The Beatles: Rubber Soul – [Record 162]
Rubber Soul is the sixth studio album by English rock group the Beatles. It was recorded in just over four weeks to make the Christmas market, and was released on December 3, 1965. It was produced by George Martin. Unlike the five albums that preceded it, Rubber Soul was recorded during a continuous period, whereas the group had previously recorded albums during breaks in between tour dates or other projects. After this, Beatles albums would be made without the burden of other commitments, except for the production of short promotional films.
Rubber Soul is a folk rock album that incorporates R&B, pop, soul, and psychedelic music styles. The album is regarded by musicologists as a major artistic achievement that continued the Beatles’ artistic maturation while attaining widespread critical and commercial success. It was the second Beatles album – after the British A Hard Day’s Night album – to contain only original material; the Beatles would record no more cover songs for their records until 1969, with the “Maggie Mae” excerpt appearing on the Let It Be album.
Rubber Soul is regarded by fans and critics alike as one of the greatest albums in popular music history. In 2012, Rubber Soul was ranked number five on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. In 2013, after the British Phonographic Industry changed their sales award rules, the album was declared as having gone platinum.
1. Drive My Car.
2. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).
3. You Won’t See Me.
4. Nowhere Man.
5. Think for Yourself.
6. The Word.
1. What Goes On.
3. I’m Looking Through You.
4. In My Life.
6. If I Needed Someone.
7. Run for Your Life.
Music: Virtually all of the album’s songs were composed immediately after the Beatles’ return to London following their North American tour. The Beatles broadened their sound on the album, with influences drawn from soul music, the contemporary folk-rock of Bob Dylan and The Byrds, and the vocal harmony pop of The Beach Boys. The album also saw the Beatles expanding rock and roll’s instrumental resources, most notably on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” through George Harrison’s use of the Indian sitar. He had been introduced to it via the instrumental score for their 1965 film Help!. Although The Kinks had incorporated droning guitars to mimic the sitar after a visit to India on “See My Friends”, “Norwegian Wood” is generally credited as sparking off a musical craze for the sound of the novel instrument in the mid-1960s—a trend which would later branch out into the raga rock and Indian rock genres. The song is now acknowledged as one of the cornerstones of what is now usually called “world music” and it was a major landmark in the trend towards incorporating non-Western musical influences into Western popular music. Harrison’s interest was fuelled by fellow Indian music fan David Crosby of the Byrds, whom Harrison met and befriended in August 1965. Harrison would eventually be transfixed by all things Indian, taking sitar lessons from renowned Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar.
French-like guitar lines on “Michelle” and Greek-influenced ones on “Girl”, fuzz bass on “Think for Yourself,” and a piano made to sound like a baroque harpsichord on the instrumental bridge of “In My Life” added to the exotic brushstrokes to the album. Ringo Starr had frequently augmented Beatles tracks with standard percussion instruments such as maracas or tambourine, but on the track “I’m Looking Through You” unusually used taps on a matchbook, perhaps influenced by a similar trick as done by Gene Krupa in the 1941 film Ball of Fire.
Lyrics: Lyrically, the album represents a major progression in the Beatles’ music. Though a smattering of earlier Beatles songs had expressed romantic doubt and negativity, the songs on Rubber Soul represented a pronounced development in sophistication, thoughtfulness and ambiguity. In particular, the relationships between the sexes moved from simpler boy-girl love songs to more nuanced and negative portrayals. “Norwegian Wood” sketches a failed relationship between the singer and a mysterious girl, where she goes to bed and he sleeps in the bath. “Drive My Car” serves as a satirical piece of sexism, and songs like “I’m Looking Through You”, “You Won’t See Me”, and “Girl” express more emotionally complex, bitter and downbeat portrayals of romance. John Lennon’s “In My Life” depicts nostalgic reverie for younger days, while “The Word” looks at love as an abstract term, arguably the first time a Lennon-McCartney song strayed from their usual ‘boy/girl’ notion of romantic love, and songs such as “Nowhere Man” and Harrison’s “Think for Yourself” explored subject matter that had nothing to do with romance at all.
Recording: Recording commenced on 12 October with final production and mix down taking place on 15 November. The song “Wait” was dusted off after initially being recorded for but rejected from Help!. “We Can Work It Out” and “Day Tripper” were recorded during these sessions, but the band chose to leave them off the album, releasing them instead as their first double A-sided single.
To achieve the mimicry of a harpsichord by the piano on “In My Life”, George Martin played the piano with the tape running at half-speed. When played back at normal speed during the mixdown, the sped-up sound gave the illusion of a harpsichord. Processing used included heavily compressed and equalised piano sound on “The Word,” an effect soon extremely popular in the genre of psychedelic music. Prior to the recording sessions, McCartney was given a new bass, a Rickenbacker 4001, which had a much beefier bass sound than the Hofner. All of the songs on the album, except for “Drive My Car”, were recorded using the new bass. McCartney also experiments with a fuzz box on Harrison’s composition “Think For Yourself”.
Until very late in their career, the “primary” version of The Beatles’ albums was always the monophonic mix. According to Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, Martin and the Abbey Road engineers devoted most of their time and attention to the mono mixdowns, and the band were not usually present for the stereo mixing sessions. Even with their landmark Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, the stereo mixdowns were considered less important than the mono version and were completed in far less time.
