Sam Arrowsmith praises this seminal work by The Beatles
As I write this, I currently live in a student household. This particular household is home to four of us, who have many things in common. One of these things (apart from all of us being, in our own way, inexplicably weird) is that we are all fans of The Beatles (from Liverpool). Despite The Beatles (from Liverpool) being in the public conscience for nearly sixty years, I’d only really begun exploring their work when they came on Spotify as a digital Christmas present to all the good children in 2015. When I was bingeing all of the albums of The Beatles (from Liverpool) over the last several months, I found that Rubber Soul was the album which I found hard to find much fault with. I would never say that there is an inherently rubbish album in their catalogue, but I completely fell in love with the album when I first heard it. Apart from one song, all of them were songs I’d never heard before, so I was in for a pleasant surprise.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (this is relevant I promise) was hugely influenced by The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which in turn was heavily influenced by Rubber Soul. Although Sgt. Pepper is typically considered the beginning of the ‘later Beatles’ era (1967-70), the composition Rubber Soul came with some significant changes to how the group worked. It was the first album that The Beatles (from Liverpool) recorded in a continuous period, the first album where they composed a song whilst under the influence of cannabis and the first album to feature a writing credit for Ringo Starr (for better or worse). Although not the first album to have entirely original compositions (that goes to A Hard Day’s Night), it is the first album that the group consciously made an album which worked as a whole to make an artistic piece, rather than just a collection of songs. George Harrison begun to incorporate musical styles from around the world, from French and Greek sounding guitar riffs to incorporating a sitar. They even manage to incorporate a baroque harpsichord into a song. Although the group had a drastic overhaul of how they operated by 1967, I believe that this 1965 release was the beginning of the studio-craft that defined the band in their later years.
Like so much of the band’s work in their previous albums, a lot of the songs on the album are about love and romance in some form or another. This includes casual sex in ‘Drive My Car’, an extramarital affair in ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, anxieties about love in ‘You Won’t See Me’ and ‘Wait’, a joyous expression of love in ‘The Word’ and ‘Michelle’, a love that’s slipping away in ‘Think For Yourself’ and ‘I’m Looking Through You”, hypothetical love in ‘Girl’ and ‘If I Needed Someone’ and finally a sort of creepy, threatening kind of love in ‘Run For Your Life’ (I’m not going to be singing the praises of this last piece for sure, and even John Lennon admitted in later years this was his least favourite song that he wrote). There are some personal pieces from Lennon in here as well – an acute comment on being unable to focus on songwriting and isolation in ‘Nowhere Man’ and a wider insight into remembering all of the years gone by in ‘In My Life’ (this was the song I had heard before, and have never fallen out of love with). When researching for this article, I couldn’t find much on ‘What Goes On’, the song Ringo ‘helped’ with. All I’ll say about it is that it’s an upbeat song with a country twang, but otherwise harmless.
‘Drive My Car’, ‘The Word’ and ‘Run For Your Life’ take influence from bands such as The Byrds, with an upbeat tone and a superficially charming expression of love (except for ‘Run For Your Life’, which is just about keeping an unmet young woman close on the threat of ending it). George Harrison demonstrates an ability to master a range of guitar styles in both the tracks he composed, ‘Think For Yourself’ and ‘If I Needed Someone’, whilst adding to the slower ballads of ‘Michelle’ with French-style guitar and ‘Girl’ by experimenting on a bouzouki (hence the Greek sound). Harrison plays the sitar in ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, which isn’t the only way the song represents a change in how the band sounded. Compared to previous songs, the lyrics of ‘Norwegian Wood’ are much more introspective and subtle – partly influenced by their encounters with Bob Dylan (who, apparently, shared a joint or two with them). Although a lot of the songs from The Beatles (from L- oh, the joke’s probably getting old now) involve accompanied singing from the rest of the band, I feel that ‘Girl’ and ‘Nowhere Man’ include some particularly iconic harmonies. One of the most powerful songs on the album, in my opinion, is ‘I’m Looking Through You’, literally Paul McCartney telling his girlfriend at the time that he can’t seem to locate the girl he fell in love with. Both McCartney’s voice and both sets of guitars are more soulful than some of the band’s previous songs, and it still remains a favourite of mine. All of these are songs I’d never heard until my first full length listen of Rubber Soul, but I remember repeatedly hearing ‘In My Life’ as a teenager and always holding it as a particular special song (for me anyway). ‘In My Life’ is a slower, more thoughtful composition compared to the rest of the album, which suits the mood of the song as Lennon reflects on memories of his childhood and those he loves and once loved. It’s this song that also includes the harpsichord solo in the bridge – a solo which seems to be impossible to replicate. This, along with the opening and closing guitar riffs, make the song so iconic and evoking.
I’m aware that there are some songs on the album that I’ve deliberately skimmed over, those being ‘What Goes On’ and ‘Run For Your Life’. Regardless, I still feel that this album is a particularly cohesive work, if not the most cohesive work, by The Beatles (fr- wait I killed that joke off). I get that Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s might be more experimental and heralded as more influential (though ‘Yellow Submarine’ lets the rest of Revolver down), and I get that this period in the band’s work may seem weirder than those who are fans of the ‘early era’ albums like Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, but I can’t help but feel that Rubber Soul, as a whole art-piece album, has a certain unity and cohesive magic that the other albums don’t necessarily have – a ‘rubber soul’ to use the album’s namesake. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe I’m just trying to subvert my housemate’s favourite Beatles works by picking a slightly more idiosyncratic work to discuss in an article. I don’t know really. I just enjoy it and that’s the end of that.
Oh, by the way, it was ‘The Word’ that Lennon and McCartney wrote whilst high.