Thoughts on Rubber Soul on its 50th Anniversary
This past weekend saw the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles album Rubber Soul; yesterday was the 35th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Today finds me…catching up.
One hallmark of great artists is that it is impossible to choose your favorite amongst their works. Or, you can choose one, but it keeps changing. Favorite Shakespeare play? Favorite Chaplin movie? Preposterous. So it is with me with the Beatles. But amongst my several favorites, Rubber Soul frequently surges to the top, and increasingly more so the older I get.
In my later teens, my tastes were Lennon-centric, tilted towards the later Lennon, the self-consciously “personal”, druggy, lyrically experimental and politically radical Lennon. But lately there’s a part of me that’s begun to think that Lennon’s best work was on Rubber Soul (and the album that preceded it, Help! which I’ll write about subsequently). “The devil!” you say, “His peak in 1965?!” Yes! And perhaps even the peak of the Beatles.
There is a universality about Rubber Soul, a sophistication, and a maturity. Influence from folk music brought lyrical depth, and a quieter, softer sound. Influence from jazz and classical music brought a broader range of styles. But it’s still the original act, an act with a much wider appeal, i.e., not yet explicitly drug-oriented or counter cultural. This is, to me, the last gasp of the Beatles as they were in their movies, as they were on television and as a live act, and as they might have been on Broadway (at a certain point they had discussed a Broadway show). There’s a charming bohemian edge to it, but it’s still show biz. It’s a record you could see playing on the same turntable that might spin “The Girl from Ipanema”, or “What’s New Pussycat?” or something. Like a lot of pop culture at the time (including movies) there are European influences in addition to the American ones. Lastly, this is the last album before Lennon virtually drops out, almost disappears into himself and then returns reincarnated. We’ll return to Lennon shortly.
When I was a kid, I liked the name of the record, but it seemed wrong. Where’s the “soul”? I wondered. Isn’t soul Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin? (It is). Ironically Paul McCartney’s best example of that kind of thing (“Got to Get You Into My Life”) would come on Revolver. McCartney had earlier used the phrase “plastic soul” in studio chatter during the sessions for “I’m Down”, a song which also fits the description. As for what WOUND UP on Rubber Soul, the only tunes I can identify that come close to that description are “Drive My Car”, “The Word”, and the breaks at the end of each verse of “I’m Looking Through You”. Ironically, there was a much more soulful version of “I’m Looking Through You” (later released on Anthology) but they switched it out for the better known version on the original record. And there were two more tracks from the sessions that would have gone a long way towards justifying the title. “Day Tripper” totally fits, but they pulled it off the record and released it only as a single (and on “Yesterday and Today” in the States). And they recorded a VERY interesting 12-bar Blues jam which is a really great peek at the Beatles behind the scenes. It’s the sort of thing they didn’t release on record very often, although they recorded quite a lot of these jams during the “Get Back” sessions. Until you hear it one mightn’t think they could play that way (and if you want to be mean, they sort of can’t. The Rubber Soul blues jam is a trifle lackluster, they never quite break out.) Still it puts across the IDEA of the title, and if they included these missing tracks it would have done more towards justifying this name. The record definitely hangs together as a concept album — it’s just that “rubber soul” doesn’t seem to be the actual prevailing concept.
What is the concept? You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s there. Rubber Soul is quite similar to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in that way. It feels sort of like a book of poems or short stories. The pieces do fit together. They’re coming from the same place. They evoke similar moods. But each entry in the whole is a little different. It’s not one single narrative.
The dominating voice (it seems to me) is still Lennon’s. He was the original leader of the band, and he still is at this stage. In the long run, “Yesterday” (and the man who wrote it) would take the wind out of Lennon’s sails, but that wouldn’t be evident until Revolver, which can be thought of as Lennon’s low-point. (Don’t get me wrong, Lennon is always Lennon and that’s vastly more than most others; it’s just that his genius is less on view in Revolver than in any other album, for reasons we’ll get to when we blog about that record in a few months.) In Rubber Soul he’s still very much in the race, still musically ambitious (whereas later he would be much less so).
I think of “Norwegian Wood” as the best song on the album — it sets the tone for the whole record. The imagery it evokes — of a dude (I picture him in a turtleneck) sitting on a chick’s floor, drinking wine, waiting to score — kind of encapsulates the entire era, and with such economy. I can picture the whole apartment, can’t you? I see it in Greenwich Village, but it could be London, Paris or Berlin, or (given the title) Oslo. There are shelves full of art books and poetry. There are candles. There’s probably no heat. (But there is a fireplace, come to think of it). And George Harrison’s sitar adds to the atmosphere of sophistication. Another Side of Bob Dylan was full of this kind of imagery…but Lennon had gone to art school, and hung out with bohemians in Hamburg. It was “him” as much as it was Dylan, although it was Dylan who had freed him up to write about it. The other thing I love about the song is the characteristic Lennon drollery, probably one of the best examples of it. It is funny. I think I may prefer the version on Anthology. There is a “call and response” thing with the sitar (and a kind of gloopy punctuation at the end) which makes it seem even funnier.
