THE BEATLES: RUBBER SOUL (1965)
1) Drive My Car; 2) Norwegian Wood; 3) You Won't See Me; 4) Nowhere Man; 5) Think For Yourself; 6) The Word; 7) Michelle; 8) What Goes On; 9) Girl; 10) I'm Looking Through You; 11) In My Life; 12) Wait; 13) If I Needed Someone; 14) Run For Your Life.
As everybody knows, this is where the switch is flipped, without any possibility of going back. With The Beatles saw the band adopt an unbreakable «no-filler» policy (even the filler must, in one way or other, be treasurable); Rubber Soul sees it transform into a «no-routine» policy. Starting here, it is no longer sufficient for everything to be «good» — it has to be «expansive», with a permanent, non-stop coverage of new territory. I wonder just how exactly conscious that decision must have been — and am fairly certain that it was conscious, that an explicit goal was set, and, furthermore, that whatever aided its fulfillment the most was healthy (sometimes unhealthy) competition between John, Paul, and, to a lesser degree, George (but even George had decidedly joined the game by the end of 1965).
By the fall of 1965, the band was relatively free of heavy touring commitments, and everyone had more time to poke around and take a good look at whatever was a-happenin'. There are tons of acknowledged outside influences on Rubber Soul: from Dylan and the Byrds to Otis Redding, but, as usual, the Beatles never allow these influences to overshadow their own inspiration and craftsmanship. A lesser band would have resulted in a bandwagon-jumping mishmash; Rubber Soul, following the guidelines laid out by the era's most innovative acts, turns the trick right on them and, through sheer magic, somehow becomes the leader.
The most important quality in a leader is that the leader should be impossible to pigeonhole, and Rubber Soul is properly uncategorizable. Try to play all the seven tracks on Side A in your head at the same time (yes, it is possible if you listen to them long enough), and they will be seven different worlds, peacefully coinhabiting the same vinyl environment. This is the highest level of diversity on a Beatles side so far, and, as far as I'm concerned, even the White Album would have a difficult time beating it on these terms. But even the White Album, for all of its unpredictability, did not make such bold strides in all these different styles as Rubber Soul does. Think about it some more, and you will begin to understand why musicians, critics, and fans alike were flabbergasted — including Brian Wilson, who was reportedly spurred on to the success of Pet Sounds by listening to the album. Not that anything on Pet Sounds has any similarity to anything on Rubber Soul — it's simply that, for quite a few people, Rubber Soul unavoidably acted as a catalyst. «Go on out there, we dare you to be as creative as we are». (It also ruined many a lesser band's career — with this new type of benchmark established, the old policy of developing a set formula and sticking to it for the rest of one's life was done for. Not everyone survived the transition — Gerry Marsden and Dave Clark will tell you the rest of it).
Out of sheer controversy, my consciously selected favourite on Side A, for quite some time, was Paul's ʽYou Won't See Meʼ — just because so much praise was already heaved on everything else, and this was a nifty «dark sheep» to ride. But, in all honesty, even this relatively «conservative» pop tune still has an entirely different sound, mood, and feel to it than anything done previously. It reflects a real situation in Paul's life (a temporary estrangement from Jane Asher, to be remedied later before they'd eventually break up for good), and almost everything about it — the mature, if still a bit simplistic, lyrics; the vocal intonations; the darker production overtones — qualifies for a «singer-songwriter» style, rather than just another exciting, but formulaic pop hit. In addition, it features what I consider to be one of the Beatles' greatest vocal arrangements (it is already a joy just to listen to them gain in complexity and intensity throughout the song), and probably the most successful ever attempt at creating a special mood with just one single note: for the last verse of the song, trusty roadie Mal Evans is holding down the A note on a Hammond organ, creating this barely noticeable low hum that somehow gives the song an extra depth level. (Before the Internet came along, I'd wondered about that hum for years, actually).
But this is really just to reaffirm my faith in how amazingly consistent the whole construction is. Indeed, Rubber Soul finally sees the emergence of Paul McCartney as not only as a great melody writer, but as an artist no longer afraid of taking risks, and, indeed, reveling in risk-taking. ʽYou Won't See Meʼ is, after all, fairly conservative next to ʽDrive My Carʼ and ʽMichelleʼ. The former is Paul's first non-love song, as is obvious not only from the lyrics (that are more about humorous character assassination than about anything else), but also from the melody — gritty, R'n'B-ish, and quite bass-heavy (George claimed to have laid down both the basic bass part and the accompanying bass-doubling rhythm guitar, but I doubt it: why the heck would Paul not want to play the crucial bass part on one of his own songs?). And the latter? Chet Atkins + stereotypical Parisian atmosphere (in live performances, Paul likes to augment the sound with an accordeon, which I find way too obvious) + sweetest bass solo ever put to tape. As corny as your average French pop song, but still genius.
