Rubber Soul – 50th Anniversary of The Beatles Classic album
The 3rd of December see’s the fiftieth anniversary of not only The Beatles ‘Rubber Soul’ album being released, but also the fiftieth anniversary of what many believe to be the turning point in The Beatles career. Too many ‘Rubber Soul’ marked the period where The Beatles began to steer away from being the lovable mop-tops with a constant grin, and moved towards being the serious, experimental studio wizards who were quickly becoming the 20th century’s greatest songwriters and arguably the 20th century’s most influential band.
What lead The Beatles to steer away from their boy-meets-girl, royal family approved image, was a series of events that molded their ever evolving mindsets. The need for constant progression was always there, deeply embedded in them from their bohemian days and nights in both Liverpool and Hamburg, but as 1965 arrived, the musical and counter-cultural rulebook was changing at a vast rate of knots. While some of The Beatles contemporaries fell by the way side in 1965, The Beatles themselves, with their ability to move with, as well as reflect the times, managed to embrace all that was on offer around them, and rather than manage to merely stay afloat, they actually managed to maintain their status as the cream of popular music. What follows is the story of The Beatles growing up and leaving their rock ‘n’ roll roots behind. It is the story of them being bored when meeting Elvis, while being inspired when meeting The Byrds. It is a story of LSD, Sitars and Bob Dylan. It is the story of The Beatles moving away from being a two-albums-a-year pop group in order to satisfy demand, to being a group of intelligent young men who took control of not only the recording studio but also took control of their own career.
On the 6th August 1965, the Beatles released their fifth album, ‘Help!’ Predictably, it was a worldwide success and although the record contained additions to the Fab-Fours sound such as a string quartet (‘Yesterday’) flutes (‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’) and one of the earliest uses of the wah-wah pedal (‘I Need You’), The NME’s review of the album was somewhat lukewarm: “It’s typical Beatles material, and offers very few surprises. But then, who wants surprises from the Beatles?” read the music papers review one week before release. The review was of little consequence at a time when the music press was still light and snappy and popular music was yet to be fully realized as an actual art form. Further to this, the album was still the secondary format in the pop world behind the seven-inch single. The NME’s review however, offended Paul McCartney. Be it The Supremes or Chubby Checker, The Beatles loathed artists who repeated themselves and repeated a formula.
Aside from Bob Dylan and marijuana entering The Beatles lives in the later part of 1964, early 1965 saw John and Cynthia Lennon, along with George Harrison and Patti Boyd experience an evening which would have far more significant an affect on the Beatles than all they had absorbed during their previous two-years in the public eye. Thought to have occurred at some point between January and April 1965, John, George and their respective Wag’s attend a dinner party held by George Harrison’s cosmetic dentist, the 34-year-old John Riley. At the end of dinner, Riley placed a little known substance, in the form of a sugar cube, into their after-meal coffee. He informed the Lennon’s as well as George and Patti, that the substance, still legally obtainable at the time, was Lysergic Acid Dyatherlimide – LSD. Various accounts tell the tale of a wholly unpleasant trip which included Riley trying to get John, George and their partners to stay at his house for what appeared to be an orgy; George attempting to drive his Mini Cooper to London’s Pickwick Club only to arrive at the club believing that it was actually being bombed. Following that they moved onto the Ad Lib club to meet Ringo, only to THEN believe that the lift to the club was on fire! Poor George then had the misfortune of having to drive everybody home again! Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine in 1970, “It was terrifying but it was fantastic.”
Approximately five months after John and George’s “terrifying” LSD experience, The Beatles began their second tour of America with a record-breaking gig at New York’s Shea Stadium in front of 56,000 fans. Subsequent dates on the American tour were the usual circus of increasingly tiresome screaming and poor PA systems and The Beatles, by now, played to their audiences through increasingly gritted teeth. Following a show in Portland on the 22nd of August, the band flew to Los Angeles for a mid-tour break staying in Benedict Canyon, Hollywood in a house belonging to Zsa Zsa Gabor. During the previous month, California’s The Byrds, with their 12-string Rickenbacker jangle, were touring Britain on the back of the number 1 success of the Bob Dylan penned ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and although The Byrds gigs were met with mixed reviews in Britain, the band were championed and befriended by The Beatles. John and George having both attended The Byrds gig at London’s Blaises Club while Paul McCartney watching them at London’s Flamingo and then going on to introduce them to the sights and sounds of swinging London. Following this, The Byrds were invited to meet The Beatles again at Zsa Zsa Gabor’s home when the fab-four reached California in August.
