September 2018

When the Beatles entered Abbey Road Studios in October 1965 to record their sixth studio album, they had no other commitments to worry about -- no tours, no movies, no radio or television appearances. Over the next four weeks, the group would complete Rubber Soul, their second album to be recorded and released in 1965.

Readers’ and critics’ polls often choose Revolver or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as the best Beatles LP, but for me, Rubber Soul was their finest achievement. The songs showed the influence of other musicians who were challenging their supremacy on the charts and in the culture, from Bob Dylan to Motown, and proved that the Beatles could meet those challenges, absorb those influences, and make a record that both reflects and transcends its own time.

Although I often think of 1967 as the pivotal year for pop music, for the number of groundbreaking albums released that year and the success of the Monterey Pop Festival, a review of the records produced in 1965 prove it to be almost as rich in change and innovation. Just a year before, the Beatles had released Meet the Beatles, The Beatles’ Second Album, and A Hard Day’s Night in the US -- and, in the UK, a very different version of A Hard Day’s Night as well as Beatles for Sale. In 1965 they released Help! and Rubber Soul, both of which featured more mature songwriting and a better command of the recording studio than had their earlier albums.

Rubber Soul

The Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and other British bands that had taken advantage of the opening of the US charts created by the Beatles in early 1964, continued to release albums here that showed similar growth. The US edition of the Stones’ Out of Our Heads included “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction),” the song that firmly established the band as rock’n’roll contenders, and Kinda Kinks showed Ray Davies’s continued growth as a songwriter.

Also in 1965 came The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads and Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, which cemented the great singer’s reputation as a master of blues-and-gospel-based Southern Soul -- while James Brown’s Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and the single “I Got You (I Feel Good)” began a revolution in pop music that still reverberates in today’s soul and hip-hop. Bob Dylan began his transition to rock in March with Bringing It All Back Home, and in August made it official with Highway 61 Revisited and its hit single, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Both albums proved that rock could be both poetic and adult.

All of this may sound as if I’m making an argument for 1965 rather than for Rubber Soul, and, in part, I am. Pop music had begun to take on larger ambitions and deeper themes by 1965, and those changes were reflected in the charts and on AM radio. Even musicians as formidable as the Beatles, whose ambition and talent pushed other musicians into new territory, were themselves pushed by the tremendous outpouring of songwriting and playing talent coming from their contemporaries.

Help! had already shown the band moving into new territories of words and music, with “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “It’s Only Love,” and the title track presenting more complex views of romance than pop songs usually displayed. These songs also showed an increased sophistication of melody, as did “We Can Work It Out,” half of a double A-sided single with “Day Tripper” that Parlophone, the group’s British label, released the same day as Rubber Soul.

Rubber Soul

George Harrison suggested that the strong bass line of “Drive My Car,” which begins Rubber Soul, be similar to the one in Redding’s “Respect,” from Otis Blue. The song has some of the Stax/Volt Southern Soul drive that made Redding’s records so powerful, and, like so many blues and rock tunes, was built around a clever sexual metaphor. Paul McCartney: “‘Drive my car’ was an old blues euphemism for sex, so in the end all is revealed. Black humor crept in and saved the day.” Still, the “Beep-beep-mm-beep-beep, yeah!” refrain that follows the chorus reflects back to the recent days of Beatlemania.

With “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” those days are left behind. The song, about an extramarital affair, tells its story with a mixture of humor and ambivalence. The use of the sitar, played by George Harrison, adds an exotic strain and anticipates the instrument’s appearance on other Beatles records over the next few years. But this is mostly John Lennon’s song, and his lyrical and emotional complexity extends to other songs on Rubber Soul that he had the larger hand in writing. “Nowhere Man” says that its subject “Knows not where he’s going to,” but also asks, “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?” The tone of Lennon’s voice in “The Word” is sardonic, in contrast with the seemingly upbeat lyrics, as if he sees love, the word he’s singing about, becoming only another cliché or marketing tool.

Lennon wrote so many great songs, but “Girl” is surely among his best. Sounding a bit like a 1930s cabaret tune, it conveys the exquisite pain of an only partially requited love. In contrast to McCartney’s expressions of happy romance in “Michelle,” Lennon sings:

Did she understand it when they said
That a man must break his back
To earn his day of leisure?
Will she still believe it when he’s dead

But just as McCartney’s songs on Rubber Soul often show an edge, Lennon’s sometimes reveal a kinder touch. “In My Life,” one of his finest, is filled with affectionate memories of life that resonate ever more deeply as I get older -- and McCartney’s songs here reveal as much knowledge of love’s complexities as do Lennon’s. “Time after time, you refuse to even listen,” he sings in “You Won’t See Me.” “I’m Looking Through You” has a happy-sounding feel of folk-rock and soul, but the words tell us that “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.”

None of these songs is entirely Lennon’s or entirely McCartney’s. The genius of their partnership was in Lennon’s ability to keep McCartney’s sentimentality in check, and McCartney’s skill in reining in Lennon’s cynicism -- their best songs often contain bits of both. The two songs by Harrison on Rubber Soul seem to share more of Lennon’s than of McCartney’s view of romance; Dylan was Harrison’s primary influence at this stage, and the music of “If I Needed Someone” shows how much he admired the Byrds.

Hints of other musicians who were also on the charts in 1965 show up on Rubber Soul. Bits of Motown seep into “You Won’t See Me” and “I’m Looking Through You”; Harrison suggested the Stax/Volt rhythm of “Drive My Car”; Dylan’s touch is in Harrison’s songs, and in the lyrics of “Nowhere Man” and “Norwegian Wood.” The Beatles, like all truly innovative artists, borrowed freely, weaving together strains of influence to create a record that reflects the musical possibilities that in 1965 were just waiting to be plucked out of the air.

