The Long and Winding Road Part 6: Rubber Soul

Rubber Soul (released 3 December 1965)

Dear Rubber Soul,

We’ve reached the point where things start to get really interesting. In the autumn of 1965, tired of having to churn out albums that didn’t really do anything, the Beatles upped their ante and tried to create songs that were “arty”. As a result, you are considered the first album in which the Beatles started to “mature” (as if they were a fine wine), where the album becomes less of a collection of songs and more of this sustained, coherent statement. And all this in the space of 31 days: not Please Please Me speeds, but considering how well-produced you are compared to your eldest sibling, pretty damn impressive.

And your production values are quite evident: I remember starting up this album just after Christmas, and I was in awe of how well-produced everything was. Gone were the simple but pleasant lineups of two guitars, a bass and a drum: here were more instrumental quirks than one could possibly imagine — a sped-up piano here, a sitar there. And in between those, a full embracing of styles and sounds which the Beatles have only been casually acquainted with in the past: rhythm and blues, Indian rock, baroque pop to name a few. It’s amazing that all this was churned out in just a month.

But there’s also a strange something that’s new, that doesn’t really quite fit in with what we’ve gathered over the previous albums. What we find from songs like “Think for Yourself” and “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” are an undercurrent of rage. Of course it isn’t the case that everything was sunshine and laughter in Beatleland prior to this: we’ve all seen how tired they got in Beatles for Sale, and anger and desperation have been part of George and John (but mostly George)’s songbook since With the Beatles. But we tend to think that that was just playacting: sure, there’s a lot of negative thoughts in those songs, but the reasons are petty: jilted lover writes angry song, needs to grow up, etc, etc. Immature childish stuff. But in “Think for Yourself” (“although your mind’s opaque/ Try thinking more if just for your own sake”), we actually feel that there’s an aura of menace behind the cheerful delivery: when George (because of course it’s him) sings, you’re aware of genuine anger behind it all, some kind of anguish behind that sudden E-flat chord. And more to the point, John seems overly casual about murder in both “Run for Your Life” and “Norwegian Wood”, the latter of which features the definitely-in-need-of-some-assistance protagonist burning a house down simply because his one-night stand went to work. (I mean, YOU WERE EXPLICITLY TOLD THAT SHE HAD TO WORK! You ignorant PRAT.)

It’s all said in jest, but seriously: this is the point where we begin to suspect that the Beatles are ditching their previous loud, carefree image in favour of a brooding one, one where innocence has been irrevocably lost. And it’s thanks to this anger, unfortunately, that we get to see the Beatles as serious forces of music: able to process themes relatively more mature, able to articulate more complex emotions and concepts. It’s a strange step out, and admittedly, for me, one that takes some time getting used to.

There is still a LOT to unpack, so I’ll go through them bit by bit, but let’s start with the most obvious: you are absolutely smothered in marijuana. I haven’t read anything that suggests that all four of them were high on pot while they were recording (though seeing as this was the 1960s, definitely), but there is a general comfy feeling that one didn’t get from you before. Ambience has replaced the hard rocking rhythms that defined their earlier albums. I don’t mean to say, of course, that this becomes an “unplugged” album — Ringo still plays as normal and neither George or Paul dispense with the amps — but at the same time, there’s an edge that seems to be missing from most of your compositions, replaced by a sense of laid-back honesty. For example, one listens to “In My Life”, and although it’s ostensibly a love song, you can also feel it brimming with nostalgia. In his lyrics, John straight up admits how much he misses his childhood, and ruefully reflects on how times have changed. It’s a nice composition, with much to discover and a message that, for once, isn’t hammered into your head like those rock songs from before did. Its soft, lush production and honest lyrics mean that for once, you actually do empathize with John.

It’s strange that John is the person who’s the sweetest here. I know we tend to associate Paul with cloying sentimentality, but it’s strange to find John also showing us his deeper thoughts. “In My Life” and “Nowhere Man” show us a new John, a sensitive John who does not seek to shout about his true but superficial romances — all very well for the vacuous teenagers (of which I am a part, apparently), but not enough for matured young adults — and instead decides to come clean about what he thinks and feels. And I think this honesty would certainly have been impossible without drugs. Prior to 1965 John was notorious for not letting his vulnerable side show: he was always trying to show everyone what a masculine, confident man he was, streetwise and always ready with the vaguely disturbing jokes. But now, marijuana seems to have smoothed over some of those rough edges, letting him access his inner emotions and express what’s in the deepest recesses of his mind: remembrance of the past, a genuine fear that he won’t be able to do anything right. Its influence is clearest, though, in “The Word”, the lyrics of which are so saturated with the idea of “spreading the word of love” (though interestingly offering no concrete idea as to how one should do that) that you can easily conjure up funny images of John ambling around the studio and hugging everyone in sight, mumbling about how high he is and how he has seen The Way. (Yup, the song is THAT overt — and that awesome.) Now who says pot doesn’t help creative processes?

Speaking of the creative, you continue to show us what a wonderful composer George Harrison is. As mentioned before, George is the voice of rage on this album: both his compositions are so cynical and bitter, you have to wonder what happened to the poor man in the autumn of 1965. (Then again, he was always the one who hated being in the Beatles.) I’ve already talked about how “Think for Yourself” has an aura of menace behind its cheery delivery, but his other offering, “If I Needed Someone”, has an ambivalence towards other relationships that is a bit worrying: what do you mean, “IF I had some more time to spend”? Surely you can spend SOME time with me, YOUR FRIEND? Either way, it’s hard not to read both songs as an indication that George has grown up perhaps slightly too fast: all the anger seems to be gushing out of him now, like a pent-up geyser. His musicianship is undeniably amazing, and I should note that these are truly wonderful songs (those harmonies in “If I Needed Someone” are exquisite, I tell you), but at the same time you do worry about the man: should a 22-year-old be feeling so cynical about the world?

