There’s a story, and I don’t know if I believe it, that a young Joe Cocker, long before he was a mainstay on the charts, was having drinks with some pals when the idea of pulling out a Oujia board was mentioned. Wanting to be a successful singer, Cocker asked the board a simple question — When would he have a hit? — and the board supposedly spelled out, “With a little help from your friends.” “We were just messing about as we often did,” Terry Thornton, a club owner, recalled. “It really spelt out the letters with the glass. … [I]t was a few years later before we actually realized the importance of that night.”
The Beatles have so many classic songs, and so many of them have been covered by other artists, but it’s rare that those remakes outshine the originals. (As beautiful as Ray Charles’ rendition of “Yesterday” is, Paul McCartney’s version is still better.) But the most prominent exception might be “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which fit in nicely on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and was then turned into a smash by Joe Cocker a few years later. But the song has actually had a few second lives — it keeps finding new ways to reenter the zeitgeist.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that “With a Little Help From My Friends” is back again, kind of, because of a new version of The Wonder Years, which premiered last night on ABC. It’s a different family this time, but the same era. The 1980s original was a nostalgic look back at the 1960s, and this rebooted Wonder Years conjures up its own nostalgia — not just for that era of peace and love, but also for the Fred Savage series and its theme song.
For anyone who came of age with The Wonder Years, you can picture the opening credits and Cocker’s raw vocals all as a piece. I don’t even need to drop a YouTube clip in here — it’s already in your head right now. But long before that happened, someone had to write the song. And then someone else had to bring his own take to it.
In the mid-1960s, the Beatles had decided to stop touring. They didn’t make a big announcement. In fact, they didn’t say a thing, keeping it a juicy secret between the four members. “That was the main point: We’d always tried to keep some fun in it for ourselves. In anything you do you have to do that, and we’d been pretty good at it,” McCartney once said. The truth was, they were burnt out on being on the road. “[E]ven America was beginning to pall because of the conditions of touring and because we’d done it so many times.”
Rather than continuing that grind, the band opted to devote all their energy to the studio — and, specifically, the making of Sgt. Pepper’s. For its time, Sgt. Pepper’s was revolutionary in terms of its ambition and experimental touches — all of it done on rather primitive four-track recorders. McCartney had envisioned the record as being the work of a fictional band, a conceit that would allow the Beatles to let go of the baggage of being the Beatles. And as part of that concept, they had alter egos — or at least, Ringo Starr did. The album opens with the title track, which introduces this fake band, and McCartney closes by announcing, “I don’t really want to stop the show / But I thought you might like to know / That the singer’s going to sing a song / And he wants you all to sing along / So let me introduce to you / The one and only Billy Shears.” Sgt. Pepper’s then segues into a charming little ditty sung by “Billy Shears” (a.k.a. Ringo Starr), who has some questions for the listener…
What would you think if I sang out of tune?
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song
And I’ll try not to sing out of key
“With a Little Help From My Friends” was the final song written for Sgt. Pepper’s, an attempt by McCartney and John Lennon to ensure that their drummer had one lead vocal on the album. And as the two songwriters worked on the track at Lennon’s home, they wanted to ensure it would be something that suited Starr’s strengths. “Ringo’s got a great sentimental thing,” McCartney said. “He likes soul music and always has, though we didn’t see that scene for a long while ‘til he showed us. I suppose that’s why we write these sorts of songs for him, with sentimental things in them.”
The trick was getting Starr to sing it. Unlike the other Beatles, who were songwriters and confident vocalists, the drummer got anxious when it was his turn to do a lead vocal. So his cohorts tricked him by recording the track late one evening — and when Starr left to go home to bed, thinking his work for the day was done, they surprised him by announcing that they wanted him to sing. Starr tried to beg off, but Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison weren’t having it. “Perhaps the shock tactics of having him sing when he was least expecting it took the nervousness away, or perhaps it was just how supportive everyone was being,” engineer Geoff Emerick later recalled. “All three of his compatriots gathered around him, inches behind the microphone, silently conducting and cheering him on as he gamely tackled his vocal duties. It was a touching show of unity among the four Beatles.”
“With a Little Help From My Friends” wasn’t Sgt. Pepper’s highlight — pretty tough on an album that included, among others, “A Day in the Life” — but where Starr’s vocal contributions to earlier records tended toward the cutesy or insubstantial, this was a lovely anthem about the importance of love and community. (Plus, there was a cheeky nod to pot — the fashionable drug of the counterculture — with the lines “I get by with a little help from my friends / Get high with a little help from my friends.”) But perhaps most importantly, “With a Little Help From My Friends” was a celebration of not letting life get you down: As long as you’ve got friends and that special someone, you’re going to be okay. And Starr was the only Beatle who could have sung it — the inherent modesty he had about his voice infused “With a Little Help From My Friends” with a fragile humanity that made its openhearted quality all the more touching. And the back-and-forth vocals with his mates in the band only added to the song’s all-for-one-and-one-for-all vibe.