On the 24th of August, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby were chauffeured to Zsa Zsa Gabor’s home at the invitation of The Beatles. Following John and George’s recent experience with LSD, they decided that their band mates also needed to experience the drug: “John and I decided that Paul and Ringo had to have acid, because we couldn’t relate to them any more. Not just on the one level – we couldn’t relate to them on any level, because acid had changed us so much….so the plan was that when we got to Hollywood we were going to get them to take acid…we got some in New York and we’d been carrying these around all through the tour until we got to LA.” During the party, Ringo did indeed join George and John, Paul however was not so willing, “I think I was seen to stall a little bit within the group…talk about peer pressure, The Beatles!” Whereas in 1970 John Lennon told Rolling Stone, “Paul felt very out of it, because we were all slightly cruel, ‘we’re all taking it and you’re not'”. The party was a mix of Ringo swimming in what he thought was a pool filled with jelly, John, George and Ringo trying to watch Cat Ballou whilst tripping, George getting increasingly irritated by the cast of the movie and a very uncool Peter Fonda informing those on acid that he ‘knew what it was like to be dead.’
Also during the evening, George Harrison found that The Byrds were also becoming intrigued by Indian music. In Johnny Rogan’s Byrds biography, ‘Requiem for the Timeless’ Roger McGuinn tells Rogan, “We were sitting around on acid playing 12-strings in the shower. John, George, David (Crosby) and I were just sitting there playing. We were showing them what we knew about Ravi Shankar and they’d never heard of him.” In 2010 McGuinn told the Daily Telegraph, “I showed George Harrison some Ravi Shankar sounds; you can hear what I played him from The Byrds’ song ‘Why’. I had learned to play it on the guitar from listening to records of Ravi Shankar.”Three days after their party with The Byrds, The Beatles, still in LA, met their all time hero, Elvis Presley. The visit, arranged by Colonel Tom Parker and Brian Epstein took place at Graceland. Unlike their meeting with The Byrds however the consensus seemed to be that they simply could not get close to Elvis. They were a different generation, his stimulants appearing to be ‘uppers’ and Whiskey rather than weed and LSD. Lennon later remarked, ‘it had been about as exciting as meeting Engelbert Humperdinck’. The generation gap widening in The Beatles eyes as Elvis appeared to be a performer rather than a musician.
Following a further eight gigs is the US, The Beatles Returned to the UK and took a six-week break before entering the studio on October 12th to begin work on what would become ‘Rubber Soul’. The first song The Beatles set out to record was ‘Run for your life’. With its opening lyric lifted from Elvis Presley’s 1957 ‘Baby Lets Play House’, ‘Run For Your Life’ does little to suggests any new direction. Lennon going on to describe the song as ‘a glib throwaway’ that he ‘wished he’d never written’ to official Beatles biographer Hunter Davies. Reflecting on the album in Rolling Stone in 1970 Lennon said, “We finally took over the studio…we were learning the techniques. Then we got contemporary. I think ‘Rubber Soul’ was about when it started happening.” This, their sixth album was largely The Beatles taking a look around and absorbing the music directly surrounding them in 1965 and once ‘Run For Your Life’ was completed; Lennon’s theory began to take shape.
The second song to be recorded encompassed much of what the Beatles had been soaking up over the previous ten months. With Lennon attempting to match Dylan with his lyrical prowess, The Beatles also mixed their recent folks-rock acoustic leanings, so prevalent in 1965, with both a Byrds style guitar-figure and for the first time, the introduction of the sitar into western popular music. George Harrison’s recently purchased sitar from the unimaginatively named India Craft store on London’s Oxford Street, was about to set a president regarding what could actually be achieved within pop music as The Beatles set out to recorded the Lennon composition, ‘Norwegian Wood’. Although the ‘drone’ associated with Indian music had already been utilised by The Beatles (Ticket To Ride) The Kinks (See My Friends) and The Yardbirds (Heart Full Of Soul) earlier in 1965, the actual use of Indian instrumentation at this point was something unique to The Beatles. The songs subject, an affair that John Lennon was trying to write about without actually letting his wife Cynthia know, has been linked to various parties involved in Lennon’s life during the period: Sonny Drake (wife of ‘Rubber Soul’ photographer Robert Freeman) and Journalist Maureen Cleeve. The 3/4 time signature of ‘Norwegian Wood’ meant that in essence The Beatles had created a sea-shanty/folk song with an Indian backing. This was the beginning of the melting pot of influences and sounds that would peak in The Beatles world over the next two-to-three-years.
