I really started getting into The Beatles in late 1981; eleven-and-a-half years after the band broke up, and just under a year after John Lennon’s murder. Having been born in 1971, the ten year gap between the breakup and Lennon’s death is a bit fuzzy in my mind. I was certainly aware of The Beatles, mostly from the animated Yellow Submarine movie, and from whatever lingering fragments that were still bouncing around in the 1970s pop culture vocabulary. They were a band. They were famous. They were British. That’s all I knew. I wasn’t even 10 yet.
So when I started becoming a Beatle obsessive that fall of 1981, my exposure to their songs came through either (1) whatever songs I could tape off the radio, or (2) whatever albums I could procure, which meant around birthday time, the holidays, saving up allowance shekels, or endless begging off my beleagured parents. One of the best birthday gifts I ever got was this two volume softcover book collection called The Compleat Beatles, which came in a cardboard slipcase and contained a host of different articles, histories, publication summaries, and photographs of the band… along with the complete sheet music to each and every one of their songs (and a few solo tunes still covered under the Northern/ATV publishing license, like ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘Give Peace A Chance’). Those books gave me a very basic but fundamental knowledge of the band’s history, and the sheet music allowed me to play piano, guitar, or sing along, whenever I listened to a particular album.
Here’s where our modulating bridge takes us to the tonic around which I’m trying to weave this particular song: being 10 years old in 1981, it wasn’t easy — in fact it was impossible, since I wasn’t a spoiled brat — to listen to every song I wanted to, in the order of its release. I remember the first three albums I had were “The Early Beatles” (the American equivalent of Please Please Me), “Let It Be”, and “Live At The Hollywood Bowl”. Basically their earliest studio recorded material, their last officially released recorded material, and some studio-muddled live tracks from 64-65. My experience with The Beatles’s music had no sense of continuity, progression, or development. It was a little bit here, a little bit there, and nothing but a foreknowledge of what came in the middle to bridge the gap.
And I loved it all. Every last second of it was filled with the joy of discovery, even if the journey was so chronologically capricious. Not a single rip was given.
That’s why I think an album as magnificent and perfectly constructed as Rubber Soul probably stands as the best musical example with which to introduce new fans to The Beatles’s bountiful and endearing musical legacy (beyond the “Greatest Hits”, anyhow). Their classic 1965 album comes at the heart of their transitional period, turning away from the imagery of mop-topped teenybopper pop sensations towards singer-songwriters without peer, leading the vanguard that transformed the feature-length album into a singular work of art rather than a collection of singles, b-sides, and filler. With Rubber Soul, the studio had become as much an instrument as the Hofner bass, Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars, and Ludwig kit, a tableau onto and into which the band expanded the boundaries of their craftsmanship.
The previous album “Help!” began the process in earnest; the transformation in their sound was already underway during those album sessions. Rubber Soul evolved the process to a point where the production values were not just stronger; the songs were richer, cohesive, more sophisticated in their construction yet buoyed by the inimitable simplicity and purity of their presentation. The hook-heavy opener of Drive My Car contains all the earmarks of a prototypical 1965 Beatles rocker: a rollicking beat from Ringo, pitch-perfect harmonies from John, Paul, and George, a snappy guitar solo (from Paul, no less), and an infectious chorus with an unforgettable tag. It’s also laden with an r&b backbone that gives the band more groove than they’ve shown before, and much cheekier subject matter. Snotty girl looks down at boy, she’s way out of his league, BUT she’ll let him drive her around. Only she has no car. And she ain’t no star. But maybe she’ll let him stick around anyhow. Nice.
This subversion of gender norms is the root of the exquisite Norwegian Wood, a tasteful and melodic piece in which John paints a scene of a man completely thrust out of the driver’s seat during a chance encounter. She is in charge, she met him (and not the opposite), she invites him over, makes him sit on the rug instead of in a chair, they talk for hours, and when it’s time for bed she makes him sleep in the bathtub (she’s gotta work in the morning). He wakes up, she’s already gone… and the ending leaves you wondering what happens next. He “lit a fire”… did he bask by the fireplace, lost in contemplative thought about the amazingly assertive woman he just met? Did he spark a joint in taciturn indifference? Or did he vindictively set fire to her flat? It’s the ultimate musical Choose Your Own Adventure ending, but no matter which door you choose, the entire affair is wrapped with a stunning piece of musical wonderment, from the sitar highlights, the folksy warmth of an acoustic guitar travelling around various sustained E chords, John’s almost amused but sturdy vocal performance buoyed by Paul’s harmonies… this is a perfect song.
