Rubber Soul usually ranks pretty high on the Top 100 all-time album lists, though not as high as Sgt. Pepper or Revolver. While doing my research for this review, I think it saw it in the top 10 once or twice.
I find the entire concept of “best all-time” absurd in any field, especially music. My favorite album depends on my mood. If you catch me when I’m feeling horny—well, I’m always feeling horny, but if you catch me when I’m really ready to explode—I might say my favorite album is Grant Street, Wheels of Fire, The Best of Muddy Waters or any number of my go-to fuck-to albums. When I’m in a dark, self-reflective mood, I might tell you that Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings is the greatest album in history; if I’m self-reflective and dreamy, Hejira or Fox Confessor Brings the Flood might wind up on top. When I feel like rocking ’til dawn, there are twenty or more albums I might describe as the greatest fucking record ever made, depending on who I’m with or what I’m drinking. In the absence of objective criteria, any claim that such-and-such album is the best of all time is a personal opinion meaningful only to the person holding the opinion. It’s especially silly to compare one record to another. While one can evaluate a piece of music in areas like musicianship, recording quality, clarity of purpose, commitment, composition and performance, comparisons are completely worthless except to create meaningless debates between fans (and raise magazine circulation or website traffic in the process).
The Beatles are the best argument in support of the notion that ranking systems are as useless as a vibrator with a dead battery. Nearly all Beatle albums appear in the top 100 of these lists. This is because most of the lists were created by Baby Boomers, and The Beatles have a very special meaning to that generation. That makes the Baby Boomers the least qualified people in the universe to evaluate The Beatles—they are simply too close to the subject to have the least bit of detachment. The Beatles mean too much to them.
The Beatles had been history for eleven years before I popped out of my mother’s honey pot, so I didn’t experience Beatlemania or the subsequent elevation of The Beatles to near-godlike status. From my perspective, I think The Beatles produced some of the greatest songs and recordings in history, but they also put out a lot of absolute crap, particularly towards the end of their run when they were riding on the strength of the brand and could hardly stand to be in the same studio with each other.
And when it comes to The Beatles, evaluating any of the albums before Sgt. Pepper is problematic. Which version are you talking about?
Before Sgt. Pepper, there were two different versions of the core Beatles albums: one British and one American. The Brits liked fourteen songs on their albums; the greedy Americans imposed a 12-song maximum and would happily go under that limit if it made for a sunnier profit outlook.
Often the geniuses in charge of the American record companies (Capitol and UA) would chop up one British album into multiple American albums with disastrous effect. This is most apparent in the albums for the two films. The British A Hard Day’s Night has the eight songs attributed to the movie (though “I’ll Cry Instead” wound up on the cutting room floor) and several additional tracks that later appeared on the American album Something New (which in turn was filled out with songs that had already appeared on the British A Hard Day’s Night and “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand”). The American A Hard Day’s Night has eight Beatle performances and four despicably snappy instrumentals to fill in the rest of the space on the vinyl disc. It gets worse with Help!, where the American version had only seven Beatles songs and some truly dreadful film music. The original 14-track British effort—significant for the songs on side two hinting at a more sophisticated approach to songwriting and production—was completely mutilated: three songs appeared on the previously-released American album Beatles VI, two wound up on the later release Yesterday and Today, and two more found a place on what was released to mid-60’s America as Rubber Soul. If you listen to the American version of Revolver, you might conclude that John Lennon had either left the band in the middle of the recording sessions or was occasionally too stoned to show up. “I’m Only Sleeping,” And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Doctor Robert” are all absent from the American edition.
In nearly every case, the American albums are abominations and the British versions far superior, in keeping with the cherished notion that the artist knows best. The one situation where I think the American album is the better album is Rubber Soul.
By “better album,” I’m specifically talking about the thematic unity and the satisfaction that results from experiencing a sense of wholeness in an artistic effort. The British version of Rubber Soul comes across as more eclectic than unified. You experience the excitement of artists exploring new territory and breaking tired expectations, but in the end, the parts don’t all fit together to create thematic unity.