In the light of Lennon not particularly liking ‘Run For a Your Life’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’ being a struggle to record (Lennon insisting on a remake 9 days after recording the original) ‘Rubber Soul’ did not get off to the best start. Further problems were encountered when Lennon and McCartney began a writing session at Lennon’s Weybridge home one Autumn afternoon. McCartney showed up at Lennon’s with a set of chords and a melody he was happy with but a set of lyrics that he despised. The song would eventually evolve into the Volt/Stax inspired ‘Drive My Car’ but at this point, the lyric was lame and rudimentary. “I can buy you golden rings.” Lennon and McCartney well aware that singing about “rings” was their default setting (‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘I Feel Fine’) and wanted to steer away from the theme quickly. The songwriting session was later described by McCartney as being the nearest he and Lennon ever came to having a ‘dry session.’ After hours of getting nowhere they somehow stumbled upon the phrase ‘Drive My Car’ and with that came the idea of a chauffeur, Hollywood and stars of the screen – possibly due to the fact they had recently been in Hollywood with a plethora of LA girls hanging around and no doubt looking for a movie break.
Although The Beatles had already shown the influence of Motown, Stax and Atlantic on their work through songs like ‘You Can’t Do That’ and ‘She’s A Woman’, ‘Drive My Car’ betrayed a harder edged, more bottom-heavy sound. George Harrison, the biggest soul fan of the four with an almost encyclopedic knowledge, played ‘Drive My Car’s’ bass-line and used Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ as the inspiration. McCartney singing at the top end of his vocal register only added to the songs appeal which could have been custom built for Redding himself. Another soul inspired track on the album was ‘The Word’, John Lennon’s first attempt to write a song around love as a universal theme rather than a boy-meets-girl theme. It was also said to be Lennon and McCartney’s attempt to write a melody completely on just one note, “like ‘Long Tall Sally’” Paul McCartney told Alan Aldridge in an interview in 1990. Aside from the up-tempo soul that was influencing The Beatles heavily during this period, one of Lennon and McCartney’s most celebrated collaborations, ‘In My Life’, came about as a result of Smokey Robinson’s ability to write classic Motown ballads.
‘In My Life’ was by far Lennon and McCartney’s most mature piece of work to-date, Lennon having turned 25 less than 10 days before the song was recorded; McCartney was all of 23.
The much-revered ‘In My Life’ was arrived at, partly through Lennon’s new approach to songwriting. An approach suggested by Journalist Kenneth Allsop. Allsop encouraged Lennon not to separate his songwriting from the short stories and poems that he had penned for his two recently published books, ‘In His Own Write’ and ‘A Spaniard In The Works’. Allsop asked Lennon why he did not apply the same level of wit and intelligence to his songwriting as he did to his short stories and poems. ‘In My Life’ did indeed begin as a long poem covering various landmarks that John Lennon would observe during his bus journey from Menlove Avenue to Liverpool city centre. Struggling to form the lines into a coherent song during one of Lennon and McCartney’s writing sessions, McCartney, told Barry Miles in 1997 that he ‘liked the open lines’ but that Lennon ‘didn’t have a tune’. McCartney then offered, ‘Let me just go and work on it.’ “I went down to the half-landing, where John had a Mellotron and I sat there and put together a tune based in my mind on Smokey Robinson and The Miracles…we tagged on the introduction which I think I thought up.”
The introduction appears to take inspiration from The Miracles ‘Tracks of My Tears’ while the chord structure is similar to that of ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’ which The Beatles were covering two years previously. Aside from the soul influence prevalent on ‘Rubber Soul’, the most direct result of The Beatles and The Byrds meeting in August came via George Harrison’s ‘If I Needed Someone’. Like Lennon’s guitar figure on ‘Norwegian Wood’, Harrison used the D-chord shape and note variation embraced by The Byrds in much of their early work. Harrison’s riff, as he acknowledged himself at the time, is almost identical to that of Roger McGuinn’s on ‘The Bells of Rhymney’ while the drum pattern is inspired by The Byrds ‘She Don’t Care About Time’, a song that Paul and George were present for the recording of. Johnny Rogan tells how, prior to ‘Rubber Soul’s’ release, ‘George Harrison sent a copy of the album to Byrds publicist Derek Taylor, with a note reading, “Tell Roger and David that ‘If I Needed Someone’ is the riff from ‘The Bells Of Rhymney’ and the drumming is from ‘She Don’t Care About Time’”.
