[9 November 2009]
Steve Earle was once asked what his “desert island pick” would be. “We’re assuming I have a way to play records on the island?” he began (of course he did). “For me it would be Beatles for Sale.”
He meant to say Exile on Main Street, or Live at the Old Quarter, or Nebraska, obviously. Not the record most often found at the bottom of the list of best or even best-known Beatles albums. Not the one that even members of the band have publicly disparaged. You gotta be kidding, right? Yet, in another interview, Earle went after it again: “The one that really blew my mind, I think, was Rubber Soul, and I end up using Revolver as a map for sounds more, [but] my favorite is Beatles for Sale. That’s the hillbilly Beatles record.”
Leaving aside the fact that this late 1964 release wasn’t available in North America until 1987 (so Earle is probably referring to Beatles VI and Beatles ‘65, the two records that combined the songs from the British-only LP), I think I know what he means. Because: Beatles for Sale is my favourite one, too. While the British pressing of Revolver is their greatest and most complete record, no doubt, and the North American pressing of Rubber Soul is a note-perfect folk-rock document, Beatles for Sale is the Beatles record I plain enjoy the most. From the reverb-heavy “No Reply” to the barroom roll of “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” this was the closest the Beatles ever got to putting out a live record, to recreating on vinyl the incendiary stage show they’d never again be able to perform. It is, finally, the closest they ever got (after, that is, having become mega-stars) to sounding human.
Sporting a cover photograph of a decidedly un-psyched Fab Four, chilly in an autumnal Hyde Park, and opening with a trio of Lennon’s darkest numbers to date (“No Reply” with its refrain of “I nearly died”; “I’m a Loser” with its, well, its title; and “Baby’s in Black” with its morbid love triangle narrative), this record was a serious shock to many carefree fans. (And this isn’t even mentioning the knowingly self-deprecating title.) And though things get decidedly less bleak for the remainder of the album, late on the second side we get one more peak into Lennon’s decidedly gloomy state of mind. “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” is all awkwardness and adolescence -– omigod she didn’t show up, I’d better leave before people realize! – but it relies on the universal theme of public humiliation which he would revisit countless times over the rest of his career. (All of which, regardless of their ostensible narratives, refer to the same basic anxiety: What if all of this fame, all of these adoring fans, all of this apparent respect and admiration, won’t be there when I need it most?) “No Reply”, “I’m a Loser”, “Baby’s in Black” and finally: “there’s nothing for me here, so I will disappear.”
To temper all of this bleakness, Lennon’s best moment on the record comes on a rollicking cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock’n’Roll Music”, a throwback to their Hamburg days and featuring his most unhinged vocal performance since “Twist and Shout”. The freedom he exudes when working with material not his own is always impressive –- without much melody to work with, Lennon tears into his part with a ferociousness unheard again till “Yer Blues” in 1968. And Ringo’s steady chaos on the backbeat remains astoundingly concussive 50 years on. This is the definitive sound of the pre-psychedelic Beatles –- who doesn’t wish Please Please Me and With the Beatles had more of this?
If these five songs were a declaration of where Lennon had found himself (mentally, physically, creatively) by late 1964, McCartney’s first number on the record suggested that he was headed in a decidedly different direction. “I’ll Follow the Sun” is beautiful, distinctly optimistic, and though it appears forgettable, it has a melody that’ll chase you around for days. His other key contributions on the record, both of them about his relationship with Jane Asher, are equally buoyant and affirmative. The infectious “Every Little Thing” suffers from too much repetition in the refrain (perhaps the reason it didn’t become a single?), but boasts one of McCartney’s loveliest melodies, while “What You’re Doing” rides a 12-string guitar line that clearly anticipates Roger McGuinn’s trademark sound by a few months.
But perhaps McCartney’s greatest contribution here is found on another trip back to Hamburg, and his take on the “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey” medley that Little Richard had made famous in 1958. As far as I can see, after the schmaltz of some of McCartney’s work on earlier Beatles records, this is a real statement about the “cute Beatle’s” rock ’n’ roll credentials. It is often reported that Lennon was envious of his sparring partner’s voice (which strikes not a few of his fans as totally mambo-gonzo insane, but nevertheless) and it is on this track that one begins to understand (if only the tiniest bit) where he was coming from. While Lennon shredded through his ‘50s-era rock cover, McCartney finds room amid all that cacophony to actually sing his. Pretty amazing, really.
I won’t dwell much on “Eight Days a Week”, the big hit number that opens Side Two. With the gloriously shimmering fade-in leading to an unfussy confection of a pop song, it still stands as one of the best intros I can name. But, much as it was adored by fans craving for more of that melodious twang that they had come to recognize as the Beatles sound, neither the band nor critics were buying this thing as a successful track. Lennon openly referred to it as “lousy”, and made some noise about it having been a tossed off attempt to write a song about the band called “Eight Arms to Hold You”. And yet: I adore it. It’s appealing, amusing, silly, and rides a fabulous rhythmic push from Ringo. You try writing a lousy song this good, and then we’ll talk.
Beatles for Sale is also often criticized for relying too much on covers, a point that’s hard to refute (since six of the 14 songs aren’t their own), but which is also sort of unhelpful since they absolutely nail them. Even Lennon’s cover of Roy Lee Johnson’s pretty lame number “Mr. Moonlight”—which finds itself on many lists as the worst of all Beatles tracks—is, to my ears, triumphant. What I like about this take on an otherwise sappy and dumb song is Lennon’s refusal to treat it like a sappy and dumb song. He screams out the opening lyric like he’s about to launch into “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”, and when the band picks up the gentle skip of the rhythm, he falls into it only grudgingly. Hate it if you like, but don’t skip it until you’ve reflected on the plain old weirdness of the thing—this ain’t “A Taste of Honey” or “Till There Was You”, see?
