I was brought up listening to The Beatles. They were the one band that both my parents agreed on despite one being a Mod and one being a Rocker. We had all the albums on vinyl growing up and in time this was transferred to a full CD collection. I became a fan and the album that I’ve always liked the most is Rubber Soul. Interestingly, it’s never the one that comes up in conversation much and it doesn’t seem to feature on the top album lists. So I questioned why.
I’m not really sure why I love it more than any of their other albums to be honest. Perhaps it’s because there aren’t any bad songs on it and it happens to contain quite a few that I think are pretty damn wonderful. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always room for the other albums in my listening time, but Rubber Soul is the one I come back to more often than not.
Whilst pondering this question online, my friend Rob gave me several reasons why he thinks this album is his favourite. The reasons where so good that I decided to ask him to write an article on it so I could share it with you all. So, this is Rubber Soul by The Beatles and why it’s simply a great album by Rob Morgan.
Critics have a tendency to change their minds, just like the general public. Critical thought has reached a consensus on the Beatles albums whereby Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the peak of their achievements and their other albums are either leading up to or descending from that summit. It’s interesting reading through RockList.net and watching the relative Beatles albums jostling for position in the “Best Album Ever” lists which music periodicals throw out when they’ve got nothing better to write about. Back in the 70’s, Sgt Pepper was the favourite album, from the 90’s onwards it has usually been Revolver or The Beatles (aka The White Album) nestling up to Pet Sounds and Nevermind in the top ten.
But poor old Rubber Soul is always the bridesmaid, never the bride. It goes up and down the top album charts like a bouncing ball. Take the NME for instance – please, take it, it’s free, they can’t give it away. In 1974 Rubber Soul was #15 in their top 100 albums, by 1985 it had sunk to #97, yet in 1993 it was #12 and in their most recent list it was at #43. So everyone likes it but it’s nobody’s favourite Beatles album.
Of course any right minded person would never claim that there is such a thing as a “best Beatles album”, it is entirely subjective to the individual. I have been listening to the Beatles’ music throughout my entire life (my parents were both big fans and saw them live in the early 60’s, so Beatles albums were always played around the house and in the car as I grew up) and my thoughts change every so often about which album is my favourite. Sometimes it’s the expansive sprawl of The Beatles, sometimes it’s Help! with its hints of new possibilities, sometimes it’s Abbey Road, the grand finale which is always an emotional listen, sometimes it’s the hopeful din of With the Beatles or Please Please Me. But judging by the statistics on my iPod, the Beatles album I listen to most of all is Rubber Soul and you can’t argue with statistics.
So why is Rubber Soul my most listened to Beatles album? Well let me explain some reasons.
That cover – The slightly elongated faces of four serious young men who are still the best gang in the world, still close, still working together in harmony. That font in the top left corner anticipating the psychedelic poster art to come. The back cover picture mintage instantly copied by the Beach Boys, The Byrds and Bob Dylan. What’s not to love about it?
Acoustic guitars – This is a rock album which doesn’t need too much electricity for its power. The casual flow of Norwegian Wood works because of the lack of electric guitars forcing the issue, it’s Lennon the morning after whatever the night before was feeling tender and bruised and the music reflects that. The muted electric guitar solo on Michelle comes as a shock amongst the high capo acoustic guitars.
John gets mellow (mostly) – Lennon may not be crying at sunsets here, but exposure to mind expansion during 1965 made him more sensitive. If I’m a Loser and You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away showed the way, then Nowhere Man and In My Life are proof of a man capable of deep insular thought but with a skill at making such thoughts universal. Imagine has its roots here. Girl and Norwegian Wood are bewildered and bamboozled. And at the end Run For Your Life is actually one of my favourite songs, even if I’m in a minority of one. It rocks, ok?