Part of this perception has to do with issues I have with three of the four songs exclusive to the British version. “If I Needed Someone” is a hodgepodge of Byrds songs, most notably “The Bells of Rhymney” and “She Don’t Care About Time” with a touch of “Feel a Whole Lot Better.” If I want to hear The Byrds, why would I play a Beatle album? “What Goes On” is one too many C&W song in the Beatles repertoire and a pathetic follow-up to “Act Naturally,” which didn’t deserve a follow-up anyway. Some have argued that Rubber Soul is very much a C&W album, and there’s some slight justification for that perspective. To me, the issue is a matter of degrees: while songs like “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “I’m Looking Through You” have a C&W influence, and though “Michelle” was written in what McCartney called “Chet Atkins’ finger-picking style,” “What Goes On” travels far beyond mere influence and sounds like a Buck Owens b-side. If there’s one song that destroys any sense of thematic unity in the British version, it’s “What Goes On,” particularly with its plum placement as the first track on side two.
Then there’s the curious case of “Nowhere Man.” While I like the lyrics, and though I think the self-reflective orientation of the song fits with the self-reflective nature of several songs on Rubber Soul, the arrangement seems terribly bright and cheerful for a self-confessional. The harmonies are technically excellent, as always, but contradict the pathos in the lyrics. I also have the strong feeling that “Nowhere Man” is simply not an album song, but a single: it doesn’t seem to fit into the track order of either the British Rubber Soul or the butchered mess (pun intended) we know as Yesterday and Today. “Nowhere Man” did work very well in the movie Yellow Submarine, but alas, it’s not part of the soundtrack album.
“Drive My Car,” the other missing piece from the U. S. production, is a song I like very much, and as the first track it sets the tone for the entire album. What you get from “Drive My Car” is the immediate and lasting impression of sassy, urban, street-level eroticism. The band is at full throttle, combining exceptional harmonies with tight rhythms and superbly-executed build. If you’re a blues fan, you connect immediately to the driving metaphor and can recall dozens of songs where driving a car is a euphemism for driving the male instrument into the female sweet spot. “Drive My Car” is a statement that The Beatles were getting tired of kissy-kissy love and wanted to get closer to the real thing; “Norwegian Wood,” which follows, places an exclamation point at the end of that statement. The Lads from Liverpool have moved from G to PG-13! Soon they’ll be more popular than Jesus!
The “problem” is that the theme that starts the British album putters out pretty quickly: there’s not another song on Rubber Soul that comes close to the feel of “Drive My Car.” On the American edition, “I’ve Just Seen a Face” opens the album, giving Rubber Soul a folksy and more intimate feel, a mood further intensified throughout the album in songs like “Norwegian Wood,” “Girl,” “In My Life” and “Michelle”. The arrangement consists of acoustic guitars, maracas and a brushed snare, giving you the sense that these are just four guys jamming in one of their living rooms. While both versions cross the line into “adult subject matter,” the American Rubber Soul comes across as more reflective and somewhat more mature (with a few breathtaking deviations). “Girl,” “Norwegian Wood” and “In My Life” are not The Beatles as packaged by The Great Epstein, but the real guys who grew up pretty damned fast in the sweaty environment of The Cavern and in the unbridled decadence of Hamburg. Rubber Soul is not so much the transition to adulthood but the manifestation of what had been there all along, and this comes through more coherently in the American version.
It should be noted that the reflective mood on the American version had nothing to do with artistic yearnings—the pig boys at Capitol Records didn’t give a rat’s ass about mood. They wanted to capitalize on the burgeoning folk-rock craze sweeping America at the time. But hey, though their motives are often despicable, sometimes capitalists do get it right. Hence, this review focuses on the American version of Rubber Soul.