Would you believe in a love at first sight?
Yes, I’m certain that it happens all the time
What do you see when you turn out the light?
I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine
By 1967, it wasn’t unusual for other artists to record their own versions of Beatles songs. In fact, that’s how Joe Cocker’s career started: His first single, in 1964, back when he was about 20, was a cover of the Hard Day’s Night track “I’ll Cry Instead.” It failed to chart and ended his record contract — that could have been it for the young man who grew up in Sheffield in sway to this new musical art form coming out of America. “Rock ‘n’ roll came into my life when I was about 12, 13, when Little Richard and Chuck Berry had just started hitting the shores of England,” he said in 2012. He adored Ray Charles and also the Beatles, but unlike a lot of other rising stars of the time, Cocker was more interested in being an interpreter than a songwriter. “My main thing is the singing, I just enjoy the performance,” he said in a 2005 interview, later adding, “[B]ecause of my vocal style I don’t try and reinvent [these songs]. Even if the arrangement isn’t that far removed from the original, I try to bend them around in a certain way that gives them a new approach.”
But after “I’ll Cry Instead” flopped, Cocker struggled, taking a break from music before starting a new group, the Grease Band. Still, it wasn’t clear if he’d ever find any meaningful success — partly because, as others noted, he wasn’t necessarily the most driven guy. As his future producer Denny Cordell put it, “Joe is a strange guy; he has no ambitions at all. He just likes to rock ‘n’ roll, and he has no dreams about how he could do it, because he could rock ‘n’ roll any way he wants to.” (In that same profile piece, Cocker himself admitted, “I don’t know what I’m trying to do, really. Things just sort of evolve.”)
But Cocker hooked up with some fellow promising talents, Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and Traffic keyboardist Steve Winwood, to make his first solo album, 1969’s With a Little Help From My Friends. His version of the title track was released in the fall of the previous year, featuring Page on guitar and Procol Harum drummer B.J. Wilson. When McCartney talked about Starr, he mentioned how the drummer introduced the band to soul music, but ironically it was Cocker who brought soul to Ringo’s song. With his gritty vocals and the bluesy sweep of the new version’s guitar and organ, Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends” contained elements of gospel and R&B, with the singer alternating between bellowing and whispering, like he was throwing a lifeline out in the hopes that someone could save him from drowning. And when he sang, “I need someone to love,” it sounded far hornier than Starr’s more cheerful take: Backed by soul singers, the song was suddenly carnal, weary and desperate.
It was a huge hit in the U.K., landing at No. 1. (Here in the States, it didn’t even crack the Top 40.) And at least one Beatle loved Cocker’s rendition: McCartney would later say, “I remember him and Denny Cordell coming round to the studio in Saville Row and playing me what they’d recorded and it was just mind blowing, totally turned the song into a soul anthem and I was forever grateful for him for doing that.”
“With a Little Help From My Friends” helped launch Cocker’s career, paving the way for him to cover other songs from Leon Russell (“Delta Lady”), Billy Preston (“You Are So Beautiful”) and Randy Newman (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”). “Sometimes it works,” he told NPR of his skills as an interpretive singer, later adding, “I tried doing songs that I didn’t really think happened. I did a version of ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ one time that when you listen to it, you probably say, ‘Well, that’s Joe Cocker singing a Procol Harum song.” But like when you hear me doing ‘Little Help From My Friends,’ you know it’s a whole different thing completely.”
But if his studio version was big in the U.K., he found a moment to reach a U.S. audience when he performed “With a Little Help From My Friends” at Woodstock in the summer of 1969. It was the last song in his set, and by that point he and his band had gotten the crowd on their side — something that wasn’t necessarily true for all the acts, which had to contend with heavy drug use both on stage and in the audience. “We were kind of lucky because we got on stage real early,” he said. “It took about half the set just to get through to everybody, to that kind of consciousness. … We did ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’ by Ray Charles, which kind of turned everybody around a bit, and we came off looking pretty good that day. A lot of other artists didn’t enjoy themselves at all.”
But his rendition of “With a Little Help From My Friends” was the showstopper as he gyrated and wailed with all his might. However, he was always quick to point out that he wasn’t on drugs that day: “I was furious because all the band had taken acid and they didn’t tell me,” he said. “I was the only one straight.” You’d never know it by the feverish, dynamic performance he gave.
Bolstered by his appearance, which was spotlighted in the celebrated 1970 Woodstock documentary, Cocker continued to have success over the next several years, although he battled drug and alcohol dependence during that period. However, his animated performing style had caught the eye of a young Chicagoland comic, John Belushi, who before he became a household name on Saturday Night Live was doing a Joe Cocker impression on stage in the Windy City. It wasn’t just the herky-jerky movements that Belushi mastered, though — he perfectly mimicked the singer’s sandpaper growl, too, turning Cocker into a caricature of an overemphatic white soul singer.