Paul takes lead vocals on You Won’t See Me, a surprisingly piano-driven midtempo number. It’s a good song, and on many an album it would perhaps be a standout track, but here on Rubber Soul it feels a bit overshadowed by the higher quality its brethren. Nonetheless, one cannot deny its catchiness, especially with those backing vocals from John and George on those “Ooooh la la las…” on the chorus, or the echo responses of “No I wouldn’t, no I wouldnt, oooooh…” that segue the choruses back to the verses.
But you’d be hard-pressed to even remember “You Won’t See Me” once it ends and the album takes you directly into Nowhere Man, which is not only an album highlight and a band highlight, but perhaps one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded. It is the musical equivalent of butter and jam on toast, warm, sweet, and tasty. Everything you want in a Beatles track is here: jangly guitars, audio perfection in terms of melody and harmony, strong lyrics, great vocal performances, and one of George’s best solos ever (performed on a brand-new blue Fender Stratocaster). The song also makes me appreciate how much Ringo brought to the table; listen to how his drumwork gently nudges the song along from start to finish without getting in the way of the melody, the way his various fills create tension and resolution between verse and chorus. It’s a subtle effect, but it gives the song a good portion of its character.
Think For Yourself is the first of George Harrison’s two contributions to the album, a rollicking tune dripping with Paul’s fuzzbox bass and more of those perfect three-part harmonies with John and Paul. George’s pragmatism grounds the progression of the album, rooting it back with a sharp burst of caustic reality, taking us away from the wistfulness of “Drive My Car”, the contemplation of “Norwegian Wood”, or the faceless, reproachful narration of “Nowhere Man”. All of that is just lovely, but does it work as a song? Absolutely. George is developing not only as a songwriter but a musician. He fiddles with the structure playfully, keeping the tonic just out of arm’s reach as long as the song allows it, granting resolution at precisely the right moment. It’s a huge leap forward from “You Like Me Too Much” and “I Need You”.
Chorus becomes verse in The Word, which features more of those rich harmonies, a basic I-IV-V in D, the bass dropping to the lower fifth and back again, giving the backbone more muscle on what is otherwise a rather simple, straightforward ode. The highlights are Paul’s wandering and melodic bassline and his playful piano work, as well as the how they extended the final “wo-o-orrrrd” before the outro in a harmoniously triumphant descending three-part harmony.
Paul continues the development of his pop craftsmanship with the smooth Michelle, a love letter to a Gaulic beauty, in which he warbles his way through the French language in order to attract his object of desire. I’ve read other reviews critical of this song, and especially of Paul’s attempt at French wooing and wooism. Pshaw. That’s the point. He’s TRYING to find the words to make her understand. Trying to get to her somehow, even through a scouse dialect. Another acoustic number, the song features John and George on acoustic guitars (with George handling the guitar solo), Ringo on drums, and Paul punctuating his melody with some tasteful bass lines. The song acts as a precursor of sorts to some of his work on Revolver, specifically the harmonic structure that show up again on “Here There And Everywhere”.
Rubber Soul is such a strong album that it doesn’t send me running and screaming from country/western of a Chet Atkins sort, which here takes the form of What Goes On, Ringo’s first (and only) turn on lead vocals on the album. He also received a co-writing credit on the song — although by all accounts, his contributions were entirely minimal (John had written and shelved the song in his Quarrymen days). Structurally the song has a fascinating chorus, going to five bars instead of an expected four. George’s plucking is him doing his Country Gentleman thing at its best, and John and Paul bring the right amount of harmonies to elevate the song past its dated-sounding origins. It might not be a favorite, but not only do I still enjoy it, it fits right in perfectly with the rest of the album.