“I’ve Just Seen a Face” is breezy, delightfully melodic song with the best acoustic guitar work The Beatles had done to date. Many of the reviews of the song focus on its exceptional forward movement, and it is impressive indeed. The words tumble off McCartney’s tongue at high-speed, but he gives sing-a-longers an out by humming or dah-dah-dahing the closing lines of the verses. The chorus sounds like it was designed especially for full-throated participation from a slightly inebriated listening audience, and it has been a staple of my family’s pleasantly drunken New Year’s bashes for as long as I can remember.
If there is one song on Rubber Soul that made the listening audience aware that the lovable moptops had moved beyond pre-pubescence, it is “Norwegian Wood.” Though McCartney claims credit for some of the lyrics (and during the Rubber Soul-Revolver years, McCartney was a superb lyricist, nothing like the moron who would write dumb-ass songs like “Jet”), the feel is the John Lennon of In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works: cheeky, witty, unimpressed by convention and blessed with a gift for wordplay.
Oh, how I wish they’d put “Good Dog, Nigel” to music.
“Norwegian Wood” is a masterpiece of poetic and narrative economy: a vivid vignette in ten or twenty lines (depending on where you put the line breaks). Snatched off the street by a lass who does her darndest to impress the laconic Liverpudlian, the narrator sardonically indicates that her attempt at commercially-enhanced seduction has failed completely:
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh
I told her I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath
The rejection must have been shocking and painful for the poor broad, but fuck, that’s what you get when you’re a crushing bore with zero self-awareness! The act of setting fire to her impressive Norwegian timber intensifies the rejection of all things pretentious, woman and furniture included. At the end of the song, you laugh at the audacity of the climax instead of wondering if you’re some kind of sick fuck for giggling at a woman’s humiliation and the destruction of her precious private property. “Norwegian Wood” is a brilliant, brilliant piece of poetry.
Musically, what seals the deal for me is the major-minor key change between verse and middle eight. While it’s a technically simple thing to flatten a third, the subtle change serves to build the tension in the song and heighten the listener’s anticipation. The fact that the lyrical resolution is full of ambiguity leaves one in an exquisite state of suspension, making you want to stop the album and explore the song again. Musically and lyrically, “Norwegian Wood” is one of those mini-masterpieces The Beatles delivered with astonishing frequency during their peak creative years.
And no, I didn’t mention the sitar. People have spent too much time on the alleged impact of the fucking sitar. The whole sitar craze lasted about two or three years, so it was hardly the game-changing integration of East and West the stoners of the time claimed it was. Musicians were experimenting with all kinds of unusual sounds during this period, and the only reason we hear about the sitar is because idealistic Baby Boomers tended to imbue anything originating from the mystical East with cosmic meaning, especially when connected in any way to The Beatles.
Ya hear that, mom and dad?
Paul devotes two of his efforts on Rubber Soul to tensions in his relationship with prissy actress Jane Asher, who would eventually dump McCartney in 1968 after catching him in the sack with a damsel by the name of Francie Schwartz. Good riddance, I say, to a woman who was apparently little more than a spoiled child and considered McCartney her personal possession. How on earth could she have been shocked to find Paul humping Francie? He’s a fucking musician, for fuck’s sake! Did she think Paul just masturbated quietly in his hotel suite when The Beatles were on tour? If I had been the one to walk in on Paul and Francie, I would have said, “Move it on over, people!” and joined the fun. Sheesh!
The first anti-Asher piece is “You Won’t See Me,” the less interesting of the pair. The song is pleasant enough but a bit of a downer after “Norwegian Wood,” a so-so melody redeemed by the Lennon-Harrison background vocals. The story is rather weak: Jane is pouting, and McCartney, in full abnegation mode, is crying and moaning and longing for someone who clearly doesn’t deserve his attention. After allowing himself the cheap pleasure of the childish taunt, “So act your age,” he lays down like a whipped puppy and whimpers to come inside.
I love strong, submissive men, but limp wimps really get my knickers in a twist.
