Remembering the first Beatles album that truly mattered
In May 1966, when John Lennon and Paul McCartney gave Bob Dylan an advance listen of “Tomorrow Never Knows” from the Beatles’ upcoming album Revolver, Dylan is said to have responded, “Oh, I get it. You don’t want to be cute anymore.”
Actually, the Beatles had taken that step seven months earlier, when they entered EMI Recording Studios (which wouldn’t be renamed Abbey Road Studios until 1970) to record Rubber Soul. It was the album which finally and definitively left their “mop top” image behind for good.
And it still stands as a testament to the Beatles’ continual desire, to keep progressing, to keep trying to do something new. Their explosive success had kept them in something of a holding pattern in 1965. Like 1964, they toured the UK, Europe, and the United States, made a film and released two albums (in England at least; in America, where albums had fewer tracks, Capitol managed to squeeze out four). But the tours were shorter, as the Beatles were increasingly interested in directing their creative energies into what could be accomplished in the studio.
Rubber Soul introduced some new sounds, most notably the sitar on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” played by George Harrison, who’d recently become of a devotee of Indian music after being introduced to it while filming Help! The studio began to come into play as an instrument in its own right, as when producer George Martin decided that to get the just right sound for his piano part on “In My Life,” he played it at half-speed for playback at double-speed. There’s a rich autumnal feeling to the record, which emphasizes acoustic instrumentation. But the clearest sign of the Beatles’ artistic development was the new maturity evident in their songs.
They were songs coming from a group that was older, wiser, and a bit more worldweary. In Lennon’s songs in particular, the insecurities he’d expressed in “Help!” were coming more to the fore. The mellow “Norwegian Wood” was inspired by the affairs he had throughout his marriage. But you needn’t know the subtext to pick up on the resentment that runs through this caustic tale. “Girl” was a desperate plea coming from the heart of a tortured relationship with the kind of woman “you want so much it makes you sorry” (McCartney giving the song a touch of Continental flair by suggesting the acoustic guitars at the end try to emulate the sound of Greek bouzoukis). The gorgeous harmonies of “Nowhere Man” can’t mask the emptiness of the title character. “Doesn’t have a point of view/Knows not where he’s going to” the group blithely observes, before the lyric sticks in the knife: “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”
Harrison’s testy in “Think for Yourself,” the abrasive fuzz guitar nicely underscoring his surly dismissal of an acquaintance who can’t see beyond their own limitations (“Although your mind’s opaque/try thinking more if just for your own sake”). “If I Needed Someone” is a half-hearted declaration of love from someone who couldn’t care less (give him your number and he’ll call you — maybe), wedded to a jangling guitar and more strong vocal harmonies. Even McCartney is a bit out of sorts at times, sniping rather petulantly at his partner in “You Won’t See Me” and “I’m Looking Through You.”
VIDEO: The Making of Rubber Soul
Not that that’s all there is to the album. It simply the reveals that the Beatles were now addressing the intricacies of adult relationships, having moved on from the simplicity of such fare as “Love, love me do.” “The Word” even moves beyond romantic love entirely, finding spiritual salvation in love as a unifying force (it’s another number with impressive harmonies; check out the vocal descent at the end). Lennon’s remarkable “In My Life” describes love philosophically, something that becomes richer because of your life experiences. Interestingly, it’s a song bathed in nostalgia even as the lyrics reject living in the past. Lennon rightly considered it “my first real, major piece of work.”
McCartney’s inner tunesmith delivered another lovely standard in “Michelle,” spiced up by having a few lyrics in French. He also indulges his dark side in the snappy opener, “Drive My Car,” a lightly cynical look at rising stardom (elsewhere, he also came up with the idea to have the frustrated suitor in “Norwegian Wood” burn down the house of his would-be conquest).
Rushing to meet a deadline (sessions began on October 12 for an album set for December release) meant that quality control did slip on occasion. The unmemorable “What Goes On” was an early Lennon number, countrified and tweaked by McCartney and Ringo Starr (the latter’s first composing credit) for the Starr’s showcase on the album. “Wait” was a reject from the Help! sessions, salvaged on the last day of recording Rubber Soul because another track was needed to finish the album, then gussied up with new overdubs. And Lennon himself never had a kind word to say about his own “Run for Your Life,” a jealousy-infused rant for which he lifted a line from Elvis Presley’s cover of “Baby, Let’s Play House.”
In truth, “Run for Your Life” feels a bit out of place on an album that’s full of more thoughtful, carefully crafted material (not that Capitol Records noticed; four songs were lopped off from the UK track listing for future use, replaced by two tracks from the UK version of Help!). Rubber Soul signaled a true coming of age, as the Beatles began to take more control of their career.
It was the first album where they started to really flexing their creative muscles. There were more delights to come.