The Beatles’ Rubber Soul: Rock’s Last Great Pop Album

Photo by David McEnery, REX/Shutterstock

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.”
–John Lennon


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.

EMI’s Edict

This book provided much background material for this article. I recommend it whole-heartedly.

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.”

Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson described Rubber Soul as “the first album I listened to where every song was a gas.”

Rubber Soul

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.”

Two Songs

“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 . Here is a lush, picturesque video of the song, published by The Beatles Stuff via 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.”

So there!

Andrew Goutman

Andrew Goutman is the editor of The Record.

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2 Responses

  1. Andrew, thank you for this article. Rubber Soul has got to be one of my favorite Beatle’s albums, along with the White Album. When I first moved to Manhattan in Fall 1974, I found an all-black kitten and named him Nowhere because I felt so lost and overwhelmed trying to survive in such a huge city and because I was also listening the Rubber Soul everyday. I think that album saved me. BTW, have you read Joe Hagan’s new book? I recently listened to this WNYC segment…
    about Hagan’s new biography telling the story of Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine. What was very interesting were the discussions around John and Paul, starts at 13:46. Paul told Hagan that he felt he was the Beatle “who just booked the studio.”

  2. Jeff bohn says:

    RS s always been my favorite. When you look back at RS, it—like Beatles for Sale—had a unique , distinctive and consistent sound, or sound mix. True, the early LPs all had a sound, but it was Beatles’ sound. These two each had a deliberate feel to each of its individual numbers. WHite album? ABbey Road? PEpper? REvolver? LEt it BE? EAch of these had a collection of strong songs with no consistent feel over the course of the LP. ALiterary analogy: RS and For Sale were novels, while the rest were (incredibly wondrous) short story collections.

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