“With A Little Help From My Friends” / The Beatles
On Sgt. Pepper’s opening track, Paul gives us fair warning: “the singer’s going to sing a song / And he’d like you all to sing along.” But even after all these years, I still feel surprised that Billy Shears turns out to be…Ringo.
Far from the star vocalist we’ve been promised, it’s Ringo’s artless singing voice -- nasal, limited in range, slightly off-pitch – that launches into “With A Little Help From My Friends,” a cheery pub singalong that slots right into the album’s nostalgia gimmick (better than most of the other tracks in that respect). All those lyrics about not singing out of key, and Ringo’s just barely hitting his notes. It’s one of the most disarming tracks ever.
I always love the Ringo songs. I suspect that whenever John and Paul sat down to write for their drummer, they tapped into huge reservoirs of affection for him. No wonder this song is all about your friends supporting you – at this stage in the Beatles’ career, Ringo was probably the only Beatle who was still truly friends with all of his bandmates.
Not that they’re going to make Ringo do all the heavy lifting – no, indeed. After the first verse, it’s all traded-off questions and answers: “What do I do when my love is away?” Ringo wonders, baffled, and his friends respond sympathetically, “Does it worry you to be alone?” In the third verse, they’re asking him the questions: “Would you believe in a love at first sight?” and he declares, with dogged faith, “Yes I’m certain that it happens all the time.” How perfect to have good-hearted Ringo singing this – can you imagine this lyric coming out of John Lennon’s lips?
Ringo is the go-to guy for a song this unpretentious, that’s for sure. He’s looking for love, like anybody else, but he’s not picky. He’s not a yearning romantic, like Paul; he’s not tripped up by mistrust and jealousy and hostility like John. “Could it be anybody?” his friends ask, in lovely high harmonies. I can almost see Ringo shrug as he answers, “I want somebody to love.” It IS that simple. When all’s said and done, isn’t that what we all want?
The drug subtext is there too, of course (you can never go wrong assuming a coded drug message on Sgt. Pepper). The first chorus sets it up, “I get by / With a little help from my friends / I get high / With a little help from my friends / Going to try / With a little help from my friends.” He doesn’t repeat this again in the song, but nevertheless, it’s the line most people remember. Sure, the male voices chiming in are his friends – but that single “I get high” line also suggests that the “friends” are pills or joints, or maybe the pusher who provides them. Wink, wink.
The best line in this song, though, has to be: “What do you see when you turn out the light? / I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine.” We could all let our dirty minds run wild on that line. (See Ray Davies, “When I Turn Off the Living Room Light”). But when you’re done snickering, remember: whatever Ringo’s handling there in the dark, it BELONGS to him. Who needs fancy explanations when you're that connected?
There’s just something so damn grounded about Ringo. On this album full of dreamers and searchers, he may be the only character who’s got life figured out.