Third thing about the song is that it’s also moody. The singer DOESN’T score. He has to sleep in the bathtub, and when he wakes up the girl has taken off. (Like the Rolling Stone’s “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, these are some of the first intimations of sex in pop music, which had previously been the domain of teeny boppers).
The rest of Lennon’s songs on the album all have this moody, reflective quality. “Girl” sounds like a beautiful Eastern or Southern European folk song; there’s a tone of regret to it (even though the singer claims to have no regrets). The girlfriend sounds like a handful. (I’ve always found commentators’ claims that Lennon’s inhalations were meant to evoke pot-smoking, and that the background “tit tit tit” vocal was meant as a dirty joke, to be simplistic and moronically literal. They’re just sounds. Can’t you just enjoy sounds?).
The nostalgic “In My Life” is one of Lennon’s masterpieces — and THIS is what I miss when he begins dropping acid and losing himself. This is a clear bit of writing, and an ambitious piece of music. Lennon definitely wrote the words (which presage the mood of “Strawberry Fields”) but it’s a matter of some contention as to who wrote the tune, as McCartney now claims credit. He may be overstating it — that melodic figure when Lennon sings “li-hi-hi-hi-life” in the second line is SO characteristically Lennon (and not very McCartneyesque). I can’t divorce the tune from Lennon’s performance. At any rate, directly after this record, Lennon starts giving us much simpler music, in songs such as “Rain” (three chords) and “Tomorrow Never Knows” (one chord) and within a few years he would become a sort of rock ‘n’ roll oldies act. Ambitious songs like this were behind him. “In My Life” may well be his high water mark as a songwriter, at least as a writer of “standards”.
As for “Nowhere Man” I’ve never been as crazy about it. I find it repetitive and not very inspired. Its best aspects are in the production, the harmonies, the arrangement, etc.
Another striking track is “Run for Your Life”, which draws from folk in allowing the content to be MUCH darker than usual. It sounds like your basic 1965 Beatles track — but it’s told from the point of view of somebody who’s threatening his girlfriend with physical violence.
As for McCartney’s contributions to the album — in a way, the entire album is his best contribution, i.e., it is often his musicianship in the support of the other guy’s songs which are what we value the most. Interestingly, he himself doesn’t seem to set out with any huge ambition as a songwriter on this album. For example, there is no “classical strings” number on the order of “Yesterday”, “Eleanor Rigby” or “She’s Leaving Home”. I think his strongest, most memorable tune on Rubber Soul is “Michelle”, which is very savvy in putting us into a Parisian head space in the age of the Nouvelle Vague. (Its imagery actually seems very much of a piece with “Norwegian Wood”). I’m also very fond of “I’m Looking Through You”, with its folkie harmonies reminiscent of those on the song “Help!” And “You Won’t See Me” is very catchy. It strikes me as a song that would be excellent for a Motown girl group (though it was later a hit for the soporific Anne Murray).
But as I say frequently it’s McCartney’s musicianship we think of. His high harmonies. His bass playing is often the saving grace of many a weak tune. For example, Lennon’s “The Word” is a bit of a throwaway, saved by McCartney’s swinging bass playing. The fuzz bass on Harrison’s “Think for Yourself”, is almost exclusively what most people remember about that tune. And McCartney’s playing on “Drive My Car” is breath-taking.
I love Harrison’s two songs. “Think for Yourself” like a lot of his early songwriting (e.g., “Don’t Bother Me) has an almost proto-punk quality, sort of melodically dark and cramped. “If I Needed Someone” propelled along by McCartney’s interesting, business like bass-line, the ringing, chiming guitars, and the sweeping three part harmonies, is downright majestic.
As for the obligatory Ringo number, “What Goes On” is the weakest link. It’s tedious and repetitive. It’s always been the Rubber Soul track I’m mostly like to skip listening to. It’s not that it’s too country. It’s that it’s too blah. The Beatles’ cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” on their preceding record was downright inspired by comparison, as is Harrison’s solo on “Run for Your Life”.
As for “Wait”, which is about 50% Paul and 50% John, it’s pleasant enough (I love the tremolo effect on the guitar). It sounds like a throwback to the days of Beatles ’65 or Beatles VI. This and “We Can Work It Out” (pulled from these sessions for release a single) was one of the last occasions when the pair functioned together as a real songwriting team.
Is Rubber Soul the last proper Beatles album? Revolver finds them being even more experimental and also more individualistic…thus more separate, less collaborative. Ironically Rubber Soul seems a more “mature” album than subsequent ones — it pulls away from the pure pelvic passion and noise of rock. And while subsequent albums move even farther away from boy-girl romantic themes, they remain “adolescent” in the sense that their exploration of mystical and outre themes can be kind of superficial and sensational. You know what I mean? On the order of “Mr. Mojo Risin'” — although the Beatles, on their worst day could never be as stupid as the Doors.
I’ll be writing about Help! soon, as I forgot to observe the anniversary a few months back.