The Beatles’ Rubber Soul: Rock’s Last Great Pop Album
The Beatles created a pop masterpiece from scratch…in one month’s time.
You don’t know us if you don’t know Rubber Soul.”
The Beatles were ready to go home and take a breather after the last concert of their North American Tour: August 31, 1965, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. What a grueling tour it was: in San Francisco, for example, a group of teenagers broke through the barricades and rushed the stage. “Calm down!” Paul McCartney screamed at them. A security guard was knocked cold. Ringo, ever easygoing, assessed: “We survived.”
Thus was the downside of Beatlemania…the same Beatlemania that had made the Fab Four the most famous people in the world.
During their six weeks off, both Lennon and McCartney listened intently (and significantly) to radio offerings by Bob Dylan and The Byrds (not just their Bob Dylan covers). As summer turned to fall, the Beatles walked into Abbey Road studios realizing that their calendar was unobstructed by touring, filming or radio engagements. Were they finally going to relax and enjoy the fruits of their success?
Not so fast, snapped EMI, the Beatles’ record company.
The date Oct. 12 was circled as the kickoff for recording a new album at Abbey Road. EMI designated that date so there would be a new Beatles album on the record store shelves in time for the holiday shopping season. The only new song in the can was “Wait,” which the Beatles had recorded in the Bahamas while filming Help!.
In retrospect, John and Paul (and George) wrote and recorded over a dozen new songs from EMI’s start date of Oct. 12 to a marathon session that began Thursday, Nov. 11 and ended at 7 am the following day. That is, the Beatles took exactly one month to create a record that was placed number five on Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Albums of All-Time.”
There were a number of significant qualities to Rubber Soul. First of all, it was perhaps the Beatles’ best sung album. Harmony is hard work and it really helps if you like the people you are harmonizing with. As Paul McCartney told Rolling Stone (12/3/2015), “Part of the secret collaboration was that we liked each other. We liked singing at each other. He’d [John] sing something, and I’d say ‘Yeah’ and trade-off on that. He’d say ‘Nowhere land,’ and I’d say, ‘For nobody.’ It was a two-way thing.”
Secondly, the Beatles had gotten more sophisticated about lyrical content. Yes, most of the songs were about girls, but there was less chest-beating. The girls in Rubber Soul were more independent, more complex and actually had jobs. For example, Paul’s song, “I’m Looking Through You,” was said to be about Paul’s bafflement that his girlfriend Jane Asher wanted a modeling career independent of the Beatles’ orbit.
Finally, with their backs against the wall, the Beatles crafted what Rolling Stone called an “accidental masterpiece.” Rubber Soul perhaps showed the lads how far they could go in the masterpiece business. Rubber Soul could hardly be called a “concept album,” like Sgt. Pepper, but, according to producer George Martin, “we began to think of albums as art on their own, as complete entities.”
“In My Life” – Here is one not about the ladies. Rather, it was a magnificent piece of songwriting based on memories of John Lennon’s Liverpool childhood. John claimed authorship of the song, but Paul remembers working with John to rework the harmonic rhythm based on a Smokey Robinson & the Miracles motif (snap your fingers to the song, below). Courtesy of YouTube:
“Nowhere Man” – This supposedly came to Lennon after a night of clubhopping. Paul intervened to blunt some of John’s stark, soul-baring lyrics. “I think it was about the state of his marriage,” Paul guessed. Bob Spitz: “A reflective, dirge-like song, ‘Nowhere Man’ is steeped in dense harmonic pathos, the two voices intertwining, almost wearily so, around a tent pole of melancholy.” Here’s a happier, live version from the Beatles’ 1966 tour, courtesy of YouTube:
Two songs released as singles, “Day Tripper” and “We Can Work It Out,” were considered equally strong, and were released on December 3, 1965 as a “double A-side.” The album was released on that day as well.
Why the title “Rubber Soul”? Beatles historians agree that the Beatles reacted to certain American blues and R&B “trash-talking” artists who labeled The Rolling Stones and lead singer Mick Jagger as “plastic soul.”