By the time The Beatles began recording ‘Rubber Soul’, Paul McCartney had been dating Jane Asher for two years. An accomplished actress from a young age, Asher, during the recording, was rehearsing in Bristol for an Old Vic production of ‘The Happiest Days of Your Life’. During this period Paul McCartney and Jane Asher separated, various commentators suspecting that this was due to the slightly old-fashioned McCartney who expected a woman’s place to be in the home. This argument may be slightly flawed however as McCartney’s own mother was a mid-wife and therefore not the ‘stay at home’ woman that some have suggested McCartney was looking for. Uncharacteristically for McCartney, two of his songs that appear on ‘Rubber Soul’ deal with his own emotions rather than the detached or third-person style compositions that cover much of his Beatles work. McCartney’s break-up with Jane Asher led him to write and record ‘You Won’t See Me’ and ‘I’m Looking Through You.’
‘I’m Looking Through You’, in its instrumentation, appears so show McCartney attempting to write a song with a folk-rock style verse and, through the agitated guitar stabs, a soul style chorus. The version that appears on The Beatles ‘Anthology 2’ album gives further back up to this theory. ‘You Won’t See Me’ with its chord progression lifted from The Four Tops ‘It’s The Same Old Song’ once again shows The Beatles
taking on a more contemporary influence (‘It’s the Same Old Song’ being released as a UK single in July of 1965) . McCartney (Many Years From Now): “To me it was very Motown-flavoured. It’s got a James Jamerson feel. He was the Motown bass player, he was fabulous, the guy who did all those melodic bass lines. It was him, me and Brian Wilson who were doing melodic bass lines at that time.”
While McCartney was suffering at the hands of a relationship break-up, John Lennon too was in a depressed frame of mind, calling this his ‘Fat Elvis’ period. Lennon said he was ‘eating and drinking like a pig’, he was also ‘smoking marijuana for breakfast’, was said to be bored in his mock-Tudor house in Weybridge, bored of his marriage, resentful of The Beatles image and jealous of Paul McCartney quickly becoming London’s counter-cultural man about town.
‘Nowhere Man’ was written with much of this mood in mind. Attempting to write the song after a particularly heavy night out, Lennon told Playboy magazine in a 1980, “I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write something meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down. Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing.” McCartney picked up the story in ‘Many Years From Now’, “He (John) was kipping on the couch, very bleary eyed. It was really an anti-John song, written by John. He told me later, he didn’t tell me then. He said he’d written it about himself, feeling like he wasn’t going anywhere. Actually, I think it was about the state of his marriage. It was in a period where he was a bit dissatisfied with what was going on.”
The multi-layered harmonies, as well as the jangle of the guitars (curiously Fender Strat’s rather than the folk-rock staple Rickenbackers) once again betray the influence of The Byrds.
One song not influenced by The Byrds, Bob Dylan or Soul for that matter began life as a six-bar guitar figure created by Paul McCartney in the late 50’s for the solitary purpose of pretending to be French in order to impress girls at the art school parties John was introducing him and George to. Aside from the chorus being inspired by Nina Simone’s 1965 cover of ‘I Put A Spell On You’, ‘Michelle’s’ true source of inspiration was the Chet Atkins number, ‘Trambone’ and when Lennon and McCartney were in need of new material for Rubber Soul, the ‘Trambone’ influenced guitar figure was revived.
In 1965 McCartney and Lennon were both still in touch with Ivan Vaughan, the mutual friend who introduced them to each other back in 1957. One evening Paul McCartney and Jane Asher were having dinner with Ivan Vaughan and his wife, Jan, who was a language teacher. McCartney, ever the opportunist, asked Jan to assist him in the creation of the lyrics for ‘Michelle’. Jan duly did so and sometime later, when ‘Michelle’ became one of The Beatles most popular numbers, McCartney sent Jan Vaughan a generous royalty to cheque for her trouble. One person who was not a fan of ‘Michelle’ however was photographer David Bailey, “I saw David Bailey at the Ad Lib” McCartney told Barry Miles, “He said, ‘Ere, That ‘Michelle’. It is tongue in cheek, you are joking with that aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Fuck off!’ quite taken aback that he thought it was a joke. I was very insulted but I know what he meant.” As was often the case in Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting relationship, as one would write a song, the other would write something similar in idea in order to compete. ‘Girl’ for example, holds almost identical instrumentation to ‘Michelle’ and is a strong case for how Lennon and McCartney competed with each other as well as bouncing off each other.
