Album Spotlight: The Beatles—Rubber Soul

If the Beatles had disbanded prior to the release of Rubber Soul, their sixth album, they would be remembered, if at all, as a talented pop group of the early Sixties with a tremendous amount of songwriting talent and innovation. Rubber Soul was the game-changer, however, setting them on the path toward musical immortality. Innovations both lyrically and musically were now distinct from their earlier records. Slowly but surely, they were becoming a studio band, and this was the benchmark. (Interestingly enough, unlike Help!, they used no outside studio musicians.)

Recording sessions began October 12th, 1965, and ended on November 11th. Let that sink in; not only did they record one of the finest albums in their career, they did it in thirty days, one month. 1 John hits it out of the ballpark with four songs which are Beatles classics. Paul only has one, but his other numbers aren’t far behind; and George comes up with his first classic recording. A phenomenal record, indeed.

On their previous album, Help!, the method of recording had changed: instead of recording many takes and then choosing the best one for release, with perhaps a few overdubs, the Beatles had began recording just a few takes and then performing many overdubs on the best one. Rubber Soul took this method and ran with it, producing multilayered, complex pieces.

Drive My Car: A great bit of soul from Paul, who came up with a witty story about a guy who is approached by a woman to drive her car—except that she doesn’t actually have an automobile. I can just picture him squeezing her, uh, horn(s) as John and George chime in: “Beep beep, beep beep, yeah!” What really makes the song memorable is the agency given to the young woman: she’s in charge of their relationship, not him. I like the way the piano on the chorus just comes in out of nowhere.

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown): The second song on the album to detail a sexual interlude, John’s take is much more serious and surreal than Paul’s. The lack of a chair on which to sit, the bathtub used as a bed and the phrase “Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood”, are all used to great effect. Spider Robinson, the sci-fi author, had a character postulate in one of his novels or short stories2 that the lyric might actually have been “Isn’t it good, knowing she would” and that Lennon changed it to avoid censorship. I find this quite plausible. Written about an affair in code so that Cynthia wouldn’t find out; no one knows who the woman was, but Joan Baez, Eleanor Bron (from the film Help!) and singer Alma Cogan have all been suggested. The arrangement features George’s new toy, a sitar, to excellent effect, dialed down quite a bit from the first version which is far more Eastern in feel.

You Won’t See Me: Written quickly to fill out the album, yet still a marvelous song from Paul about being hurt and rejected. The song encapsulates that feeling you get when you can’t reach your loved one because she’s shutting you out. Paul’s piano work and the harmonies are sublime. Mal Evans, one of the Beatles’ roadies, is credited with harmonium, but I have a difficult time hearing it if so.

Nowhere Man: What a gorgeous a capella opening with John, Paul and George on harmonies! As usual when they sing trios, I always have trouble nailing George’s part; he fills in the gaps perfectly. Lovely chiming electric guitars and lyrics which John wrote in an hour or two when he was in a bad mood and had gone to lie down. I wonder if he was inspired by the Kinks’ single A Well Respected Man which had just been released in September. Davies’ take is more class inspired, though, while John’s vision of the Nowhere Man living in his nowhere land seems more universal and forgiving: “Please listen/You don’t know what you’re missing….Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

Think For Yourself: George at this point was contributing two songs to each record. This one is good, but it seems unfinished; I feel as if it needs a middle eight or a guitar solo. Paul rocks the hell out of that fuzz bass. Lyrically, it’s quite intriguing, showing more than a hint of George’s future spirituality. I wonder what he made later of the lines “You’re telling all those lies/About the good things that we can have if we close our eyes.” If, as John later said, he had a hand in George’s early material, I can believe that this song might be one instance, with words like “opaque” and “rectify”.

The Word: I love this song, much more than the later All You Need Is Love. The piano meshes with Paul’s amazing overdubbed bass line to create a bed for those gorgeous three-part harmonies. John’s message is simple and clear: The Word is Love. Fantastic. George Martin plays that brief but fine harmonium piece.

Michelle: Beautiful acoustic guitars create a soft, lovely setting for Paul’s classic about struggling to communicate his love to a French girl. He was taking French lessons at the time. I think it’s incredible that at no point does he use the phrase “Je t’aime”; instead, he cleverly translates the line “These are words that go together well”. George attempted a guitar line, but George Martin didn’t like it, and improvised another solo for him to play. Could they not see how this affected Harrison’s ego? But it is a gorgeous solo, and John and George’s harmonies mesh with the song perfectly.3

What Goes On: Side Two’s opener. The Beatles first tried to record this on March 5th, 1963 (no recordings exist from that date, as they only rehearsed it); now they resurrected the tune because of time pressures and gave it to Ringo for his solo. They also gave him a songwriting credit (Lennon/McCartney/Starkey), but it’s uncertain what, if any, changes he made to the original. At any rate, it’s a country and western flavored ditty similar to Act Naturally with nice vocals from John and Paul on the choruses. I like George’s guitar solo and flourishes. I also like the way John says “We already told you why!” in the background after Ringo sings “Tell me why” for the second time, referencing their earlier number Tell Me Why from A Hard Day’s Night.

