As a good, regular writing excercise I hope to write one post per week about a music album that has special importance to myself or the history of music in general. Please excuse me if I start to sound like a Bret Easton-Ellis character.
Now this may seem like an odd place to start given that Rubber Soul isn’t anyone’s favorite Beatles album (myself included) but I don’t think the album’s importance in the history of 20th Century American music can be overstated. Rubber Soul represented a massive leap for the Beatles musically and redefined the band’s career ambitions.
By December 1965, when Rubber Soul was released, the Beatles already had five enormously successful albums in just over 30 months. However, up until Help! the Beatles seemed to be largely content to be simply another popular band writing fairly straight-forward songs about love (actualized and unrequited) and doing Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly covers – which is not surprising given that they were all still fairly young at this point (Starr and Lennon were 25, McCartney was 23, and Harrison was 22). Rubber Soul represented the group’s attempt to step away from the teen pop genre and attain that ultimate combination: popularity and relevance. The Beatles’ lyrics would continue to address romantic love, however, in a more sophisticated and nuanced fashion. Furthermore, more philosophical themes became fair game (see “Nowhere Man“).
Musically, the Beatles extended their instrumental resources including the sitar, fuzz box bass, harpsichord, and alternate guitar tunings not typically employed in popular music. Listening to certain tracks (“Norwegian Wood“, “Michelle“, and “Girl” standout) the album almost has an international feel, though remains primarily a popular folk album. The listener also gets the first hints of the Beatles forays into soul and psychedelia, experiments that would influence countless musicians (for better and for worse) in the decade that would follow, and come to in a way consume their own work as they became an increasingly fractured studio band working as individuals rather than collectively, slipping toward self-indulgence in their music and eventual dissolution.
But the new creativity exhibited by the Beatles on Rubber Soul was not without inspiration itself.
In fact, in a lot of ways the Beatles were behind the times before Rubber Soul was released. The Rolling Stones were growing from being simply a cover band to the forefront of new rock and roll with the release of “The Last Time” in February 1965 and “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction” in the summer. The Who were set to release their first album at the same time and had “My Generation” out as a single by November with their first studio album to follow shortly. The Byrds were dominating folk rock (and befriending George Harrison). And, most importantly, Bob Dylan was dropping his folk song roots and receiving massive acclaim for Highway 61 Revisited. Rubber Soul was almost catch-up for the Beatles as well as an acknowledgment that musicians, not matter how many albums they’ve sold in the past, need to remain at the forefront of a movement or risk irrelevance. Of course when you’re playing catchup you are starting from behind, and a lot of Rubber Soul‘s contents (particularly John Lennon’s songs) owe a considerable debt to Bob Dylan, so much so that Dylan sent a (possibly) playful warning to Lennon with “4th Time Around” on Blonde on Blonde, a clear response to Rubber Soul’s best song “Norwegian Wood”, mimicking the song’s melody, song structure, and subject matter. That Dylan ended “4th Time Around” with “I never asked for your crutch, now don’t ask for mine” either scared the shit out of Lennon or made him smile, depending on whose account you hear.
(Dylan may also had a influence on the Beatles adopting a chemical component to fuel their creativity. It’s alleged that he led the group to try marijuana, which they smoked habitually by the recording of Help!. Also, some of them were regular LSD connoisseurs by late 1965 (no fault of Lennon’s, this was actually due to an odd, enterprising doctor who dosed Lennon and Harrison). As Ringo said: “There was a lot of experimentation on Rubber Soul influenced, I think, by the substances.”)
Either way Dylan’s imprint could be strongly felt on Rubber Soul from Lennon’s aforementioned witty and vengeful “Norwegian Wood” to Harrison’s anti-government “Think for Yourself“., and the post-romance “I’m Looking Through You” by McCartney. Even the emotional reminiscence of “In My Life” arguably Rubber Soul’s most enduring track, owes some debt to outside influences like Dylan. The Byrds can be felt on “If I Needed Someone” (also by Harrison) and the odd “Drive My Car“.
Despite these influences Rubber Soul remains a Beatles album, led by one of the greatest voices in music history (Lennon), a top-tier guitarist (Harrison), a multi-instrumental genius (McCartney), and oh, Ringo was there too. In December 1965 the Beatles’ importance would begin to match their popularity, and they would change the face of American music onwards.