This pathetic tale is followed by McCartney on the fuzz box, supporting George in his rather sluggish development as a songwriter in the generally unmemorable ditty, “Think for Yourself.” Ironically, the lyrics are exactly what Paul should have said to Missy Prissy Asher:
I left you far behind
The ruins of the life that you have in mind
And though you still can’t see
I know your mind’s made up
You’re gonna cause more misery
Do what you want to do
And go where you’re going to
Think for yourself
Cos I won’t be there with you
Of course, John and Paul always treated George like a little kid, so Paul probably was probably paying more attention to his new fuzzy toy than to George’s snarky lyrics. The music is technically more interesting in terms of root changes and curious chord combinations, but the whole never really comes together for me.
“The Word” has been acclaimed as the first song The Beatles wrote about love that wasn’t about boy-girl love, but “love as the answer to world problems and the gateway to higher consciousness.” Yeah, yeah, yeah—Jesus tried to peddle that bullshit 2000 years ago and people paid as much attention to the message then as they do now. Before you call me a cynic, I would point out that I believe that love is by far the most important and positive force known to humanity—but since the vast majority of humanity is clueless, all the love in the world isn’t going to make much of a difference. Do you really think you could play “The Word” or “All You Need Is Love” at an Al-Qaeda board meeting and watch them toss their assault weapons into the Persian Gulf? “The Word” is a not-much song saved by marvelous harmonies, but hardly a game-changer. From a musical perspective, it’s a predictable bore, and sounds like a song a couple of guys made up while they were smoking pot . . . which was indeed the case. I will say that the performance is one of the most exuberant on Rubber Soul, and I absolutely love Ringo’s crisp drum work.
Next comes The Beatles’ song I loathe more than nearly all the others: “Michelle.” The fact that it won a Grammy for Song of the Year only strengthens my opinion. I had to listen to it for years as it came up in the endless rotation of music playing in the house where I grew up, and whenever I made the slightest move towards the phonograph to rid my ears of the unpleasantness, my father would magically appear out of nowhere and block my path. I tried to overcome my long-standing aversion to the song by doing what I do for every review: listen to the entire album three times before writing a word.
It didn’t work. I think I hate “Michelle” even more.
Perhaps if there were a version with only the guitar and the complex harmonies, I might actually like the song. What raises my ire is McCartney’s rather maudlin vocal and the air of condescension to the poor dumb French girl who hasn’t mastered the King’s English. As a citizen and resident of La Belle France, I find the song appalling; as a card-carrying American citizen, I find it sickeningly sweet. McCartney originally wrote the tune as a sort of party piece to poke fun at French artistic pretentiousness, and I think he should have left it there. A Pythonesque version of “Michelle” would have been a hoot!
Flipping over to side two, we’re greeted by the tremolo guitar of “It’s Only Love,” snatched from side two of the British Help! Lennon didn’t think much of this song, and the lyrics are rather predictable, but I rather like the lovely melody and the expression of sheer vulnerability one feels in a relationship combining passion with tension and desire with insecurity. John Lennon was very good with emotional contradiction, and his occasionally slurred and somewhat tentative vocal captures that uneasy state exceptionally well. Here, the absence of harmony strengthens the song, befitting the confessionally-oriented lyrics.
In the British version, “Girl” follows “What Goes On,” a jarring juxtaposition that almost diminishes the impact of the superior “Girl.” Note I said “almost,” because “Girl” is such a wonderful song that it can stand up to just about anything, including a Ringo country turkey. Singing with greater intention than he did on “It’s Only Love,” John captures the tone of a man torn between pleasure and pain, the desire to immerse and the desire to escape. The drawn breaths—whether meant to convey a deep drag on a cigarette or the anticipation of a delightfully beaten-into-submission sigh—convey the realism of serious conversation without losing the musical context. The harmonies, influenced by Brian Wilson and Bros., are quite lovely throughout, but the harmonies in the middle eight—the dit-dit-dit-dits—intensify both rhythm and build. The last verse marks a shift from the personal to the philosophical, and though Lennon swore he wrote the lines, the shift in tone gives McCartney’s claim that he contributed the verse a bit more credibility. Ex-mate pettiness aside, the last verse is the crux of the song, so it deserves further exploration:
Was she told when she was young
That pain would lead to pleasure?
