When Rubber Soul was released on 3rd December 1965 (in time for the lucrative Christmas season) it exposed the band to a whole new audience, especially in America, where more discerning listeners of rock had a tendency to regard the Beatles as little more than just another one of those fly-by-night teenybopper groups from England, with funny haircuts and matching suits. True, the Beatles had indeed been obliged earlier in their career to compromise in order to obtain the success they so craved. However in this instance, the band were truly beginning to take pop music to an entirely new height, finally unshackled from the commercial constraints dictated by an industry that demanded its pop stars adhere to the same successful formula year in and year out. Suddenly the group were beginning to be seen as real innovators, doing more than anyone else at the time, perhaps with the exception of The Kinks and The Who (not to mention Bob Dylan and The Byrds on the other side of the Atlantic), in transforming basic rock and roll into something truly new and exciting.
It’s no secret that around this time the band had begun to indulge rather heavily in various recreational drugs (mostly thanks to Dylan, during his 1965 tour of Britain), particularly marijuana, something which Lennon couldn’t get enough of it seems. So while the Beatles were stretching their minds, they were also expanding their own artistic control, spending more hours in the studio, exploring different sounds and recording techniques. And while the theme of boy meets girl remains throughout, the lyrics had indeed become somewhat more sophisticated as far as what most fans had become accustomed to.
“Drive My Car” is one of the best openers of any pop album of the era, where McCartney and Lennon beautifully blend elements of Rock and Motown. It might sound rather quaint and old-fashioned today, but it really blew listeners minds at the time. Likewise Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood”, John’s (no doubt personal) observation of Swinging London, in which girl meets boy, go back to her flat, decorated in, you guessed it, Norwegian wood. However rather than the two of them ending up in bed together, our protagonist finds himself instead sleeping in the bathroom. George Harrison’s use of the Indian Sitar gives the song a slightly exotic feel, without which the composition may not have been so interesting or alluring. “You Won’t See Me” is not a great song per se, but contains some marvelous harmonies, where McCartney is obviously trying to extend himself from a song writing perspective.
Now whereas as “Help” was a cry by Lennon in relation to his inner turmoil, “Nowhere Man” was his most public statement to date, and a lament over the failure of fame to turn him into a better person. Dylan’s influence on this track is obvious, from Lennon’s lyrics to his vocal delivery – while Harrison’s chiming guitar is a nod to The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. “Think for Yourself” marks Harrison’s increasing obsession with self-improvement and spiritual freedom (it also has some brilliant bass by McCartney). On “The Word” the Beatles simply want to turn you on to love. There’s some spacey sitar thrown in to the mix, so as to spice things up a bit, and though this sort of music was manifesting in San Francisco, it was almost totally unheard of in conservative England.
“Michelle” is an exquisite Parisian oriented love ballad, and a prime example of McCartney’s talent for writing commercially pleasing tunes, without really seeming as though he was selling out to the masses. Ringo sings lead vocals on the jangly country-rock of “What Goes On”, before Lennon’s “Girl” brings us back to more pensive territory. And is that John replicating the sound of him inhaling a joint between the verses? The influence of the Byrds can again be heard on the upbeat “I’m Looking through You”, and on “If I Needed Someone”, each interpreted via that peculiar lens of four lads from Liverpool.
“In My Life” has Lennon reflecting on his ever growing list of “friends and lovers”, but seemingly from the vantage point of someone so much older (he was only twenty-five when he wrote it). There are some lovely moments, including the baroque harpsichord (which was actually a piano) not to mention a few hints at Lennon’s later vocal explorations during his solo career. “Wait” is an outtake from the “Help” sessions, but one wouldn’t know it, since it fits in perfectly here alongside the rest of the material.
Sung by Lennon, the final track, “Run for Your Life” has the Beatles breaking all the rules in terms of teen-pop lyricism, with words such as “Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl/Than to be with another man… Well you know that I’m a wicked guy/And I was born with a jealous mind”. Having read a few books on Lennon, I’d say there was something of the autobiographical in what he’s singing. One can only feel sympathy for his poor wife Cynthia who stayed at home raising Julian, while her husband went around planting more seed than the entire National Farmers Union put together.
Due to their rapidly growing skills as songwriters and musicians, the Beatles were beginning to play an increasingly important and vital role in transforming 1960’s youth culture. Where for the next several years or so, they would remain at the forefront of popular music, taking it to places no-one had dared to go much less ever dreamed of. Throughout this period both Lennon and McCartney were churning out classic pop songs at an astonishing rate, including “Day Tripper” and “We Can Work It Out”, which were issued as singles and therefore excluded from the LP.
For me, Rubber Soul is where the Beatles began to investigate themselves, not simply as song writers, but also as serious artists. It was a process that would take them on a journey unimaginable only a few years earlier. For fans of their later period, this is where it would all begin to blossom.