Compared to this, John's breakthroughs on Rubber Soul are not as huge, but that's because he'd already covered much of that distance before. ʽNorwegian Woodʼ builds upon the foundation of ʽYou've Got To Hide Your Love Awayʼ, but this time adding a distinct, instantly hard-hitting melody to the bare accompaniment, not to mention the lyrics and their vocal delivery being far more true to the John character — this time around, the bitch actually gets it. (Whoever said the Rolling Stones were more «dangerous» than the Beatles? Mick Jagger only warned the girl about the dangers of playing with fire; John Lennon is not afraid to light the fire in person). Of course, the song is mostly famous for George's sitar part, which was, at that time, added somewhat spontaneously, on a momentary whim, but ended up predicting his future career.
[Side note: I actually agree with Alan Pollack that the sitar in ʽNorwegian Woodʼ is rather «clunky sounding», and that the song could have been just as strong without it, as existing early takes demonstrate. In fact, both the Yardbirds' ʽHeart Full Of Soulʼ and the Kinks' ʽSee My Friendsʼ, although the songs only imitate the sitar rather than use it — the Yardbirds actually did record a sitar version, but abandoned it because it did not resonate with enough power for a single release — both these songs are far more adept at setting an «Indian» mood. Which does not deny the actual pioneer move, since ʽNorwegian Woodʼ was the first original pop song to use a sitar; nor does it mean that there is anything «wrong» with the move — George's «clunky», minimalistic playing quite matches the basic melody and feeling.]
ʽNowhere Manʼ must have appeared out of nowhere indeed: nobody saw it coming, and the sight of the Beatles performing the song live during their last international tours in 1966 is extremely confusing, because, if there ever was one song in their pre-Revolver catalog not to be addressed to seas of screaming girls, it is this one. Okay, so I stand corrected: this is a real milestone for John, his first pronounced attempt at carrying himself away into a parallel world; and he would forever retain this penchant for parallel worlds, regardless of all the disillusionments and the confessionals and the politics and Yoko and whatever else — there is a straight line from ʽNowhere Manʼ not only to ʽLucy In The Sky With Diamondsʼ, but to ʽDream No. 9ʼ as well, and maybe even right down to ʽ(Just Like) Starting Overʼ, in a way. The coolest thing about John's parallel worlds, of course, is that he wastes no time on building them — they just descend upon him all by themselves, while he is doing nothing: "Nowhere man, don't worry, take your time, don't hurry, leave it all till somebody else lends you a hand" — get it? That's the way to go about it. Greatest single moment about the song: the high ringing E at 1:03 that concludes George's guitar solo like a sudden burst of inspiration / revelation. It didn't necessarily need to be there, but that's what makes a Beatles classic a Beatles classic.
Speaking of George, his Side A contribution, ʽThink For Yourselfʼ, is a major leap forward as well — also his first non-love song, more like a simple socio-philosophical rumination on the perils of brainwashing (but, mind you, still not tainted by Indian motives, which would only begin rearing their head on Revolver). No bridge, no solo, three verses of straightahead preaching, a grumbly, fuzzy bassline carrying the main melody — decidedly a claim to something special. But I think that what really makes the song are the effortless tempo transitions from verse to chorus: the verses, frankly speaking, are a little bit boring, and we all know it is the easiest thing in the world for George to write a boring, mid-tempo, preachy song, so each time the tune transforms into an aggressive faster-paced pop-rocker, it's cheer time. The result is probably not a true masterpiece on the level of George's later songs, but the whole thing is still quite intriguing — in fact, it is well nigh impossible to even understand the exact genre of the song, which takes a little bit of melodic stuffing from almost everywhere.
Finally, there is no forgetting ʽThe Wordʼ as the first ever «anthemic» song to be recorded by the guys — a direct predecessor to ʽAll You Need Is Loveʼ, stating the same message in cruder terms, but, actually, with more of that crude-rocking energy (and it has the best Ringo fills on the entire album, too). It's not the most inventive track on the album (twelve-bar blues form, mostly?), per se, but it is the first time in the Beatles catalog where they deliver an explicit message to the world, and the bluntness of the melody is appropriate, because that's what most anthems are. And again, it never prevents them from scattering little tricks all over the place — such as George Martin's harmonium solo, giving the whole thing a bit of a religious feel (for lack of a church organ, that is), or my favourite bit, when the repetitive "Say the wooooord..." chorus is pushed up to ecstatic falsetto levels on 1:39. That's right: if you're gonna be repetitive about it, at least don't be monotonously repetitive. Give the people a little bit of hysteria.
