1965, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, ca. 1991.
IN A NUTSHELL: Rubber Soul is the record in which The Beatles established the template for guitar-based pop rock. In song after amazing song they distill everything wonderful about the guitar-bass-drums format into 2- to 3-minute bits of perfection. Each Beatle gets an opportunity to shine, and the Lennon-McCartney songwriting machine is running at peak efficiency. I can’t believe there are 2 Beatles albums I like better than this one … because Rubber Soul has everything I love!
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I was an AM radio kid in the 70s. I’ve written several times about listening to WLBR radio at home, at the community pool, or in the car. I still have a love for all those cheesy 70s tunes by long-forgotten bands like Starbuck and Jigsaw and Firefall. And I still love the cheese produced by all-time greats, like Paul McCartney and Elton John. Most of those “Have a Nice Day“-type songs were melody-heavy, catchy tunes with giant hooks. No matter their differences in style – whether they told a sad story, or were uplifting, or made for dancing or totally indecipherable or even an instrumental – they always had a melody that stuck in your head, for better or worse.
Sometime around 8th grade I got into Classic Rock, the guitar-based music from the 60s and 70s. I think it was because of a Cheap Trick mirror I won by throwing darts at balloons at the Lebanon Area Fair in the summer of 1980. I’ve written before that the 70s and 80s were a very odd era in music-listening in that What You Liked really mattered to other people. You were judged by your professed musical tastes, and if you were a nerdy, sort-of-out-of-it teen with low self-esteem, it was difficult to be open and honest about your musical tastes for fear of harsh reprisals from tough kids in Iron Maiden concert jerseys, or popular kids who scoffed at everything. Classic Rock was a safe (and enjoyable!) music for which to express my appreciation. And my Classic Rock education taught me that I should be listening to blues-based music.
Songs by The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and Cream and Creedence Clearwater Revival and on and on and on demonstrated the basic model. (Even Steely Dan started with the blues, even though they took a path more toward the head than the groin.) Some of the stuff I liked in high school was very-much-not-blues-based, like Rush and Yes and U2. But these bands were guitar-oriented enough to be Classic Rock staples (even the then-new U2) so liking them wasn’t really going out on too much of a limb. But if I ever heard something new, the first test of whether to admit my fondness to my friends was whether or not I could pick out that familiar 1-4-5, verse-chorus-verse-guitar solo structure that dominated the AOR airwaves. I listened for big guitar riffs, howling vocals, and long, wailing guitar solos, and, very frequently, indirect (or direct) references to sex.
But I retained that early love of melody from my childhood. (I’m sure my fondness for Cheap Trick had as much to do with their melodies as that belt buckle.) There were lots of melodic songs that I liked on the 4 – 8 hours of MTV I watched per day. But being very attuned to others’ opinion of me, I kept it quiet when I liked something that fell outside that Classic Rock paradigm. I didn’t tell many friends about my fondness for Yaz[ref]The American name for Yazoo.[/ref] or General Public or even R.E.M. The fact that I couldn’t wait to see (and hear) videos from bands like Eurythmics or JoBoxers or Romeo Void was unknown to those around me. (Well, my buddy, Dan, knew, but I tried to make it seem like I was mocking those songs I loved.)
This was also when I really started to get heavily into The Beatles. They were definitely a safe, “Classic Rock” band (and so, so much more). They had, indeed, also mined the blues and blues-based songs, particularly at the beginning of their career, so their music seemed to fall into the “typical” Classic Rock Band format[ref]Although Lennon penned a song that kind-of mocked the British Blues Revival stuff, “Yer Blues,” which was actually really great.[/ref]. But the longer I listened to them, and the less I cared about what others thought of my musical tastes, the more I realized that much of what I loved about the band had more in common with those artists I kept secret than the Classic Rock bands I thought I was “supposed” to like.
You will rarely hear those typical hallmarks of blues-based Classic Rock in Beatles’ songs. Big riffs, howling vocals, long, wailing guitar solos and horny lyrics are sometimes found in a Beatles song, but you are more likely to hear a gentle melody, or a string arrangement, or a subtly cool guitar part. The most-memorable wailing guitar on a Beatles song was played by Eric Clapton, a British Blues guitar god, so it’s not really an important weapon in their arsenal.
