Rubber Soul take two
That distorted image on the cover is so subtle you hardly notice it. Such is the case with the Beatles true expressive breakthrough, Rubber Soul. It’s so close to the sugary pop of their earliest albums, but with a quietly sinister side, nearly hiding beneath the surface, but overflowing noticeably. The general biography of the record goes something like this: “The Beatles met Bob Dylan, started smoking weed, became more mature songwriters and introduced elements of multicultural sounds heretofore unknown in pop music.” Well, yes and no. The Beatles were experimenting more liberally with drugs, and Bob Dylan had inspired a new kind of reflective complication to their songs, but the real story—and Dylan does a play a part in this—is the group’s newfound critical fascination with America, the country that made The Beatles international superstars.
Of course, American rock and roll and the mythology of Sun Records, not to mention the music of black performers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, was a component of the Beatles’ sound even before they recorded their first single. Yet American culture, with its wildly divergent class structure from the UK—the American Dream, the rags to riches story, two cars in the garage with a white picket fence—was never a priority. The Beatles’ America was initially one of counter-culture—leather jackets and cigarettes in the bathroom. Rubber Soul introduced a new concept to The Beatles music: financial success.
Opening with “Drive My Car”, Paul McCartney bellows, with John Lennon’s harmonies buried deep under the mix, “Asked a girl what she wanted to be!” No longer is he asking to hold her hand, instead he desires to know what her dream job is. Knowing this can offer an insight into the consciousness of the sexual object—that is, the “girl” in question—that physical intimacy couldn’t possibly provide. And so, the importance of profession becomes the reason for love. “Baby you can drive my car,” and as a result, “Maybe I’ll love you.”
For the first time in the Beatles music, people have jobs—not just the ambiguous “work” of “A Hard Day’s Night”, a word that could express some kind of profession that runs counter to capitalistic structure—one that doesn’t require a suit and tie. Do not drug dealers feel dog-tired after a long day’s work? No, these jobs are more specific, the signifier implies importance. Indeed, they trump the love affair. In “Norwegian Wood”, the sexual act is put to a halt by the woman telling John Lennon, “I work in the morning.” Lennon doesn’t, and “crawls off to sleep in the bath”—alone, and certainly not in a bed, his prospects of sexual pleasure dashed.
This vision of an employed America only becomes strengthened as the album continues. “Nowhere Man” is the quintessential American song. First the lyrics—a stranger, faceless, with no home, seeing only “what he wants to see”. In its nebulousness, could there be a more specific depiction of American consciousness? Indeed, consider the concept of American consciousness—it is constructed through aphorisms, clichés. There is no specificity to it. It is merely the blind face of justice, the nameless Lady Liberty welcoming the poor, the weak, the huddled masses—millions of people lumped into a single anonymous entity. And so the Nowhere Man, the metonymic American, “doesn’t have a point of view, just does what he wants to do”—is free. He is the Beatles’ ideal listener, one who can throw reservations out the window, hear what he wants to hear in anything, and blindly accept the presence of a sitar on a pop album.
The sound here, too, is, in retrospect, prophetically American. The close harmonies—harmonies the Beatles would continue to perfect through the end of their career—essentially created the psychedelic sound of San Francisco one year later. Harrison’s distorted, backwards guitar solo—almost replicating the melody yet, like the album cover, offering a more distorted view—paved the way for a dirty, though reservedly refined, guitar sound that became the predominant force of American rock ‘n’ roll. The song laid the ground work for the deceptively simple electric arrangements of Dylan’s 1966 tour of the UK; it crafted the subtle intricacies of the Byrds three-guitar symphonies; it made the noise freak-outs of the Velvet Underground unashamed.
And the sound redoubles this principle of capital. It was, after all, financial success that allowed the Beatles to record their most sonically complex album up to this point. Ditching their Rickenbackers for American Telecasters, George Harrison and John Lennon trade in jangly for twangy, crafting a sound that is deeply embedded in a lineage of American country music. And for the first time, the Beatles have created genre exercises that are not parody. The shuffling country send-up of “What Goes On”—another song in which the narrator attempts to more fully grasp the consciousness of his sexual object—feels at home next to the more typical, Beatles-esque composition, “The Word”. McCartney’s “I’m Looking Through You”, is a characteristic rocker, but no longer is McCartney impersonating the great singers of American rock ‘n’ roll—he has assimilated their influence, and become a distinctive singer in his own right. The mod rock of “Think for Yourself”—one of two Harrison contributions—seems to revise R&B genre as it goes along: horn sections are replaced with lead guitars, choir-style backup singing is distilled to two male voices, singing melodies that are so complex, they register as simple.
And so, with all of this genre refining, Lennon’s nearly parodic “Run for Your Life”—featuring the rare presence of traditional blues and country lyrics in the group’s songwriting (“I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man,” is pulled verbatim from “Come on Baby, Let’s Play House”)—feels natural. The frequent criticism of the song is that it ends Rubber Soul on a sour note with some of Lennon’s weakest lyrics and most atypically offensive content. Well, no, “Run for Your Life” isn’t “Strawberry Fields Forever”, but it is necessary when examining Rubber Soul as a complete narrative. As a depiction of consciousness, “Run For Your Life” gives us a totalizing view. With it, nearly every conceivable emotion is portrayed.
Could there be any other album in the history of music that includes both the gentle sentimentality of “In My Life” as well as “Run For Your Life”’s threatening misogyny, all in the same breath? The two songs become placed in a bizarre dialectic, reflecting the doubtful image of love that the Beatles have perpetuated on the album. Like McCartney’s lover who might care for him if he becomes an employee, Lennon will love you unconditionally, on the condition that he never finds you cheating.
What we have in the end is an album with a consistent sound and bipolar emotions. A spectrum of thought is represented here, and a new era of barebones lyricism was ushered in. The brutal honesty contained here became as much a part of American songwriting as Dylan’s ambitious, free form poems. In depicting America, the Beatles became as much an American band as an English one. Here, the groundwork of the rest of their career was laid out. It would be polished in time, but never has the band—or any band—so thoroughly psychoanalyzed American ethos as powerfully. The Beatles would go on to make better albums, but they would never again make one as perfect as Rubber Soul.
Michael H. Miller