The second side of the album is a tiny bit of a letdown in comparison, but not even the Beatles could handle fourteen individual breakthroughs in a row. Of course, there are no bad songs, but certain facts speak for themselves. I have never cared all that much for ʽWaitʼ, a sort of slightly updated take on ʽWhen I Get Homeʼ but with way, way too little happening to the song once the first solid verse/chorus pair is over; it was hardly a surprise to discover that it was, in fact, an outtake from the Help! sessions, carried over at the last moment to plug a gap (so, «filler» from an objective perspective). John himself would harbor and occasionally express hatred for ʽRun For Your Lifeʼ — well, he probably was ashamed of the misogynistic lyrics, I just think that, while the song itself is sorta okay as an aggressive pop-rocker, they did miss a spectacular chance to close a spectacular album with a spectacular song (a mistake that would never ever be repeated again — beginning with Revolver, the Beatles always took good care of their codas).
There is also ʽWhat Goes Onʼ, an excellent piece of country-pop that is a sheer improvement over ʽAct Naturallyʼ (and Ringo sings it just as well as he did on the latter), but, again, it feels kinda slight; and so does Paul's ʽI'm Looking Through Youʼ, which is set a little in the vein of ʽTell Me What You Seeʼ, but has a distinctly more aggressive edge, having also been written about his turbulent relations with Jane Asher. Good songs, all of them, yet with hardly any pizzazz next to the first side monsters. George's ʽIf I Needed Someoneʼ also has an excellent melody, but this is the only time on Rubber Soul where the influences show up a bit too much — the whole thing ends up sounding like a respectful homage to Roger McGuinn, belittling the album's pretense at flagmanship. (Not that there's anything wrong with a little self-belittling!)
In the end, Side B is semi-rescued by John — ʽGirlʼ and, particularly, ʽIn My Lifeʼ are the two giants that push it closer to Side A's standards, and, if it were up to me, I would certainly have set ʽIn My Lifeʼ as the album closer; it is exceptionally strange that the idea did not come up originally, unless, of course, it did come up and everyone thought of it as too «obvious», so they decided to humbly end the record on one of the lesser tunes instead. (Another possibility is that they just wanted to cut things off on a rock'n'roll punch — like they used to on all of their previous albums, with the exception of A Hard Day's Night. Too bad, since, at this point, the Beatles were no longer a genuine «proverbial» rock'n'roll band).
Still, as it goes, Side B is a «failure» only as far as it fails to comply with the «no-routine!» motto: its only flaw is that there are a few songs on it that either aspire to something grander than they really are, or even a few songs that do not aspire to anything at all, and that goes against the current policy. For the standards of 1964, ʽWaitʼ would have been as good as anything, but it just feels small and defenseless sitting next to the downright orgasmic ʽIn My Lifeʼ. But who cares, really? Things were going great in late 1965, and everybody knew that this was not going to be the last we hear from the Beatles.
Let's just conclude this by stating one further dislike and one further like. I have never cared much for the album sleeve. It was quite telling at the time — not just an «artsy» perspective, but a distinctly psychedelic one — but it sort of makes the Beatles look like four scrawny Indians in the jungle, and that is definitely not the mood on any of Rubber Soul's music. What I have always cared about, conversely, is the marvelous stereo split that George Martin conducted for this album — over the years, it has been a regular delight to listen to all the tracks in one channel and then in the other one. With the mix separation, it's like you are getting a couple Stack-o-Tracks-like bonus records with your original purchase. Considering, among other things, that Rubber Soul marks the beginning of Paul's most creative period as a bass player, it is not just recommendable, but actually obligatory that everyone listen at least once to the bass / drums channel on its own — it gives an entirely different perspective on the album, and an extra reason to admire Paul as a technically limited, but wildly imaginative musician. And, as that last drop / straw / whatever, it takes away the wish to reward it with a rating — giving a «thumbs up» to Rubber Soul or to any subsequent Beatles album is as ridiculous as giving it to a da Vinci painting. It's the Beatles in their prime, for Chrissake. Why waste good red ink?
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