I purchased Rubber Soul in 1991, when I was really getting into the “alternative music” scene. I was listening to Belly and The Stone Roses and XTC and Juliana Hatfield and Pixies (and still R.E.M., of course) … When I first put on Rubber Soul to dive into its wonderful depths, it suddenly dawned on me that everything I loved about this “new” music had been done years before by my favorite band! Catchy melodies, concise structures, great – but not overbearing – guitar … it was all waiting for me right there in one album by my favorite band. And there wasn’t one big riff, howling vocal or wailing guitar in the bunch.
Okay, it’s true the album’s opener, “Drive My Car,” has a great riff, but it’s not the dominant feature of the song. It blends with everything else that’s great about the song.
First of all, there’s the most-perfect 5 seconds ever to open an album, Harrison’s guitar riff and McCartney bass line blending perfectly before Ringo’s snare roll gets the first verse underway. Lennon and McCartney sing co-lead on funny lyrics about an ambitious woman. The slide guitar solo, at 1:08, is actually played by Paul, and I love Ringo’s drums coming out of it, at 1:20. His drums and percussion are strong throughout, as he throws in both a syncopated tambourine and the second-best cowbell ever[ref]My only complaint about this song is that when my son was little, I saw Elmo sing it and at times that version sneaks into my brain. Oof.[/ref].
On their previous album, Help!, the band brought folk music sounds into their repertoire, and on Rubber Soul they continue expanding away from bluesy pop. The biggest move coming in the sitar-based gem “Norwegian Wood.”
The sitar sits beautifully between acoustic guitars and McCartney’s rangey bass line. Lennon’s voice is terrific, supported by Paul’s brilliant harmonies in the bridge[ref]I guess it’s the bridge? The song doesn’t really have verse-chorus-verse structure.[/ref]. The lyrics tell a humorous story – until the end, when maybe he burns down the house? (Or maybe he lights a joint. I could see the mid-60s Lennon doing either.) The sitar hits a cool, droning tone coming out of the bridge (0:48) and check out the really great bass at 1:03 – you may need headphones to pick it up. Anyway, it’s perhaps the best 2 minutes in pop music. And it’s not even my favorite song on the record.
My favorite may very well be the soulful, moving “You Won’t See Me.”
Paul plays a rolling bass line that is perfectly set against the syncopated piano he also plays. Ringo’s drumming – the snare and tom fills, the tambourine – is perfect, and the “ooh-la-la” backing vocals from John and George are almost as brilliant as their harmonized “you won’t see me” (chorus) and “no I wouldn’t, no I wouldn’t” (1:31). The lyrics are a bit whiney, perhaps, and make me think that certainly Paul must have played some part in this deteriorating relationship, right? But I love the line “Though the days are few/ they’re filled with tears/ And since I lost you/ it feels like years.” But my favorite thing about the song may be the fact that it slows down! (Listen at 0:05 to 0:08 and compare to 1:50.) Ringo is well-known as one of the most reliable time-keepers in rock drumming, but on this song, Paul’s piano was the backing track, and it wasn’t as reliable as Ringo. The rest of the band, including Ringo, played along to the piano. There’s something about that slipping time that adds a feeling to the song.
“Nowhere Man,” I’m not going to lie, is a song I find to be rather ‘meh.’ But the 3-part harmonies are really terrific. The guitar solo, with it’s cool harmonic pitch finale, was played by both John and George (making it a duet, I guess?) George’s guitar is great throughout, actually. And John’s lyrics are the band’s first non-romance/relationship-oriented words. “Think For Yourself” is a Harrison song, with very Harrison lyrics (joining such titles as “Don’t Bother Me,” “You Like Me Too Much” and “Only a Northern Song” in George’s Mt. Rushmore of Crabby Songs). It features Paul on “fuzz bass,” that low, whirring lead-guitar-sounding part. Ringo’s drumming is outstanding,
By 1965, The Beatles were still in their lovable mop-top phase, still a couple albums and years away from their psychedelic hippie phase, yet John presaged those years with the love-fest beauty “The Word.”
It’s got all the classic Beatle stuff going on. The harmonies, the cool bass, and Ringo’s maracas and great fills, for example about 0:22, “so fine, sunshine” and before the second verse, 0:28. I love the guitar riff through the beginning of each verse (0:30, 1:00). It’s one of my favorite Beatles drum songs. I also love the super-high harmony the last two times through chorus. It’s got it all. And it’s followed by one of the band’s most enduring love songs, “Michelle.” Paul sings in French, the harmonies are stunning, the acoustic guitar is charming, and it deserves its status as a Standard.