One of the last numbers recorded for Rubber Soul was George Harrison’s ‘Think For Yourself’ described by Harrison in his autobiography, ‘I, Me, Mine’, as being ‘inspired by the government or something’. Musically, with the ‘fuzz’ bass employed by McCartney, there is little doubt that the use of ‘fuzz’ was inspired by the Rolling Stones ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ as well as the Phil Spector produced ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’ by Bob B Soxx and The Blue Jeans which employed one of the first uses of a ‘fuzz’ effect on a pop record.
One of the struggles that The Beatles had faced when preparing to release ‘Beatles For Sale’ in time for Christmas 1964, was their lack of original unrecorded material. To counter this The Beatles simply delved back into the endless supply of covers they played in their Cavern days and recorded a selection of their favourites. The following year however, they did not want to repeat the formula. Granted The Beatles could simply have thrown ‘Day Tripper’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’ (recorded at the same ‘Rubber Soul’ sessions) onto the album rather than use them as a stand-alone double-A-side or they could have cut ‘Rubber Soul’ down to twelve songs rather than their usual fourteen, as many of their contemporaries did. That was not The Beatles style however and for all of their fame and success, they still held the viewpoint of the record buyer and disliked the thought of being the type artists who released albums without any real substance or released albums with the simple purpose of cashing in as much as possible.
With that in mind The Beatles fell back on two number written for previous albums that were yet to be released, ‘What Goes on’ which gave Ringo first (part) songwriting credit and ‘Wait’.
‘What Goes On’ was originally attempted in 1963 with Lennon on vocals but unfinished. The songs Country and Western leanings as well as George’s Carl Perkins-style guitar work, leant itself perfectly to Ringo who loved both. ‘Wait’ meanwhile, intended for the ‘Help!’ album, was an unfinished piece of work that was revived and although the track does not stand out as one of ‘Rubber Soul’s’ highlights, it does encourage one wonder why it was not pursued further during its initial recording as,even without the overdubbed wah-wah pedal and percussion that was added during its ‘Rubber Soul’ revisit, ‘Wait’ is still superior to much of the material on the ‘Help!’ album.
Upon its release, ‘Rubber Soul’ spent eight weeks at number 1 in the UK. The usual clamber of cover versions of anything new by The Beatles saw The Hollies take ‘If I Needed Someone’ to number 20. The Hollies first single since their debut not to reach the top ten. The single may well have faired better had George Harrison not described it as ‘rubbish’ during an interview with the NME just prior to its release. St. Louis Union took ‘Girl’ to number 11 while The Overlanders had a number 1 with their cover of ‘Michelle’ in early 1966.The title ‘Rubber Soul’ can from a play on ‘Plastic Soul’, an expression that an unknown American blues singer used at the time to describe Mick Jagger’s vocals. On The Beatles ‘Anthology 2’ compilation Paul McCartney can be heard describing a vocal take he is unhappy with on ‘I’m Down’ as “plastic soul man, plastic soul.”
George Harrison called ‘Rubber Soul’ his ‘favourite album…at that time’ carrying on during The Beatles Anthology to state, “we did spend a bit more time on it and tried new things but the most important thing about it was that we were suddenly hearing sounds that we hadn’t heard before. Also, we were being more influenced by other people’s music and everything was blossoming at that time.”
Brian Wilson’s autobiography ‘Wouldn’t Be Nice’ recalls his first experience of hearing ‘Rubber Soul.’ As well as calling it ‘religious’ Wilson also commented, “I was knocked out, every song was great.
They put only great stuff on the album. That’s what I want to do, I said.” The Beach Boys next album to be recorded would be the monumental ‘Pet Sounds.’
Bob Dylan’s reaction to the ‘Norwegian Wood’ that he so inspired, was write a parody of it in the form of ‘4th Time Around’ for his next album, Blonde On Blonde’. John Lennon, paranoid about the meaning of ‘4th Time Around’ told Dylan he ‘didn’t like it’ he confessed in an interview for Rolling Stone magazine in 1968 going on to state, “I thought it was an out and out skit but it wasn’t.”
In April 1966, The Rolling Stones released their fourth studio album ‘Aftermath’. Taking the lead of both The Beatles and Bob Dylan, ‘Aftermath’ was the first Stones album not to feature any covered material. The Stones used more acoustic guitars and wrote more Motown inspired bass lines. They used glockenspiels and also employed various Indian instruments. During the same month however, The Beatles were one-step ahead yet again. They had just entered the studio to begin work on ‘Revolver’…
All words by Michael Halpin. More from Michael can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.