Which is where we bring in Paul McCartney. There are some people who consider Paul to have done a worse job than both John and George. This is emphatically NOT TRUE — for one song only. After all, there has to be a reason why both Jimmy Fallon and James Corden like doing “Drive My Car” with Paul on the late-night circuit: it is, surprisingly, the hardest rocking song we will find on this album, and it’s fun and catchy. What I really like about this song is how Paul’s added another style to his songbook here: the rhythm and blues element of the song is a nice tip of the hat towards their American roots. But apart from that, it has to be said that yes, this is not the quality we expect from Paul, who seems to be suffering from a case of blandness and fake emotions in the album. The McCartney songs are, like the Harrisons, somewhat miserable and unhappy, but the songs Paul produces come dangerously close to being riffs on the same theme from his bandmates. I’ve listened to “You Won’t See Me” and tried to come with a memorable bit, but this time it merely sounds like Paul is spouting a word salad on “jilted lover”. “I’m Looking Through You” is slightly better, but this is mostly due to the good guitar riffs that George provides and not because of the cheery way Paul tells us how his love is slowly dissolving. And it says a lot about how “Wait”, an average folky song that was left over from the sessions for your older sibling, is one of Paul’s better songs here.

But your worst bit — the one which no amount of drugs can excuse — comes from John. It’s a bit amazing how he can be both the star player on this album and still write the worst song. I refer of course to “Run for Your Life”, a very creepy and rather horrid song that really does oversell how impassioned John is. For those who have never had the “pleasure” of listening to it, I congratulate them: listening to John threaten, actually threaten, to kill his girlfriend lest he leaves him is one of the worst musical experiences I’ve ever had in my whole life (apart from, of course, listening to myself sing). The fact that it’s so cheery, and that it’s actually quite well-recorded, makes it even worse: not only does it carry an inappropriate sanguinity towards the matter, but you also have to admire it for its good production values. UGH.

And besides the misogyny there are also some parts of which don’t stick: “What Goes On” has “Starkey” tacked on at the end of the songwriter credits, as if Ringo had snuck into the offices late one night and appended his own name onto the credits because he needed the money. It’s a weird song which doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the album, and the less said about it the better. (Okay, yes, I don’t know how to describe this very bland song. But my point still holds.)

Phew, we need something positive to cheer us up, and happily for us there’s no shortage of interesting stuff in you. I’ve said way too much about how well the Beatles harmonize with each other in previous letters, and as that’s still true here I’ll skip it and talk about your OTHER defining feature: heaps and heaps of new sounds. “Norwegian Wood”, besides being the inspiration for the title of a Haruki Murakami novel, has a lot of interesting sitar solos which, yes, do send the listener to the Orient and back. Meanwhile “In My Life” plays adds a beautiful, haunting piano solo to the mix (people say it sounds like a harpsichord, but I’ve heard harpsichord before and it’s a poor imitation that sounds closer to electronic piano). My favourite example, though, actually, is from George’s guitar playing in “Girl”, wherein he and John simply placed capos (some sort of guitar clamp, apparently) on their strings and played it slightly differently — and yet we are instantly transported to the Mediterranean when George plays his guitar, so evocative it is of those dances which you can find in old-school Greek films. And I find this to be more impressive than any exotic instrument that the three of them could discover: it basically says a lot about how the best twists are usually those derived from just a simple tweak of the ordinary. Never mind all those fancy instruments, figuring out how to use what you normally have in an unexpected way is already enough to make you as original as you want to be.

There’s a surprising amount of enthusiasm for the continent in you as well: besides the Greek flavours of “Girl”, we have “Michelle”, a delightfully quirky offering from Paul (it’s the first song for which the Beatles won a Grammy). This is not a very good song: it plods along instead of skipping, and is so schmaltzy that it sounds suspiciously like a joke at our expense. But from the moment the guitar starts up, even before McCartney starts speaking French, you can immediately sense how Gallic the whole thing is. And it doesn’t take away from the song either: it may not be good, but like it or not, the French makes it interesting and definitely evocative — I really could picture myself strolling down the Seine, listening to this song while trying to avoid all the overenthusiastic salespeople.

And at the end of the day, I think “Michelle” is a pretty good representation of you as a whole. You are good but not great enough to be considered classic, but either way intriguingly fun to listen to. And there are some missteps and wrong decisions in you, but at the same time your wide range of influences — from America to France, from India to Greece — compensates really well for all the problems you have. Any musician would be able to look at you and feel really, really proud of themselves, probably even see it as the pinnacle of their career.

But as we’re talking about the Beatles here… I think we know how this goes.

Yours sincerely,

Favourite track: I really liked “Drive My Car”, but using it as my favourite track would mean using the first track three times in a row, which would make it look like I haven’t been listening carefully. But then “The Word”, with its similar sounds and better lyrics, came to me, and lo and behold, the truth did cometh down on me.

(Featured image from cover of Rubber Soul, copyright EMI Music/Parlophone Records.)

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