Graham Reid | | 6 min read
While there are any number of Beatle albums which are essential, there is a case to be made that Rubber Soul -- which marked their transition from an increasingly banal and almost irrelevant pop band into a group which became adult, confident and inventive -- is currently the most ignored in their catalogue.
But before making the case for Rubber Soul it is instructive to look at the changing fortunes of Beatle albums over the decades since their break-up in 1970.
When music magazines such as Rolling Stone, Melody Maker and NME started compiling lists of "the best albums of all time" in the Seventies, the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s was predictably taking out the top spot . Considered a milestone in popular music, Sgt Pepper’s of ‘67 would regularly trump anything by Dylan, the Stones, Elvis (never an album artist), Marvin Gaye and the Beach Boys. The Velvet Underground rarely rated a mention.
By the Eighties after the shakedown of punk and new wave however -- and with the arrival of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Prince, Springsteen and others -- the Beatles’ fortunes changed.
Sgt Pepper’s (“a millstone in popular music” according to Eric Idle’s host character in The Rutles) would sometimes still hold the prime position, but its more rocking and edgy predecessor Revolver of ‘66 was in the ascendant (as was John Lennon’s searingly personal Plastic Ono Band album of ‘70, pushing out Imagine which had been popular in the Seventies lists).
When Tom Hibbert wrote The Perfect Collection in ’82 he courageously ignored Sgt Pepper’s (no Lennon or Gaye either) and three years later when NME released its "best of" list Sgt Pepper’s didn’t appear at all (the Lennon appeared at number nine and Revolver at 11) and it gave the top spot to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On.
Today it is Revolver which is widely considered the Beatles best album. That is undoubtedly true (although you can make the case for others and recently “the White Album” is on the ascendant), so why make a case for Rubber Soul?
Consider its pivotal position in the Beatles catalogue.
After the heady days of Beatlemania (captured brilliantly on the enthusiastic With the Beatles and A Hard Days Night, both essential early Beatles albums), the band hit a creative wall as a result of relentless touring.
Beatles For Sale of ’64 saw them floundering and aside from some cracking originals (Lennon’s gloomy No Reply and I‘m a Loser, the bright Eight Days A Week) there is a lot of filler to pad out the required 14 songs, notably them drawing on Hamburg/Cavern days stage favourites such as Rock and Roll Music, Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey, Honey Don’t and Everybody’s Trying To be My Baby. On the album cover they looked utterly world weary. Lennon’s I’m a Loser was a rare and early flash of his emotional uncertainty.
Beatles for Sale’s follow-up Help! of ‘65 was no better despite the inclusion (not in the film of the same name to which this was nominally the soundtrack) of Paul McCartney’s classic ballad Yesterday, the first Beatles song which was essentially a solo outing.
Help! too relied on filler (Ringo Starr’s quaint country cover Act Naturally which was effectively a sequel to Honey Don‘t, a cover of Dizzy Miss Lizzy by Lennon’s early favourite Larry Williams) and neither of the Harrison songs (I Need You and You Like Me Too Much) count among his best work.
The album included the excellent but previously released Ticket to Ride.
Even Lennon’s confessional cri de coeur on the title track was given a chipper and dishonestly upbeat feel.
By mid ‘65 after another American tour and a further dabble with LSD (all save McCartney) they reconvened to write another album but -- as Ian MacDonald notes in his analysis of every Beatles’s song in Revolution in the Head -- they were increasingly irrelevant in the vibrant and creative world which was throwing up innovative work by Dylan, the Byrds, Kinks and many others.
“Clearly Lennon and McCartney were running out of variations on simple romance and knew they had to branch out or dry up,” writes MacDonald. “Probably they privately agreed with their publisher Dick James that most of their lyrics ’didn’t go anywhere’ or ’tell a story’.
"Certainly they were aware that Bob Dylan with his tumultuously original singles Subterranean Homesick Blues and Like a Rolling Stone had rolled back the horizons of the pop lyric in a way they must acknowledge and somehow outdo.”
In that light Norwegian Wood on Rubber Soul -- especially when stripped of its simple but effectively exotic sitar part by Harrison -- is little more than a folksy Dylanesque song by Lennon, although its naked revelation of an affair was almost alarmingly autobiographical in the Beatles songbook to this point.
That he also contributed the tender and introspective In My Life showed Lennon was rising to the challenge the period was making.
McCartney for his part brought the slightly soulful Drive My Car (made even more so by Harrison on bass guitar playing a riff from Otis Redding) which became Rubber Soul’s attention-grabbing opener.
Elsewhere Harrison roamed into Byrds territory for the jangling guitars (although offset by his effectively droning singing) for If I Needed Someone; Lennon’s Nowhere Man was as reflective as In My Life but elevated by the close harmony singing; and Harrison’s stinging and memorable guitar solo (and McCartney’s increasingly inventive bass playing); and the funky soul of The Word was a prescient acknowledgement of the power of love 18 months before hippies and The Summer of Love commanded headlines.
Elsewhere Lennon raided Elvis’ rockabilly catalogue for the opening line of the nasty Run For Your Life (it comes from the last verse of Baby, Let’s Play House); Harrison indulged in fuzz box on his typically dour Think For Yourself (a month after the Stones’ Satisfaction topped the charts using the same effect); and there was also McCartney’s slightly soppy Michelle (in which Lennon also had a hand).
McCartney’s I’m Looking Through You about as his failing relationship with actress Jane Asher (as personal as Lennon’s material at this time, and as condescending as Harrison‘s) has a weird and slightly disconcerting quality. As with The Word and Harrison’s material, the melody has a monotone quality which they would explore the greater effect on subsequent albums (notably Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows on Revolver).
By creatively borrowing or stealing with flair from a variety of sources (as they had always done, witness their selection of covers on the thrilling With the Beatles), on Rubber Soul the Beatles dug themselves out of the creative hole they had found themselves in.
In later years Harrison said he didn't hear a great distinction between Rubber Soul and Revolver and thought they could be "volume one and volume two", and that both were pleasant and enjoyable albums to make. Ringo Starr, whose drumming was always excellent but around this period became innovative, spoke of them having more fun in the studio. It shows in almost every track.
Rubber Soul isn’t among the top three albums in the Beatles catalogue, but it is one deserving of a reconsideration.
The remastered version shines a welcome spotlight on it as an transitional album between the increasingly flaccid post-Beatlemania albums and the thrilling inventiveness that was to follow. But it also stands as a fine and diverse Beatles album on its own merits.
On Rubber Soul the Beatles still had one foot firmly planted in the word of early Sixties pop, but their ears and eyes were elsewhere.
And if Michelle is too soppy for you and Ringo’s country music turn on What Goes On (complete with Harrison as Chet Atkins) just plain sappy, then Run For Your Life redeems it all.
Lennon gives the Stones’ Under My Thumb a real run for its money in the misogyny stakes.
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