While the stereo version of the original release of Rubber Soul was similar to that of their earliest albums, featuring mainly vocals on the right channel and instruments on the left, it was not produced in the same manner. The early albums were recorded on twin-track tape, and they were intended only for production of monaural records, so they kept vocals and instruments separated allowing the two parts to later be mixed in proper proportion. By this time, however, the Beatles were recording on four-track tape, which allowed a stereo master to be produced with vocals in the centre and instruments on both sides, as evidenced in their prior albums Beatles for Sale and Help!. Looking for a way to easily produce a stereo album which sounded good on a monaural record player, Martin mixed down the four-track master tape to stereo with vocals on the right, instruments on the left, and nothing in the middle, even though in “What Goes On”, Starr’s vocal is mixed on the left instead of the right, with Lennon and McCartney’s harmony vocals on the right, while on “Think for Yourself” Harrison’s double-tracked lead vocal is split between the two channels.
This was the final Beatle album that recording engineer Norman Smith worked on before he was promoted by EMI to record producer.
Packaging and artwork: Rubber Soul was the group’s first release not to feature their name on the cover, an uncommon tactic in 1965. The ‘stretched’ effect of the cover photo came about after photographer Bob Freeman had taken some pictures of the group wearing suede leather jackets at Lennon’s house. Freeman showed the photos by projecting them onto an album-sized piece of cardboard to simulate how they would appear on an album cover. The unusual Rubber Soul album cover came to be when the slide card fell slightly backwards, elongating the projected image of the photograph and stretching it. Excited by the effect, they shouted, “Ah! Can we have that? Can you do it like that?”, to which Freeman said he could. The distinctive lettering was created by Charles Front (father of actor Rebecca Front), and the original artwork was later auctioned at Bonhams, accompanied by an authenticating letter from Robert Freeman.
Capitol Records used a different colour saturation for the US version, causing the orange lettering used by Parlophone Records to show up as different colours. On some Capitol LPs, the title looks rich chocolate brown; others, more like gold. On the 1987 compact disc reissue, the letters appear a distinct green, and the 2009 reissue uses the original cover design with the Parlophone Records logo.
Paul McCartney conceived the album’s title after overhearing a musician’s description of Mick Jagger’s singing style as “plastic soul”. Lennon confirmed this in a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, stating, “That was Paul’s title, meaning English soul. Just a pun.” McCartney uses a similar phrase, “plastic soul, man, plastic soul … ,” heard at the end of “I’m Down” as released on Anthology 2.
Reception: Rubber Soul was commercially successful, beginning a 42-week run in the British charts on 12 December 1965. The following week it replaced The Sound of Music soundtrack at the top of the charts, and held the top spot eight weeks. On 9 May 1987, Rubber Soul returned to the album charts for three weeks, and ten years later made another comeback to the charts.
Critical response to the album was also positive. In a 1967 article for Esquire, Robert Christgau called it “an album that for innovation, tightness, and lyrical intelligence was about twice as good as anything they or anyone else (except maybe the Stones) had done previously.” He later cited it as “when the Beatles began to go arty”. Rolling Stone magazine commented “they achieved a new musical sophistication and a greater thematic depth without sacrificing a whit of pop appeal.” Pitchfork Media described the album as “the most important artistic leap in the Beatles’ career—the signpost that signaled a shift away from Beatlemania and the heavy demands of teen pop, toward more introspective, adult subject matter”. Since 2001, the album has been included in several media-sponsored “best” album lists.
Walter Everett, author of The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology, calls Rubber Soul an “important album”, referring to its rich muti-part vocals brimming with expressive dissonance vocals, a deep exploration of guitars and the different capos that produced different colours from familiar finger patterns, surprising new timbres and electronic effects, a more soulful pentatonic approach to vocal and instrumental melody tinged by twelve-bar jams that accompanied the more serious recording and a fairly consistent search for meaningful ideas in lyrics”.
In 2012, Rubber Soul was voted #5 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.
The US version of the album greatly influenced the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson believed it was the first time in pop music that the focus had shifted from just making popular singles to making an actual album, without the usual filler tracks. He “answered” the album by releasing Pet Sounds in 1966.
“What Goes On” was the first song which has a Richard Starkey writing credit, as co-composer beside Lennon and McCartney. Lennon later said this was the first album on which the Beatles were in complete creative control during recording, with enough studio time to develop and refine new sound ideas. Exhausted from five years of virtually non-stop touring, recording, and film work, the group subsequently took a three-month break during the first part of 1966 and used this free time exploring new directions that would colour their subsequent musical work. These became immediately apparent in the next (UK) album, Revolver.
Compact disc reissues: Rubber Soul was released on compact disc 30 April 1987, with the 14-song UK track line-up now the international standard. Having been available only as an import in the US in the past, the 14-track UK version of the album was issued on LP and cassette on 21 July 1987. As with the Help! album, Rubber Soul featured a contemporary stereo digital remix of the album prepared by George Martin. Martin expressed concern to EMI over the original 1965 stereo remix, claiming it sounded “very woolly, and not at all what I thought should be a good issue”. He went back to the original four-tracks tapes and remixed them for stereo.
When the album was originally released on CD in Canada, pressings were imported from other countries, and used the 1987 remix. However, when the Disque Améric and Cinram plants in Canada started pressing the album, the original 1965 stereo mix was used by mistake. This was the only source for the 1965 stereo mix in its entirety until the release of the mono box set in 2009.
A newly remastered version of the album, again utilising the 1987 George Martin remix, was released worldwide with the reissue of the entire catalogue on 9 September 2009. The original 1965 stereo and mono mixes were reissued on that date as part of the mono box set.