Album Reviews: Joe Cocker – With A Little Help From My Friends (1969)

Was there ever a more apt title for an album than this ? After years of playing Sheffield pubs and clubs and recording one flop single, as Vance Arnold for Decca, Joe Cocker was finally unleashed to the masses with this absolute gem of a sixties blues/soul album. An album which included  a cast of musical geniuses that many a more seasoned performer must have been in awe of. Jimmy Page, Steve Winwood, Henry McCullough, Tony Visconti, Albert Lee, Matthew Fisher, the list goes on and yet Cocker still out shines them all with an incredible vocal performance which is even more commendable given his relative inexperience in a studio setting. But maybe that is the secret as the whole thing has a real ‘live jam’ feel throughout.

Recorded in London in 1968 with Denny Cordell at the production desk “With A Little Help From My Friends” is a ten track mixture of covers and originals, something which Cocker favours even to this day. It opens with a real belting version of Traffic’s ‘Feelin Alright’. This version of the Dave Mason composed track is far better than the original and Cocker claims it as his own from the outset. There have been many covers of it since but this remains the best in my opinion. Second track ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ has been recorded by even more people than the opener but yet again Cocker can lay claim to having laid down the best modern day version. Helped in no small part by a blinding solo from Jimmy Page and some pretty authentic twenties style backing vocals from Madelaine Bell and Rosetta and Sunny Hightower. ‘Change in Louise’ is the first of the original tracks and has a particularly pleasing melody and catchy chorus. The piano from Chris Stainton is also vital to the success of the song. It remains a personal favourite and not just because I was stepping out with a Louise when I first heard it !

‘Marjorine’, a second Cocker/Stainton composition is almost a throw back to the psychadelia of a couple of years earlier but is again infuriatingly catchy and provided Cocker with his first US hit. The mood is quickly taken back to the more melancholy though with the first of the two Dylan covers ‘Just Like A Woman’. Again this for me is a better version than the original or any others before or since. That may be down though to my well known dislike of Dylan’s vocal style. I don’t doubt that the bloke is one of the finest songwriters and lyricists the world has ever seen I just remain of the opinion that he can’t sing a note.

The second half of the album kicks off with the highlight for me ‘Do I Still Figure In Your Life’ is literally drenched in feeling and dripping in emotion. It remains for me Cocker’s greatest ever vocal performance and still sends a shiver down my spine even after thirty odd years of listening to it. My only complaint is that it could have gone on for another minute or two especially if Steve Winwood had been allowed more space for improvisation and Cocker had been encouraged to build and extend the closing part even more. The third and final Cocker/Stainton track ‘Sandpaper Cadillac’ is probably the weakest cut on the album but is still no back number and probably suffers a little from its positioning although it is actually quite difficult to see where else it could have been placed. ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ is another track which has been recorded by more than its fair share of people since originally being written for Nina Simone in 1964. More often connected with Eric Burden and The Animals than Cocker he still manages to put his mark on it. Again some great instrumentation from Henry McCullough on guitar and Tommy Eyre on the organ helps considerably.

The title track and Cocker signature tune follows and my only issue with it is its positioning. Track four on side two is a curious positioning for a track which was to become his best known and is clearly encore and album ending material. It makes you wonder whether the success was initially expected. The Cocker version is as far removed from the original Beatles version as you could imagine and is to all intents and purposes a different song in everything but lyric and basic melody. The musicianship of Jimmy Page, Tommy Eyre, Chris Stainton and BJ Wilson taking it to a musically far superior place than the composers ever could have in the same way that Cocker, with the help of backing vocalists Rosetta and Sunny Hightower did with the vocal. Personally I would have ended the album with it which would have top and tailed the album with uptempo feel good music. Instead the album closes with the second Dylan cover ‘I Shall Be Released’ and my preference for the title track as the closer doesn’t mean that particular track is in any way flawed. It just has a sort of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ type feel about it on occassions for me and would probably have been better served if it had flipped positions with the title track.

Whenever I peruse my All Time Album Chart I think I must have over rated this album as it currently stands as one of only 50 albums I have given the maximum 5 stars to from the 1000 I have rated. Then I put it on and realise that I haven’t.

© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM May 2011

About Martin Leedham

Music critic, Horse Racing Tipster, Hapless Dreamer, Defender of the Underdog
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