Although Rubber Soul is a collection of great songs, its transcendent quality stems from the fact that the Beatles could spend a concentrated amount of time in the recording studio -- October 12 through November 11, 1965, and a single day the previous June -- to get everything right. The layered complexity of the harmony vocals in “Girl” (a nod to the Beach Boys) lifts the song into greatness, and the slightly scandalous (for the time) “tit-tit-tit” backing vocals in the middle eight are both inexplicably right for the song, and reflect the boundary pushing that was then becoming common.

In fact, the backing vocals add to the album’s richness throughout. The “Ooh, la la la” in “You Won’t See Me” is a chorus of angels matched by Lennon and McCartney’s two-part harmony in the verses. “Nowhere Man” stunningly blends the voices of Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison in the chorus, and the double-tracking of Lennon’s lead vocal in the verses makes the sound more full. “The Word,” “Michelle,” “Wait,” and every other song are made deeper by harmony vocals that fill out their textures. In fact, without the vocal harmonies and Lennon’s volume swells on rhythm guitar, a song like “Wait” would be little more than a trifle.

The Beatles had also reached a high level of proficiency as players. Ringo Starr’s hi-hat-and-snare figure in “In My Life” rhythmically focuses the track while adding an indefinable musical intelligence. His playing in “You Won’t See Me” shows a level of skill that anyone listening to the band’s records all along should have been hearing, but on Rubber Soul his command of the drums and the importance of his contributions are undeniable.

McCartney was an above-average bass player from the beginning, hugely influenced by Motown’s James Jamerson, but Lennon’s rhythm playing on acoustic or electric guitar reached a new level of ability on Rubber Soul, whether in his sharply struck chords in “The Word” or his arpeggios in “In My Life.” Harrison’s country picking in “What Goes On” and his stunning solo in “Nowhere Man” show how much his playing had grown, and how much fresher his ideas were becoming.

There are many ways to listen to Rubber Soul; here I limit myself to physical media. The album’s first digital remastering was released on CD in 1987, but was also remixed by original producer George Martin to remove some of the hard-left/hard-right panning that was typical of the pop stereo recordings of the early and mid-1960s. The 2009 re-remastering uses the same mix; it’s OK, but something -- perhaps an addition of digital reverb? -- throws things off a bit. The digitally sourced 1987 and 2012 LPs are also OK, but I slightly prefer the 2012 LP, which sounds more natural overall while still using the 2009 remix.

If you want a stereo vinyl version of the UK version of Rubber Soul (see below), buy a copy pressed before 1987. Those pressings are all analog, and were not remixed. A history of Parlophone’s labels is here, and should help you find your way in purchasing a good copy of the LP. Early Parlophone stereo LPs (black label, Parlophone printed in yellow) are rare and expensive. Later pressings are fine, though they’re likely to have been mastered on solid-state rather than tube gear. If you have money to burn, an early pressing, with every stage of the LP production done on tube gear, would be a cool thing to have. Otherwise, a clean pre-digital copy is affordable and sounds great.

Early Parlophone monos aren’t as rare as stereos -- the Beatles preferred mono, and paid far more attention to the mono mixes during the mastering stage. Still, original Parlophone monos in good condition can be costly, because most vinyl purchased before the early 1970s wasn’t played on good turntables. Apple Records released a boxed set of all-analog mono pressings in 2014, and they’re outstanding. I have an early Parlophone mono, and, aside from a bit more low-end energy, the new pressings sound almost identical to their earlier counterparts. They even re-created some aspects of the original packaging, though not the cellophane glossiness of the original front covers, but that’s not important -- it’s just not worth paying an additional $50 for a clean copy with a good cover when the reissues sound so good for about $25 apiece.

The US and UK editions of Rubber Soul have different song lineups. Capitol Records, the group’s US label, removed “Drive My Car,” “Nowhere Man,” “What Goes On,” and “If I Needed Someone,” and replaced them with “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love,” both from the UK edition of Help! The resulting album was nearly seven minutes shorter than the Parlophone version, but had more of a folk-rock feel that Capitol thought would make it more appealing. It’s a rare instance of the US edition of a Beatles album being as enjoyable as its UK counterpart.

Rubber Soul

Look for a mono pressing of Rubber Soul in the US format. I bought two copies before I found one I was happy with. My good copy was pressed in Scranton, Pennsylvania (as indicated by the “I AM” in a triangle in the dead wax). Scranton pressings are often murky, so I can’t explain why this one sounds good. Capitol stereo pressings are best if they’re the orange or red bullseye labels from the 1970s, or the purple labels from the ’80s -- the sound is a little bright but very detailed. Original 1960s Capitol rainbow-label pressings in stereo sound a little distant and puffy.

About a year ago, Doug Schneider, founder of the SoundStage! Network, spoke to me about creating a column that would direct listeners, especially young ones, to records that are worth owning. I’ll be writing about sonically valuable records, but also LPs that are musically worthwhile. I’ll sometimes write about records that everyone knows, but I’ll also occasionally try to point you in the direction of something you might not know about -- such as Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees (1972), or . . . well, who knows? Let’s see where my imagination and ridiculously large record collection lead me.

Meanwhile, track down a nice vinyl copy of Rubber Soul and, if you’ve never heard the album, prepare to be amazed.

. . . Joseph Taylor