When Belushi arrived at SNL, he brought the impression with him, even “dueting” with the actual Joe Cocker on the show. “I always found it quite amusing,” Cocker said about 10 years ago. “But you have to understand I was a bit of a wreck at the time he was doing all that stuff. I didn’t watch much television, so I wasn’t aware of it until some guy said, ‘There’s this guy doing an awful impersonation of you. Sue him.’ I thought vocally, he did quite a clever job with it. It put a print on me that kind of stuck to this day. [Belushi] was quite shy really whenever we did any gigs together. He was almost like a schoolboy. He’d come in the dressing room, just watch everything I was doing.” As for those much-parodied chaotic arm motions, “I guess that came with my frustration at never having played piano or guitar,” he explained in 2013. “If you see me nowadays, I’m not quite so animated, but it’s just a way of trying to get feeling out — I get excited and it all comes through my body.”
In the span of a decade, “With a Little Help From My Friends” had gone from uplifting Ringo Starr song to fiery soul standard to self-parody. But the song’s journey wasn’t over yet: In the late 1980s, its context was changed again when television writers Neal Marlens and Carol Black wanted to do a family show about a boy growing up in the 1960s. But why was the Cocker version chosen as the theme for The Wonder Years? Dan Lauria, who played the show’s gruff but loving father, has a theory:
“I’ve heard it a couple times now that the Beatles had never allowed any of their music to be used on television. They did not own the rights at that time. It wasn’t Michael Jackson; I think it was Apple Records who owned it when we did The Wonder Years. But the story I got was that they showed Paul McCartney the pilot with them singing their version of it, and Paul McCartney made a call to Apple Records and said, ‘If you’re ever going to let the Beatles be used on television, this is the show,’ and Apple Records said, ‘Ya know what, we’ll let them use the song, but we’re not going to let them use the version of you singing it.’”
Whether that’s true or not, The Wonder Years gave Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends” a newfound wistful glow, recalling an epochal moment in American life, even if it was only about 20 years in the past. The passion Cocker brought to the song suddenly felt less charged — instead, it was suffused with the acclaimed show’s bittersweet, nostalgic tone. In essence, The Wonder Years fused the communal warmth of Starr’s version with the fireworks of Cocker’s — it was now a golden oldie, tinged with a bit of sadness because it evoked an irretrievable past. The melancholy in Cocker’s voice — especially when he asked if we would stand up and walk out on him — melded with the insecurities of young Kevin (Fred Savage) as he tried to navigate romance and other adolescent woes. You could hear more of the vulnerability in Cocker’s version as his cover played, week after week, during The Wonder Years’ opening credits. No longer a soul workout, it became a hymn for an era, and a boy’s innocence, that were both gone.
You can gauge the power of Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends” by all the Gen-X kids who grew up loving the song because of the show. You can also measure its impact by the fact that Netflix and Hulu replaced the theme song when they started streaming the show — oh, those annoying legal rights — which angered viewers who felt that The Wonder Years wasn’t The Wonder Years without Joe Cocker at the start.
Cocker never stopped touring and recording — his duet with Jennifer Warnes, “Up Where We Belong,” from An Officer and a Gentleman, was No. 1 in the States — and when he died at the end of 2014, at the age of 70, he was fondly remembered as one of the great white soul vocalists. (“He was a lovely northern lad who I loved a lot,” McCartney said upon Cocker’s passing, “and like many people I loved his singing.”) Cocker isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an omission that infuriates his fans — none bigger than Billy Joel, who paid tribute to the singer shortly before his death by playing “With a Little Help From My Friends” in concert, giving it extra Cocker-like gusto.
The following year, Ringo Starr performed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and not surprisingly, he played “With a Little Help From My Friends.” But it was funny how it didn’t feel like the right version, even though it was the original he’d first made famous. We’d all become so accustomed to Cocker’s that what the late singer brought to the Beatles tune suddenly seemed missing when anyone else tried to play it.
Recently, ABC started running promos for the new Wonder Years, which included a brief snippet of Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends,” acknowledging the powerful connection in the audience’s mind between the song and the original show. But it also underlined what an odyssey it’s been over the last 50-plus years for the last track written at the last minute on one of rock’s seminal albums. Once, “With a Little Help From My Friends” was symbolic of an era when getting high was considered novel, rebellious, dangerous, enlightened — not long after, it was turned into an endearing, cozy TV theme.
But no matter what version you heard — no matter the present-day context — “With a Little Help From My Friends” has always been a product of the utopian era in which it was written. As McCartney once described Cocker’s rendition, the song was “a celebration of [s]ixties ideas of communalism, peace and smoking dope.” Those ideas are clichés now, but Ringo Starr and Joe Cocker made those clichés resonate. And let’s face it: Sometimes, you lean on clichés when you want to find a little comfort in this world. That’s why people keep listening to that song. When you get right down to it, we all do still need a little help from our friends. And we all still just want somebody to love.