“Rubber Soul” by the Beatles (1965)
A good argument can be made that every Beatles album, at least the ones over which they had creative control, should be on any list of the all-time greats. My erstwhile colleague Brad Hundt, a talented entertainment writer and lifelong Beatlemaniac, no doubt would do so on his list.
But as a reminder, Harry’s Hundred combines my respect for an album’s merits, my familiarity with its contents and how much I enjoy listening to it. So it’s not exactly a “greatest” list; if so, stuff like “Golden Earring Live” would be nowhere near it. But that ain’t a bad album, and I still like it a whole lot 35 years after its release.
So I’ve narrowed down my Beatles selections, and here’s where we start, at the juncture when the Beatles evolved from pop to art, when they demonstrated once and for all that they weren’t just some British guys with long hair and Edwardian suits making a bunch of noise.
What’s remarkable about “Rubber Soul” is that the Beatles and George Martin recorded it on deadline, trying to rush-release it before the holiday shopping season. The band had just returned to England from another North American tour full of fans screaming so loud that the musicians couldn’t hear themselves. Rather than take time off, as they’d do following their final tour the following year, they plunged headlong into writing new songs.
What emerged was a departure from most of the love-song music they’d made to that point. Sure, boy-girl relationships continued to be a prominent theme, but in a much more creative manner.
The opener, “Drive My Car,” is indicative of the new direction: John Lennon draws from the Robert Johnson “Terraplane Blues” songbook – Robert Plant later would use it to optimal effect on Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Under Foot” – to equate sex with operating a vehicle, and this time it’s the woman who’s enticing the man.
Lennon explores the male-female dynamic with sophistication previously unknown in the Beatles canon on “Norwegian Wood,” which turned about to be the veiled story of his affair with a journalist. Musically, the song also marks a major step forward, as George Harrison plays the sitar for the first time in rock music history. (Outtakes, such as the one released on “Anthology 2,” show the instrument to be much more prominent in the mix than on the official version.)
Paul McCartney joins the fray with “You Won’t See Me,” a commentary on his relationship with Jane Asher, one that would end a couple of years later when she caught him red-handed with an American woman named Francine Schwartz. As for the song, it displays a certain amount of petulance not found in previous McCartney compositions: “When I call you up, your line’s engaged/I have had enough, so act your age.”
“Nowhere Man” joins previous classics “I’m a Loser” and “Help!” as explorations of Lennon’s self-doubt, a condition that would manifest itself considerably in the coming years. The opening a cappella recitation of the lyrics stands as one of the most striking examples of the Beatles’ vocal abilities, and the song remains one of the most revered in the band’s catalog.
“Think for Yourself” demonstrates why George Harrison felt slighted when it came to the paucity of his compositions on Beatles albums. By any measure, it’s an exceptionally advanced composition for 1965: The lyrics resonate fully almost half a century later, what with the utter vapidness into which popular culture has evolved, and the frightening implications that has for the future of the world. Instrumentally, McCartney’s fuzz-toned bass guitar is at once innovative and another step toward what would become hard rock.
Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love” became one of his best-known anthems. But he explored basically the same theme two years earlier with “The Word,” which also shows the Beatles’ overall sound becoming harder-edged as the ’60s progressed.
OK, so why do I rank “Rubber Soul” at a spot where 36 albums are ahead of it? Sorry, I’ve tried to warm up to “Michelle” for decades, but it’s one of the few Beatles songs that leaves me cold. Sure, it explores traditional French themes as opposed to the standard pop/rock of the time, which is interesting from a musical standpoint but hardly endears it to listeners who are prefer something a bit heavier.
Ringo Starr’s first Beatles co-composing credit appears on “What Goes On,” a relatively nondescript country-flavored tune that has its charms but isn’t quite the remedy for getting back on track after “Michelle.” Neither is “Girl,” though you have to like the “tit-tit-tit” backing vocals that escaped the censors.
McCartney redeems himself considerably with “I’m Looking Through You,” another jab at Jane through a relatively complex set of lyrics. Two distinct versions exist of the song, with the one that first was recorded serving as a sought-after collector’s item for decades, until “Anthology 2” made that moot.
Lennon’s much-heralded “In My Life” is one of the first of his many trips down memory lane, a bit more upbeat than, say, “Mother,” but still containing a fair amount of poignancy. “Some are dead and some are living,” for example, refers to Stuart Sutcliffe; it’s been conjectured that John always shouldered some of the blame for Stu’s early death.
When the Beatles were writing and recording what became “Rubber Soul,” they managed to come up with 13 new songs. The 14th, “Wait,” was an outtake from the “Help!” album, but the track tends to mesh seamlessly with most of the newer material.
Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone,” while not quite reaching the heights of “Think for Yourself,” still shows that he would have been the chief songwriter in just about any other rock band of the era.
The album closes with the tongue-in-cheek “Run for Your Life,” which is about as far removed thematically as you can get from tunes like “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Lennon, who admitted nicking the opening line from Arthur Gunter’s “Baby, Let’s Play House” (as sung by Elvis Presley), ended up despising “Run for Your Life.” We’ll blame that development, like many others, on Yoko’s influence …
For the record (pun intended), the American “Rubber Soul” LP is a substantially different album from its British counterpart, containing two songs from the U.K. version of “Help!” – “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love” – while jettisoning “Drive My Car,” “Nowhere Man,” “What Goes On,” and “If I Needed Someone.”
By opening the album with “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” which sounds somewhat like Paul Simon compositions of the period (or vice versa), Capitol Records made the U.S. “Rubber Soul” appear to be more of a folk-rock album, to compete commercially with the likes of Bob Dylan and the Byrds on Columbia. Like the Beatles needed help with sales!
Seriously, whatever the version, “Rubber Soul” went to the top of the charts around the world, proving the Beatles could appeal to a more serious, mature audience than the screaming teeny-boppers who packed their concerts. In turn, that made the band members realize they probably didn’t need to be trying to perform in front of screaming teeny-boppers.
But that’s another story.