Girl: What a song. Acoustic guitars, a strong melody, and lyrics about a girl who is John’s ideal woman, whom he later found in Yoko Ono. The last verse has always puzzled me, I admit; I can’t quite make out what it means. Who does John refer to when he says “Did she understand it when they said”? What’s the significance of pain leading to pleasure? Who is dead—the man who breaks his back? I love it because I can’t quite grasp it. The “tit tit tit” backing from Paul and George is clever, but I never would’ve known had I not been told. I love the guitars at the ending, and John’s intake of breath on the choruses.

I’m Looking Through You: I wouldn’t quite call this a classic, but it’s a brilliant piece from Paul, written after a tiff with his girlfriend Jane Asher.4 With penetrating lyrics about seeing someone differently after a fight, it has some amazing lines, including “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight”. This line was not in the original take, a bluesy and electric version which, while fantastic, was rejected for this more acoustic remake. It’s just as good, and fits in better on this album—and the Beatles were beginning to think of albums as artistic works in and of themselves by this time. Ringo plays the short bursts of organ on the chorus.

In My Life: Written about his deceased friend and former Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, this is a marvelous piece of autobiography by Lennon which is also universal. We all remember friends and places from the past. Originally it began as a catalog of street names and locations in Liverpool, but John wisely ditched this approach. Paul always claims that he helped John with this song to a much greater extent than John said; I can believe that he helped broaden the theme and perhaps directed the second part of the song, where it becomes more of a traditional love song. George Martin plays the piano solo, which was recorded with the tape at half speed and then sped up to create the almost harpsichord effect.5

Wait: A Help! leftover which they dragged out and overdubbed some tone pedal and some vocals and percussion onto it in order to meet the album deadline. It’s a good song, if not a great one, with some excellent drumming from Ringo. I still can’t decide if John or Paul wrote it, since the former predominates the verses and the latter the chorus. It may have been one of those “I’ve got half a song and so do you. Let’s stick them together!” numbers. (See: A Day In The Life.)

If I Needed Someone: A Byrds-like magnificent number from our George, his first really great Beatles tune. The chiming electric guitars and three-part harmonies combine with his usual theme of “Well, I don’t really love you, but you’ll do for now”.  Although he does use the word “love” on the chorus. Along with Nowhere Man, they chose this from the album to perform live on the 1966 tour, which must have made George feel more appreciated.

Run For Your Life: John disavowed this song shortly after it was released, stating that he’d been inspired by Elvis Presley’s Baby Let’s Play House, with its line “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” However, while Elvis used that as a toss-off, Lennon took the idea and ran with it in one of his most chilling songs. The worst part is that it’s a great tune and great arrangement, with some neat guitar work from George and nice harmonies with Paul on the chorus. But in today’s age of #MeToo, it really sends shivers down the spine—and even did the first time I heard it. Do I sing along? Yes. Do I wish it had different words to sing? Absolutely. At least, to John’s credit, I think he wished the same thing.

Rubber Soul was released just in time for Christmas on December 3rd, 1965. In the U.S., four songs were removed for a single (Nowhere Man/What Goes On) and for later use (Drive My Car, If I Needed Someone). All these songs later ended up on the compilation Yesterday…and Today. I’ve Just Seen A Face replaced Drive My Car as the opener on the U.S. version, and It’s Only Love took What Goes On’s spot. Normally, I complain about Capitol’s butchery of the Beatles’s albums, but this actually made for an even more acoustic-themed work which really succeeded with American fans.6 Brian Wilson cited the American Rubber Soul as being the inspiration for the Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds. Still, I prefer the U.K. version as being faithful to the band’s intent, and because I can’t do without Nowhere Man and If I Needed Someone.

Robert Freeman took the iconic album photo, as well as the back cover shots. The stretched look, perfectly fitting the album title, came when the photographer was projecting the proposed photos on a piece of white album-sized cardboard laid upon a chair, and the cardboard flipped back just as they’d chosen this picture, distorting it. Naturally, the band leaped on the accident, as they were so skilled at doing. This would be Freeman’s last album cover for the band. It’s also their first album cover without their name on the front; those famous faces were all that was needed to sell millions of copies.

A word about the mix: For some bizarre reason, perhaps because of all the multitracking, the original stereo 1965 mix places almost all the vocals on the extreme right channel. This is incredibly annoying and frustrating. When the CD was released in 1987, George Martin remixed it, moving the vocals more towards the center; this is the mix released on the remasters on September 9, 2009. It’s still rather unbalanced, though, and is the reason why I would like a real remix of Rubber Soul although I dislike the idea of remixing the Beatles’ works in general. It’s also the reason that the mono mix is my go-to listening experience, although it deletes the guitar part at the end of What Goes On.7

Rubber Soul is in my Top Five of Beatles albums, being a work of greatness for most of the record and nothing less than satisfying throughout. The title, by the way, may have come from a comment Paul made during the Help! sessions referring to “Plastic soul, man, plastic soul.” He was talking about Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones’ versions of black soul classics, but the phrase may well have informed what the Beatles were attempting for their latest record. Of course, with John in the band, it’s a pun as well.