Paul gets pissed off – During the making of Rubber Soul McCartney was having a bit of a rough patch with his girlfriend Jane Asher and it shows. Macca rarely expresses anger in song, but on this album he sounds bitter and twisted and it works. You Won’t See Me sees him having trouble communicating and struggles to engage – “Time after time you refuse to even listen, I wouldn’t mind if I knew what I was missing”. This is not a love song. I’m Looking Through You is brutal, over a backdrop of thigh slaps and more acoustic guitars, McCartney is harsh and cruel – “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight”, “I’m looking through you – and you’re nowhere!” The shock is shown by the sudden arrival of electric guitar and shrieking organ. Macca should get annoyed more often, it makes great art.
George gets good – As with Help! earlier in the year, George adds two songs to the album. If I Needed Someone is a nod to The Byrds, all shimmering twelve strings and block harmonies. Think For Yourself on the other hand is the conscience of the album, demanding the listener to think about what they are doing, swinging around unconventional chord changes easily. Both are signs of impending brilliance in the future.
Ringo writes his own song – Rather than relying on 50’s country and western songs for his allocated song on the album, he writes his own with a few Dylan-esque nods, and the rest of the band get behind him and rock it.
George Martin becomes integral – He was always there from the start back in 1962, but by 1965 he was part of the team. His sped up piano on In My Life is a lovely touch, but his production throughout the album is light and sympathetic to the material. It also sounds as fresh today as it did then.
The first double a-side single – A sense of decency and value for money dictated that singles weren’t included on albums very often, and in late ’65 the Beatles recorded two songs for a single which matched the quality of the album – Day Tripper and We Can Work It Out. So wonderful they couldn’t decide which would be the a-side so they both became a-sides. How good is that?
Influences – The album was titled Rubber Soul after a shoe related pun and a comment made by R&B singers about Mick Jagger – “Plastic soul….” it also hinted at their direct influences on the album – the clipped unison riffing on Drive My Car was a nod towards the Stax soul of Otis Redding and Booker T and the MGs. Lennon’s lyrics on Norwegian Wood and Girl are in the style of Bob Dylan, but are more rueful and human than Dylan’s surreal wordplay. They were taking their influences and filtering them through their own lives, making music that was uniquely theirs
The little touches – Yes, everyone talks about the sitar on Norwegian Wood, but there’s more than just that. There’s two bass parts on Think For Yourself, one plugged into a fuzztone for maximum effect. There’s joyous zany piano on The Word. There’s little hints of feedback or harmonics on I’m Looking Through You. There’s the glistening treble blast of the guitar solo on Nowhere Man. There’s the tone pedal thrust of Wait. It’s these little details which make the music so different, so innovative.
But it’s still pop music – The experiments with sound and texture, form and function are still bound within the constraints of a three-minute pop song. Every song had a melody you can whistle, a lyric you can associate with, a scenario you understand. This is experimental music which pushes boundaries but still seems normal enough for the milkman.
They’re a band – There were never any slackers in the Beatles, there was healthy rivalry to produce the best possible music, Lennon and McCartney and Harrison writing better and better songs over and over again. And the musicianship is exemplary here, every member contributes memorable performances; McCartney creating melodic bass lines, Harrison adding distinctive guitar lines, Starr’s drums as rock solid as always, never showy but perfect for every song, and Lennon adding his distinctive character to the music. A band working in harmony. Oh and the harmonies are gorgeous too.
Without Rubber Soul there would be no Pet Sounds. Without Rubber Soul there would be no Fourth Time Around on Blonde on Blonde. Without Rubber Soul there would be no Paint It Black, or Lady Jane for that matter. Rubber Soul is the album where pop music starts to take itself seriously but not too seriously yet. And it was recorded in a month, and issued 16 days after the last recording session was completed. That fact still amazes me, how a record as important as the new Beatles album hadn’t started recording on the 15th October, but was on sale on 3rd December. That’s a quick turnaround.
I think the reason Rubber Soul is my most played Beatles album is because every song is great, every performance is great, the whole package is perfect and it is still pop music with a little twist of the future in it. There’s no flab, no waste, there’s nothing to be bored by, it is the perfect go-to Beatles album for an instant fix or a thoughtful wallow.
Well that’s just today anyway. Ask me tomorrow and I may choose Abbey Road…