The Beatles – Rubber Soul

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

I was a big fan of the movie Backbeat, released in 1994; I saw it in a theater on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C. with my friend, Duke. While I don’t care much for the Beatles’ early recordings, this film portrayed their time in Hamburg, when they spent phenmetrazine-fueled nights playing for hours in the clubs of the red-light district. One of the best things about the movie was its soundtrack. In Germany, the band honed its stage show and musical chops by playing covers of American songs. Therefore, the filmmakers recruited American musicians to play the Beatles playing American music, and to my delight, they sought out indie and alternative musicians. So, Greg Dulli (the Afghan Whigs) sang as John; Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum) sang as Paul; Don Fleming (Gumball, and producer of Teenage Fanclub, Sonic Youth, Hole, and the Screaming Trees) and Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) played guitar; Mike Mills (REM) played bass, and Dave Grohl (Nirvana) played the drums. This worked really well, and it was fun to hear this supergroup tear its way through early rock ‘n’ roll standards. This is all relevant to Rubber Soul in that this is an album heavily influenced by the sounds the Beatles were exposed to on their August 1965 tour of America, when they met Elvis and hung out with Dylan (whom they had first met in 1964), and spent their time listening to soul and folk-rock (the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man had been released in June of 1965, and its titular single in April of that year).

What I Think of This Album

Certainly part of the best one-two punch of the Beatles’ career, and arguably of any band, with Revolver coming eight months (!) later. Early side note: Help! had come out just four months earlier; this production schedule was insane! It’s got a number of excellent songs showing a tremendous amount of growth, a fair amount of innovation, and unfortunately, some very unpleasant elements.

“Drive My Car” is a quasi-feminist anthem, which is unexpected from this bunch, revolving around a bizarre and playful come on, and ending with a pretty good reveal (“I got no car”); just as importantly, it starts with a killer, gangly twin guitar riff, has a great bass line, a cool solo, and rides a jazzy piano vamp in the chorus. The cowbell is a welcome touch, too. Almost all the goodwill from “Car” is squandered on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” which, for all its musical merits, is stained by its misogyny, and unlike “Car,” has a twist ending that is unfunny, smug, and distasteful. If you can leave that aside, the sitar is super cool (supposedly, David Crosby got Harrison into it) and works well with the folk-waltz sound, and there is a Dylan influence in the rest of the lyrics. This was the first time a sitar was part of a Western music recording.

“You Won’t See Me” by contrast is fairly straight-forward musically and lyrically, but is not filler by any means. Paul does a wonderful job with this complaint, opting for wistfulness instead of anger (e.g., he doesn’t burn her house down), the sweetness of his vocal generates loads of sympathy, and the backing harmonies are great. Overall, it has a sort of Motown feel to it, with Paul’s bass again being featured; the skipping high-hat rhythm is cool. “Nowhere Man” is the existential highlight, arguably inspired by Dylan — a real lyrical leap forward, with a notably universal, third-person point of view making the feelings of isolation and melancholy applicable to all listeners, with an ultimately hopeful message and an empathic delivery. John’s treated vocal gives the song a slightly trippy feel, as does the Byrds-like guitar; Paul’s high harmony at the end is spine-tingling.

“Think for Yourself” is the first time a bass was played through a fuzz pedal on a recording, so I should like it just for that, but I generally don’t care for George’s songs. This one’s okay – certainly far from his worst – but it is a bit preachy in a very facile way; the bass is awesome, though, and I like the off-beat drumming. Having said that, “The Word” is even more simplistic in its message, but at least it sounds interesting. If nothing else, this version of psychedelia is more appealing than the cartoonish nonsense on Sgt. Peppers (if they were going to explore this sound at all). It gets very repetitive and no one would call it one of their best, but it’s fun and loose, and check out Ringo’s drumming! “Michele” is the “Yesterday” of this album, which is of course unfair to both songs. Seriously, it’s very pretty; McCartney (and George Martin, I suppose) nail the nostalgic feel and sound, and the French is a genius touch. Completely swoon-worthy.

“What Goes On” is another sort of middling song – in a battle of “What Goes On”s, the Velvet Underground wins – even though George does do an excellent job on the guitar on what is otherwise a mildly annoying tune (I think it’s the way they draw out the “ooooonnnnn,” mostly). “Girl” has a charming Greek sound, with some nice harmonies and a spooky inhalation sound; the view of women is once again suspect. “I’m Looking Through You” is wonderful, with a clip-clop rhythm, an amazing organ vamp (played by Ringo!) that comes out of nowhere, and an excellent vocal from Paul that goes from sweet to gritty in the bat of an eye. An underrated tune.

“In My Life” is another of John’s “mature” songs, and a very successful one at that, all gentle reminiscence and a sighing but not dark fatalism. The piano-as-harpsicord is brilliant and apparently all credit on that point goes to Martin. “Wait” has another great rhythm part – the tambourine makes this song. The vocals are excellent, the vocal melody is pretty good, and George excels on the guitar again. This is a power-pop masterpiece. “If I Needed Someone” has a Byrdsy feel with an Eastern touch. It’s sort of just there – George, again. “Run for Your Life” somehow manages to take the misogyny of “Norwegian Wood” and amplify it a million times, moving from arson and property destruction to threats of murder; the label of “little girl” is particularly condescending. This is truly toxic shit. I also really dislike John’s vocal on it. What an atrocious way to end a groundbreaking album.

The Best Thing About This Album

This is extremely difficult; there are a lot of great songs here but none truly stands out to me. Same for the musicianship. I am going to punt and go with “growth” – for the sitar, the fuzz bass, the use of French, the expansion of lyrical themes in “Nowhere Man” and “In My Life,” the weird vocal in “Girl,” and the gender-flip in “Drive My Car.”

Release Date

December, 1965

The Cover Art

The font is excellent, and this cover’s saving grace; as usual, the cover is a portrait, which I guess was pretty standard back then. The image is a little elongated, which is mildly interesting, but only for a brief spell. I like the dark color tone overall – green and browns. No band name – I guess they didn’t need to put it on there at this point.

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