It is all the stuff of legend and lore now, but much has been said and written about the ‘middle albums’ of the Beatles. So I don’t need to go into length about how the Fab Four had met and been inspired by Bob Dylan and his work. Nor do I need to expound upon the mop tops’ experimentation with marijuana and its effect on their work. Furthermore, we can forego the idea that as Dylan inspired Rubber Soul, so did it inspire Brian Wilson into making Pet Sounds which, in turn, spurred the creation of Revolver, etc. Essentially there was a large amount of one-upsmanship and friendly competition among the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones, each firing off shots one after the other. So what can be said that is new or untread ground? The answer, really, is not much at all other than repeating how great an album Rubber Soul truly is.
Scores of critics, writers, and the magazines their words are found in will go back and forth on which Beatles album is truly the `best’, Revolver or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. What stymies me is that 1965’s Rubber Soul isn’t the third party to be juggled with those two. True, Rolling Stone did rank the album as the fifth best of all time, just behind the two aforementioned Beatles albums, one from the Beach Boys, and one from Bob Dylan. But for the most part, Rubber Soul is treated as the red-headed stepchild in comparison. OK, maybe it’s not treated that harshly, but you will never see it ranked higher, even though George Harrison himself said that the album was “the best one we made.”
One thing to be notice about the album is that it was probably, for all intents and purposes, the first true Beatles `album,’ meaning a collection of songs written together and released as a true collection of time in a studio. All of the previous Beatles albums can be said to be `singles collections’ (according to George Martin, longtime Beatles producer) whereas Rubber Soul was created as a piece of art all its own. Another interesting thing to note is that the release of the red and blue greatest hits collections found six songs from Rubber Soul, the most from any single album. At the time, fourteen songs (on the British version, which is now the American CD version) on an album was nearly unheard of. Earlier in the year Bob Dylan put out a fairly long album due to song length, but it still only had nine tracks.
This album also took a huge leap from the previous sound the Beatles had been putting out, including from their two previous albums, Beatles for Sale and Help!. There were a few songs on each that became precursors to the changes the band would make, nothing matched the scope and experimentation of Rubber Soul. With its name coming from a response to British music being called ‘plastic soul,’ the album marked a huge shift in tone for the group. Although there were definitely songs on the record that could be classified as ‘love songs,’ there were also songs that ventured into darker territories such as drugs, loneliness, apathy, faded love, and revenge.
Chalk it all up to experimentation with marijuana if you must (a lot of others do), but regardless, the album is timeless and groundbreaking. After all, it marks the first appearance of George’s sitar playing, as heard in the beautiful song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” which could or could not be about either burning down a lover’s house or simply smoking weed. “Nowhere Man” must have been the song that flipped a switch in Brian Wilson and led him to writing songs like “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” “Michelle” is one of Paul McCartney’s shining moments alongside “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude.”
“Girl,” which I’ll always associate with A Tribe Called Quest now after I saw them on MTV with Q-Tip singing it with breakbeats, is one of the slyest double meaning songs ever written, both as a literal song about a girl, and also a song about, you guessed it, ‘Mary Jane’ complete with smoke inhaling sounds. “I’m Looking Through You” is a harsh look at a stale relationship, which both John and Paul were going through at the time. “In My Life,” always destined to be a classic, is unfortunately forever pegged to be a graduation staple. While that doesn’t take away from the power and beauty of the song, it does make you cringe just a little in that setting. “If I Needed Someone” is George Harrison’s first breakthrough song. Although he had penned songs previously, this one was the first quality song which led him, eventually to the majestic songs he wrote for the White Album, Let it Be and Abbey Road. Finally, as “I’m Looking Through You” was Paul’s anti-relationship song, “Run for Your Life” was John’s, except John went to the extent of threatening murder. Ah, love.
The rest is history, with Pet Sounds coming hot on Rubber Soul‘s heels, no pun intended, followed by Sgt. Pepper’s, then by Her Satanic Majesties Request, etc. Rubber Soul is the crossroads, the meeting point of radio friendly pop and experimental adornments, of straightforward melodies and curveball lyrics and themes. It may not have been the album that started it all, but it sure got it right from beginning to end. Most Beatles fans can be put into camps, those who prefer `early Beatles,’ the harmonizing and head shaking, and those who like `later Beatles,’ the trippy, weird, and generally way ahead of their time Beatles. The great thing about Rubber Soul is that it’s for everybody.
Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?