The Beatles

With a Little Help From My Friends

Composed by John Lennon / Paul McCartney

Song Review by

Ringo Starr did not sing often on Beatles records, and with the exception of the hit "Yellow Submarine," had not been granted a lead vocal on any of the group's more important tracks before 1967. For "With a Little Help From My Friends," however, he would take center stage on one of Sgt. Pepper's key songs -- the first one, in fact, aside from the opening title cut, which was more of a curtain-raising theme song than a proper Beatles tune. "With a Little Help From My Friends" is one of the jauntiest, cheeriest songs in the entire Beatles catalog. It's certainly one of their most optimistic, feel-good statements, gently asserting that everything will work out with friends around to help one out. On that level it can certainly be legitimately enjoyed and appreciated, but for those who care to look, there are some deeper emotional resonances and shades as well. It is interesting that such a peppy song, for one thing, was assigned to Ringo Starr, often noted for the sorrowful quality of his vocals, although it's likely that Lennon and McCartney had nothing more in mind than making sure Starr had a song to sing on the album. Starr's everyman persona, in any case, was suitable for the humility, even vague self-doubt, of the lyrics, which fretted over whether the audience would walk out on him if he sang out of key, and plaintively announced that he needed somebody to love. The song's effectiveness is increased manifold by the use of question-and-answer structure between Starr and harmonizing vocalists starting with the second verse. There was one line in particular that was naughty in a way that should have been obvious even by 1967 standards: the one asking what the narrator sees when he turns out the light, to which Starr replies that he can't say, but he knows it's his. The final chorus, in a manner consistent with the ostensible musical revue "With a Little Help From My Friends" is kicking off, changes the melody a little so that it can end with a grandstanding ensemble vocalization of the word "friends," Starr's straining lead vocal set off by counterpoint descending harmonies. One can picture the Beatles, if they were indeed performing this song at the fictional concert that is Sgt. Pepper, exhorting the audience to join in for that finale. Journeyman British soul singer Joe Cocker became an instant star when he covered the song in late 1968, taking it to number one in the U.K. with a radical, and quite good, pure soul reinterpretation. The drastically slowed tempo of the verses increased the emotional intensity of the song, which sounded in Cocker's hands more like a serious, yearning plea than a chipper singalong. Cocker also made the choruses into wrenching, heavy hard rock with stinging, anguished guitar licks. Although Cocker's version was not a hit in the U.S., his gritty, gravelly rendition helped make him a star stateside when he performed it at Woodstock, as seen in a famous sequence from the film of the festival (and heard on the Woodstock soundtrack album).

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 1967 Apple Records / Capitol 2:44
1967-1970 1973 Apple Records 2:44
The Ultimate Box Set 1995 Capitol 2:44
Yellow Submarine Songtrack 1999 Capitol / EMI Records / Apple 2:45
As It Happened: The Classic Interviews 2000 Enlightenment 20:59
The Beatles: Stereo Box Set 2009 Capitol 2:44
The Beatles USB 2009 Capitol / EMI 2:44
1962-1970 2010 EMI / Parlophone 2:44