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?
As a dominant female with a bi-sexual orientation, I happen to be something of an expert on the pain-pleasure dynamic within the world of sexuality. However, this verse has nothing to do with BDSM—it’s about the sadomasochistic nature of a society that values work over pleasure, productivity over people. The verse casts the “Girl” of the song as a dyed-in-the-wool materialist willing to exploit men for the resources they are supposed to provide in a world of traditional relationships. We’ve already seen her as a manipulative bitch (“When I think of all the times I tried so hard to leave her/She will turn to me and start to cry/And she promises the earth to me and I believe her/After all this time I don’t know why.”), and one of the great misfortunes of living too long under a tradition of men-at-work-women-at-home is that it turned many women into devious manipulators focused primarily on achieving material comfort. Even though the need for women to manipulate has abated somewhat in Western culture, women still practice the art to this day: it’s highly unlikely that all those beautiful women with artificially inflated tits and lips marry the ugliest but wealthiest athletes purely out of love and deep emotional connection.
But “Girl” isn’t about the one percent, it’s about a middle class that has to work to death to get their “Sunday joint of bread and honey,” in Ray Davies’ words. While Lennon and McCartney were making oodles of money during this period and buying expensive playthings, they still hadn’t fallen prey to the allure of privilege, and remained firmly grounded in middle class values. Their parents and guardians were working people who had very little time for leisure, and John and Paul in particular hardly had it easy living in single parent/guardian homes. From this perspective, the last verse of “Girl” is one of their first commentaries on the lack of social justice in modern society—and the dynamic that causes people to step over each other to get a tiny bit ahead instead of pulling together so that all can rise.
We leave the fucked-up world of wealth-based privilege for the equally fucked-up world of Paul McCartney and Jane Asher. “I’m Looking Through You” is an often overlooked example of Paul McCartney’s songwriting gifts and Ringo Starr’s command of the art of percussion. Through the gift of The Beatles Anthology, we know that “I’m Looking Through You” began as a slower and more tentative number in severe need of both spark and a middle eight. The final version is much quicker and livelier, with high-speed chord changes that provide good practice for home guitarists trying to shake off the rust the fingers.
I played the song for years at our New Years’ Eve parties and thought I did a credible job on my less-than-optimal Yamaha acoustic. On one occasion, though, my father came up to me after we’d finished and said, “You know, I don’t think you have the chords right.” “You’re nuts,” I said, defending myself by reminding him of all the money he’d spent on my musical education and how dare he tell me that I don’t know music theory and chord progression. As usual, he listened to my rant with an infuriating smile on his puss, then in a completely unperturbed voice told me, “It’s the chord change on the word ‘different’,” and walked away.
“Harrumph!” I thought. I’ll show that bastard what I’m made of!
And fuck if I didn’t find out he was entirely right, dammit.
What I had been doing is playing the logical sequence demanded by the root, staying perfectly aligned with the key and the complementary chords. In other words, I had expected a pattern and lazily demanded that the chords fit the diagram in my brain, not McCartney’s. The song is in A-flat major, but for ease of explanation and to get around WordPress’ inability to render flats and sharps, I’ll slip on a capo and play it in G. Here was my version:
Em D C G C D
You don’t look different but you have changed
The actual chord sequence is far more clever, and when combined with a touch of vocal harmony adds a richness to the movement that is pure inspiration:
Em Asus4 Am G C D
You don’t look different but you have changed
Fortunately for us, McCartney was at a point in his development when he wanted to defy expectations and go beyond the obvious, an urge that he would carry forward for a few more years before going into irreversible decline. Sustained chords, like seventh chords, create a feeling of tension that peaks the listener’s demand for resolution, and the introduction of an Asus4 made “I’m Looking Through You” far more compelling than it would have been had they gone with my faulty version. It also makes the vocal harmonies on that line much more interesting. As I’ve said ad infinitum, the little things matter more in music than the big things, and that tiny diversion from logic is a very precious little thing.