Girl takes John’s transposition of gender oneupsmanship on a sunny cruise down the Mediterranean. The strictly acoustic instrumentation lends the entire affair a decisively Greek flavor, but the song remain four men on two acoustic guitars, bass, and drums. George’s solo layers in some 12-string picking as well. The minor key underscores the songs passive aggressive lamentations, the deeply resigned intake breath between lines of the chorus is telling, perhaps knowing, but reeking of sweet pain. But then we have the playfulness of the “tit-tit-tit” harmonies of the bridge, almost a quick moment of transformative reassurance. Almost. The song is a beauty though. George’s solo that leads the song back to a final fade-out chorus is an album highlight.
Paul takes us uptempo with the bouncy confection of I’m Looking Through You, an acoustic folksy number that erupts with buoyant bursts of electric guitar and electric piano on the chorus. I love the acoustic guitarwork that’s going on here, especially in the middle eight. The sustained chords that are woven under the “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight” are positively iconic. Despite the explosive punctuations of the chorus, this is still one of the best folk tunes the Beatles ever recorded. Worth checking out is the alt-take that can be found on various bootlegs as well as Anthology 2, which eliminates the middle eight and electric instrumentation in favor of a slower tempo, more prominent acoustic guitars, and an exquisite handclap intro. While I prefer the released version, it makes for an interesting counter approach.
John gets entirely reflective in In My Life, probably his strongest vocal performance on the album, perhaps his strongest to date on any recording up to this one. Arguable, I’m sure, but worth putting forward regardless. The song has a hint of melancholy and more than a touch of angst, but Lennon has never sounded this refreshingly honest — or perhaps, this entirely sincere. The song is simple but never treacle, flirting with but refusing to devolve into maudlin cliche (“and these memories lose their meaning when I think of love as something new…”). George Martin’s piano solo, played an octave lower at half speed and then sped up for the master recording, is heartbreakingly beautiful.
Wait is probably not one of my favorite songs on the album, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t absolutely belong here. I admire its structure, its minor key verses that lead to a major key modulation, an expression of hope and optimism that falls back into a familiar minor key wistfulness. The harmonies are fantastic, the tavernesque sing-along quality infectious, but I still think it’s a lesser album track. Still a really good song, let’s be real. Just not quite up there with most of the others.
Here’s one of those others: George’s triumphant If I Needed Someone. This song is a beaut! If only for that jangly 12-string riff that roots the song in pure Byrds/folk-rock territory, it would have been enough. But listen to the layering of harmonies throughout the verses, the insistent melody buried under two harmonic accompaniments on the “If I needed someone!” line, the “aaaaaahs” that close the song out, the steady beat driven forward by Ringos’s metronomic drumming. The song is a swirling mist of strong melodies and assured craftsmanship, an under-heralded gem in The Beatles catalog if there ever was one, and a harbinger of George Harrison’s innate ability to construct utterly memorable songs.
The album wraps itself up rather disturbingly with Run For Your Life, a Lennon song which he himself hated quite a bit. There’s no doubting that this is a dark, uncomfortable number. On one hand, it’s a catchy pop song with some choice country-fried guitarwork from George. On the other hand, the subject matter is chilling and rather abhorrent: obsessive guy would rather see his girl dead by his own hand than with anybody else… you know, for kids! I guess the worst thing you can say about this song is that, despite the subject matter, it’s ridiculously catchy and totally infectious. You find yourself singing along, despite your better instincts. Does that, in and of itself, work in the song’s favor? Look, I haven’t the slightest. It ends the album in a rather puzzling manner, there’s no question of that. But the album ends with you singing along, rather vigorously and enthusiastically, despite your better instincts. Take that for what it’s worth.
Rubber Soul is firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of classic and important rock albums, but it’s also a damn great one as well, a magnificent album experience from start to finish. I started this review with the proposition that Rubber Soul is the perfect album to recommend to a budding Beatles fan looking to expand beyond the 1 album (or any greatest hits collection). I believe the judgment stands: there’s everything from frothy pop to wistful, soulful examination to pop experimentation and some crunchy rock to boot. It stands as a gateway that leads from the quick, catchy pop and balladry of the earlier period (late ’62 through ’64) to the more sophisticated, experimental studio work of their middle period (1965 – early 1967). But even on its own, the album is exquisite; a bold, strikingly confident expression from a band that could just have easily coasted on their pop phenom laurels, but instead took their considerable clout, influence, and unparalleled talents to begin work on creating singular and expressive works of musical creativity in album form.