trying to smile and mime playing the drums.
Lyrically, “I Need You” functions as a straightforward love song. The narrator has fallen deeply in love, and begs his lover to return to him: “You don’t realize how much I need you; love you all the time and never leave you,” Harrison pleads. Lennon and McCartney’s backing harmonies emphasize the desperation expressed in these lines, creating a mood appropriate for downbeat sentiments such as “Please come on back to me; I’m lonely as can be.”
The bridge shifts keys, and here Harrison displays the emotion he would fully unleash in his later material. “That’s when it hurt me, and feeling like this — I just don’t go on anymore,” he sings, his voice rising on the final word. This perfectly leads into even more desperate expressions: “Please remember how I feel about you; I could never really live without you.” Repeating the word “please” in several key lines underscores his acknowledgment that their relationship’s future is out of his control, and he asserts that his very existence depends on their love. “I Need You” serves as a version of “Help!” but this time the narrator cries out to a specific person: his lover.
The distinctive guitar effect adds another dimension to the track, lending a modern sound. Like a plane flying overhead, the notes sail through the air, landing at will. Clearly the Byrds and the Beatles influenced each other, as the song contains folk-rock elements that would soar in popularity over the next couple of years. Upon close listening, McCartney’s bass lines are more complicated beneath the surface, effectively propelling the rhythm. Speaking of rhythm, Starr’s cowbell plays a surprisingly crucial role in “I Need You”: along with the guitar, the cowbell emerges as one of the most distinctive elements of the tune.
Despite these fascinating elements, relatively few artists have recognized this unique song. One notable exception is Tom Petty, who lovingly covered it for 2002’s Concert for George tribute.
As a whole, Help! foreshadows the radical sound changes the Beatles would rapidly undergo. Rubber Soul dived headfirst into folk rock waters, while Revolver further experimented with distortion and other effects. “I Need You” predicts these two elements, symbolizing Harrison’s growth as a songwriter — and the band’s desire to push rock’s boundaries.