And then there’s Ringo, simplifying matters to the nth degree with a percussion backing that consists of a.) a two-note vamp on a Hammond, b.) slapping his lap and c.) tapping a box of matches with his fingers. That last innovation serves as conclusive evidence that smoking bans present a hazard to human creativity.
“In My Life” was originally written as a stroll down Lennon’s Memory Lane, with references to Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, but he found the exercise a bore and transformed the perspective into a general meditation on the terrible brevity of time. Along with “Girl,” “In My Life” represents the emergence of a songwriter more in touch with himself and less concerned with satisfying commercial demand. If it seems odd that a twenty-something would engage in this kind of reflection after only a few years on the planet, you’re forgetting that Keats, Shelley and Rimbaud were also quite young when they wrote some of their greatest poetry. Lennon had always and would always continue to be deeply curious about his personal past, constantly looking backwards in songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Julia” and “Mother,” and seeking answers in transcendental meditation and primal scream therapy. What makes “In My Life” work so well is that in generalizing the perspective, John Lennon maintained close touch with his personal experience—the key to universalizing a work of art:
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends
I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all
Even more poignant than the implied images of Stu Sutcliffe and Julia Lennon is the line that closes the repeated ending verses: “In my life, I’ve loved you more.” This is much more than the expression of the advantages of convenience communicated by Stephen Stills in “Love the One You’re With,” but an affirmation of the life and the love in the here-and-now. The stop-time rendition of this line with the emphatic expression of “I love you more” never fails to bring up a tear; it is so touching, so human, so beautifully tender.
Musically, once one ignores the McCartney-Lennon argument as to who wrote the melody, the song features inspired chord changes and flows like a calm river on a warm day, reflecting a measured journey from past to present. The addition of the faux harpsichord courtesy of Lennon’s desire for a touch of the Baroque and George Martin’s wizardry is a beautiful enhancement to one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
“In My Life” should have closed Rubber Soul, for the two songs that follow are cascading disappointments. “Wait” was pulled out of the reject bin and spiffed up with more interesting instrumentation, but it really belongs back in the days of Beatles for Sale. As for “Run for Your Life,” there is no more offensive song in The Beatles’ catalog. Lennon regretted writing this disgusting celebration of the male right to engage in violence against women, up to and including murder, but his regrets can’t erase the foul impression it leaves behind. Lennon was a batterer during his years with Cynthia, and he had already placed his possessive tendencies on full display in “You Can’t Do That,” so the fact that he would write a song about his ugly feelings is not that surprising. What’s appalling is that none of the men listening to this crap said, “Hey, John, do you really mean that? You’d rather see her dead?” As it stands, it’s a shocking contradiction to the kindness and vulnerability displayed in “In My Life,” almost making Rubber Soul seem like an album of two steps forward and one horrifying step backward. The acoustic feel of the album is preserved (briefly) in the song’s intro, leaving us something to hold onto as the needle rises from the vinyl.
Whichever version gets you off, the real story behind Rubber Soul is that it demonstrated The Beatles’ desire to do more with music than just make money and send legions of fans into fits of ecstasy. The awareness that an album could be more than just a collection of songs had more to do with Rubber Soul than any other album of that era. The Beatles had more time to experiment with sound and structure, and though the four or five weeks spent in the studio pale in comparison to the months spent on Sgt. Pepper, it was far more than they’d had up to date, and the experience obviously gave them confidence that endless possibilities awaited them in the studio upon their return from the next tour of duty. Those possibilities would wind up exceeding all expectations in the next two years, when The Beatles created works of art that will live for centuries. Rubber Soul opened the door to a shocking blossoming of creativity.