A lesser-known song that should get more attention is the fun, weird, Ringo-sung “What Goes On.”
This is the only Beatles song ever credited to Lennon/McCartney/Starkey. Much like “Act Naturally,” on Help!, and “Honey Don’t,” on Beatles for Sale, Ringo finds success with a girl-done-me-wrong, country rock number, keeping things swinging on the drums and making the most of his limited vocal range. The rest of the band’s harmonies are fantastic, but what makes this song weird and wonderful are the clipped squawks and squiggles that Harrison lays down in the verses. Listen to the right channel in stereo – it’s so strange! Also cool – at 1:30, after Ringo sings “tell me why,” you can faintly hear John reply “we told you why!” You can also hear a little chatter right around Paul’s super-cool bass at 2:33.
John’s got several great slow songs on Rubber Soul, and one of the most underappreciated is “Girl.” It’s an acoustic ballad about, well, a girl, that John sings beautifully, loudly drawing breaths in the chorus. Paul and George chime in with cheeky (as the Brits might say) “tit tit” backing vocals. Another terrific John ballad[ref]It may be a true Lennon/McCartney song, but it’s often been thought of as a mostly-John-penned song.[/ref] is the wonderful “In My Life.” The music is great, and Ringo’s drumming is simple yet inventive, as is George’s guitar work. (Listen to the guitar behind George Martin’s harpsichord-like piano solo.) I’ve often thought that if John and Paul lived 200 years ago, Paul would’ve been a musician and John a poet. The lyrics from John are wonderful poetry.
And while I love the Beatles’ love-song catalog, I’m always more drawn to the faster numbers. One of my all-time favorites is “I’m Looking Through You,” Paul’s song about his crumbling relationship with Jane Asher.
It’s got a great opening acoustic riff, and features Ringo playing a matchbox instead of drums! (The Beatles were big Buddy Holly fans, and I wonder if this choice was at all influenced by Holly’s “Everyday,” in which Cricket drummer Jerry Allison slaps his thighs for percussion.) Paul’s voice has so many facets to it, and I love the version he displays here, with its frustration and hurt. I also dig the two-note organ in the chorus, because it’s played by Ringo, and also George’s riff after the organ. Actually George is great throughout, as is Lennon’s acoustic rhythm guitar. The song’s so good. Have I called a song on this album my favorite yet? If not, this is it[ref]In the 70s, The Muppet Show had a great version of this song![/ref]
The catchy “Wait,” which features Harrison on a tone pedal, changing the volume of his guitar, is a cool song with on-the-road lyrics reminiscent of “When I Get Home” and “P.S. I Love You.” Lennon and McCartney share lead vocals, and Ringo again contributes excellent, Ringo-y fills, but Harrison’s guitar steals the show.
George steals the show once again on “If I Needed Someone,” one of my favorite George songs ever.
George’s 12-string Rickenbacker riff establishes an immediate feeling, a sound I recognized in the R.E.M., Ride and XTC I was listening to in 1991. Paul’s bubbling bass line is perfect, as usual, as are Ringo’s drums. But what I really love is the three part harmony that starts in earnest just before the second verse, about 0:17. It’s called a love song from George to girlfriend Patti Boyd[ref]A woman who had three different Rock and Roll Hall of Famers write no fewer than 10 songs about her.[/ref], but its lyrics are rather, well, ambiguous. Explaining to a woman that if she goes to all the trouble to “carve your number on my wall” that in return “maybe you will get a call from me” is hardly Romeo Montague-level courting. “If I had some more time to spend/ then I guess I’d be with you my friend” aren’t exactly the words one whispers into a lover’s ear. But I don’t come for the lyrics, I come for the sound, and this sound is excellent.
And while I don’t really care much about lyrics, the violence of “Run for Your Life” is pretty scary. Lennon himself hated the song. I don’t love it. It’s got some nice George riffs, but otherwise – eh.
The Beatles were always exploring and constantly reinventing what people thought about pop music. They started out playing blues and R&B, but grew into a band that could write and play almost anything. This record demonstrated that all the stuff I’d grown up listening to – from plastic AM pop to leathery Classic Rock, from crystalline MTV fare to the flannel of alternative rock – was right there in one place on Rubber Soul.
“Drive My Car”
“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”
“You Won’t See Me”
“Think For Yourself”
“What Goes On”
“I’m Looking Through You”
“In My Life”
“If I Needed Someone”
“Run For Your Life”