Only a year and a half after American fans first went crazy over their live appearances, the Beatles staked out considerably more ambitious territory with a studio album. With Rubber Soul, the Fab Four dug deeper into their own experiences and pushed harder to incorporate different sounds into their recordings.
Bob Stanley of the British newspaper The Guardian has written that Rubber Soul makes “a strong case for being the most concise and the most complete Beatles album.” My feeling is, if anything, stronger.
Roughly 20 years ago, I came across Rubber Soul in a music shop. It was the first time I had ever seen all the songs together, in their original context rather than filtered through best-of compilations. I’m not sure if I had ever heard so many songs that had wormed their way into my consciousness over the years. In time, I came to think of it as my favorite Beatles LP.
NPR music critic Tim Riley has written of the LP’s “restrained musical confidence.” The group, pressing hard to expand the boundaries of conventional pop, exerted their newfound commercial power to the utmost: "Finally we took over the studio," John Lennon told Rolling Stone's Jann S. Wenner in a 1970 interview. "In the early days, we had to take what we were given, we didn't know how you could get more bass. We were learning the technique on Rubber Soul. We were more precise about making the album, that's all, and we took over the cover and everything."
(Well, not quite everything. Four of the tracks from the British LP were left off the American release: “Drive My Car,” “Nowhere Man,” “What Goes On,” and “If I Needed Someone.” Instead, two songs from the Help recording sessions were used: “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love.” The group smarted over Capitol Records’ affront to their creative intentions. They would have more clout from here on in.)
What fans discovered, upon the LP’s release on December 3, 1965 in the U.K. and three days later in the U.S., was more mature songwriting and studio confidence. Indeed, The Beatles were growing as men and artists, and they were betting—successfully, it turned out—that their admirers would follow them, whatever their creative direction.
The Liverpool quartet were commercially rewarded for their risk-taking, as the LP sold 1.2 million copies in nine days of its release in the U.S., en route to 59 weeks on the charts. Nothing new there. But it gave the group additional critical cachet, as well.
The past year had signaled a startling change in the cultural landscape. The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was no flowers-and-candy ode to women, but a loud expression of sexual unrest that seemed to encompass an entire world. More important, folk-rock—embodied most by Bob Dylan’s epic “Like a Rolling Stone”—meant that singer-songwriters were not just freed from conventional teen themes, but that some modicum of intelligence—a consideration of politics, perhaps, a dash of poetry, or even some offbeat psychology—might be required of them.
Enter the Beatles, joking. Or, to be more accurate, enter John Lennon, pondering, when he wasn’t tossing off a sardonic remark, how fame had transformed himself and the certainty he had lost.
Lennon’s murder 35 years ago this month understandably exalted him to martyr status and, consequently, made some slight the contribution of his songwriting partner, Paul McCartney.
(Recall critic Robert Christgau’s repetition in The Village Voice of his wife’s remark after hearing about the shooting: “Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon? Why isn't it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?")
Paul was primarily responsible for some of Rubber Soul’s biggest singles, including “Michelle” and “You Won’t See Me.” But it was Lennon, trouble-tossed and introspective as he had been at no other time before, who gave the album its teeth. He embodied the Leonard Cohen lyric, “Where there’s a crack, that’s where the light gets in.”
Let’s start with a song that did not originate with him: Paul’s “Drive My Car.” The history of that song supports the notion that even if the original spark for a song did not come from Lennon, he could affect its development. In this case, one listen to McCartney’s tune and Lennon was ready to pronounce it “crap.” After trying out some alternatives, the two came up with a line that was far tougher and more suggestive than “I wanna hold your hand”: “Baby, you can drive my car.”
The song that may have embodied the band’s—and Lennon’s—sonic and lyric exploration best was “Norwegian Wood.” Earlier that year, with “Yesterday,” producer George Martin had added a string quartet, giving McCartney’s plaintive tune a classical feel. With Lennon’s sly, first-person narrative of a seduction, the Beatles employed, for what is believed to be the first time in a pop song, a sitar (an instrument discovered by George Harrison while the band was shooting the film Help!).
The highly unusual sound produced was the first clue that the listener was in unfamiliar, even uncertain and treacherous, territory. The second clue came in Lennon’s opening lines, which seemed to be about to introduce a conventional boy-meets-girl tale, only to undercut it immediately: “I once had a girl, or should I say that she had me?” Well, which is it? the listener wants to know.
And that might be the least of the surprises. Many people believe that the song was Lennon’s account of a fling, albeit carefully disguised so as not to arouse wife Cynthia’s suspicions.
Or did Lennon confess more than he intended? This is not, after all, a song about male sexual conquest—a popular enough theme in rock ‘n’ roll—but of male sexual naivete and even inadequacy. After the young woman has done her level best to seduce the narrator (he notices there isn’t a chair in the place, and she coos that it’s time for bed), he’s too tired to do anything more than crawl “off to sleep in the bath.”
Then he wakes up, only to discover, to his chagrin, that, in the song’s wicked double entendre, “this bird [i.e., the British term for what American males would shortly call “chicks” or, later still, “babes”] had flown.” Before the final one-line refrain, the narrator delivers what might be the most debated line on the LP: “So, I lit a fire.”
Pete Shotton, Lennon’s friend from boyhood to the Beatle’s death, thought that line might have derived from the musician’s purchase of furniture in the fireplace at Gambier Terrace in Liverpool when he lacked money for coal. But McCartney, who gave his songwriting partner ideas on how to open the song out beyond the opening couplet, was closer to the mark: the narrator had burned down the flat as an act of anger and revenge the morning after his all-too-uneventful encounter.
“Norwegian Wood” didn’t exhaust John’s darker impulses when it came to women. “Run for Your Life” was the taunting refrain of a lover to his girlfriend. Lest any doubt exist about his intention, pay special heed to one line, a direct threat: “Catch you with another man, that’s the end, little girl.” At the time, listeners might have gotten caught up in its fast, catchy tune. But nowadays, after Ray Rice, it sounds unremittingly ugly, a blot on its composer's subsequent reputation as an advocate of nonviolence. (In later years Lennon, in copping to his own domestic abuse in his 20s, admitted that it was one of his worst songs, written largely to fill out the album.)
The same could not be said of “Nowhere Man,” a stark picture of alienation. It’s hard to believe that the man in the song who “doesn’t have a point of view” could be Lennon, but he later told Beatles chronicler Hunter Davies that, after trying unsuccessfully to complete a song for five hours—and believing, in the midst of the frustration, that he might not be able to finish another—he himself felt like a “nowhere man.” If so, it constitutes an interesting counterpart to “Norwegian Wood,” with creative failure substituting for physical impotence.
In terms of Lennon’s future as a songwriter, however, “In My Life” may have constituted the true breakthrough on the album. He seems to have begun it by writing down place names from the Liverpool of his childhood, only to be jolted by associations with people: “Some are dead and some are living.” With his suburban home, wife and child, he was in a far more comfortable place than he had been growing up—but he didn't find it enough.
Five decades on, it’s hard not to be struck by the lyrical and attitudinal similarities between “In My Life” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Were one not to have known the composers, just the lyric sheets at hand, one could only conclude that a middle-aged person could have written such rueful meditations on experience. (Indeed, it is the vocal version by the wised-up Mitchell, not by her girlish-sounding younger counterpart, that is used in the 2003 film Love, Actually).
Perhaps only the 1960s—a decade of startling social dislocation—could have produced similar exercises in nostalgia across the Atlantic by a pair of twentysomethings. Somehow, Lennon and Mitchell had transformed profoundly personal statements of confusion and loss into anthems for an entire generation of lost youth.