And anyway, Beatles for Sale contains what is perhaps my favourite of all their covers in “Words of Love”. Something about their reworking of this gorgeous ballad—with its country overtones, its Greenwich Village undertones, those handclaps, and its close (but not too close) harmony between John and Paul—pushes it into the stratosphere for me. It’s dreamy and calm, but that guitar riff is all twang and jangle. (Though originally a Buddy Holly tune, their take is pure Everly Brothers to my ears: the most unsung of Beatles influences). Displaying (or celebrating) their influences even further, Side Two has a pair of tracks penned by their rockabilly hero Carl Perkins: Ringo gets a go on the fluff of “Honey Don’t”, laughing his way through the shuffle, while Harrison offers a playful lead vocal (and a fabulous Perkins tribute of a guitar solo) on “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” to close the record, throwing in a false ending for good measure.
Look. The Beatles had released three massive albums in the span of a breakneck 24 months. We’re talking relentless touring schedules, promotional gigs, film shoots, writing, practicing, recording and (let’s face it) partying, screwing and drinking for two years straight. They were exhausted, spent, and totally unprepared to head into the studio in October, 1964 to record an album to be released only six weeks hence (to meet the Christmas rush) on which expectations were sky high. They could be forgiven for knocking one off, for riding a few well-worn covers, for sleepwalking through the thing. And, that’s pretty well what they did, writing some of these tunes in the studio just hours before they recorded the final take.
But, I guess what I’m trying to say (and what Steve Earle was trying to say) is that even on this, the Beatles’ “worst” record—devoid of studio wizardry, of careful consideration of harmony or lyric or tone—they still managed to make a perfect “10” masterpiece and improve upon much of what they had done before. They were soon to become not just the biggest band in the world, but also the most deeply influential with the innovations of Rubber Soul and Revolver; but here, just for a brief moment, they were fallible, flighty, relaxed, raw, live, human. Maybe that’s hillbilly to you, Steve, but to me there’s just three words for what that sounds like: Rock. And. Roll.
Help!, the fifth album released by the Beatles in just two years, and soundtrack to the film of the same name, stands as a huge step forward in both the band’s songwriting and musicianship, as well as paving the way for the more mature sound of later albums. The 14 songs range from classic early rock ‘n’ roll to acoustic folk to rollicking country. Balancing all of these styles, the Beatles sound distinctly like themselves on the cusp of a new phase of their sound.
The album kicks off with one the greatest singles they ever released. “Help!” is immediate while at the same time almost despondent. As it fades from the chorus into the first verse, the song shifts to a more melancholic sound—not surprising, as Lennon originally wanted it to be slower and more representative of his feelings of being overwhelmed at the time. In addition to “Help!”, the album also contains two more of the Beatles’ biggest singles in “Ticket to Ride” and “Yesterday”.
“Yesterday” is arguably the band’s most popular song (it certainly is the most covered) and the story of its creation is well known. The melody came to Paul McCartney in a dream and he originally thought he had unwittingly plagiarized it. Finally, accepting that the song was all his, its working title was “Scrambled Eggs” until lyrics could be written and a classic ballad was born. The song stands as the first recorded with only one Beatle, as McCartney sang and played guitar with a string quartet. Despite its popularity, or maybe because of it, “Yesterday” would go on to sometimes be dismissed as too sentimental, but without a doubt the song’s gorgeous melody and McCartney’s performance clearly highlight a standout track on both the album and in the band’s career.
The originality and creativity of “Ticket to Ride” would mark it as one of the album’s most important songs: George Harrison’s opening on the 12-string guitar stands as a primary influence on the Byrds and the burgeoning folk-rock sound. Ringo Starr’s drumming is out front and the mix of forlorn lyrics with the buildup to the faster bridge and then the bluesy “my baby don’t care” repeated over the outro showcase the sheer energy of the song and sets it apart from much of the standard rock ‘n’ roll fare. As far as classic rock songs are concerned, the album does have its fair share in tracks like the underrated “The Night Before”, the country-tinged “Another Girl” and their blazing cover of Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”.
Help! also features one of Lennon’s loveliest compositions in “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”. Highly influenced by Bob Dylan, the lyrics offer a glimpse into Lennon’s evolving style and his initially accidental use of “two foot small” instead of “two foot tall” is a perfect example of his famous playful use of language. McCartney’s counterpart to the song might be “I’ve Just Seen a Face”. Another acoustic gem, although decidedly bouncier, it is another highlight in an album filled with them. The album also marked the second appearance of a Harrison composition with “I Need You”. His contribution features his double-tracked lead vocals and while there is nothing really groundbreaking about it, Harrison’s delivery and personal lyrics elevate the simple song. Starr’s vocal contribution to Help! comes in his cover of country song “Act Naturally”. Seemingly a throwaway track, Starr’s vocals are especially suited to the song and McCartney’s harmonies on the chorus are a nice touch.
Help!’s release marked the shift from the Beatles’ poppier, early rock ‘n’ roll sound to a more introspective songwriting style, as well as more inventive musicianship. While not always referred to as one of the Beatles’ greatest albums, Help! laid the groundwork for their next album, the landmark Rubber Soul, marking it as a critical step in the band’s career, not to mention one of its most enjoyable.
The title track of Help! opens with a startling shout—a cry of desperation that can be heard throughout the rest of Beatles’ fifth studio album. Reeling off their appointment as Members of the British Empire from the Queen, the Beatles were growing tired of the hype of Beatlemania, and yearned to create music with more depth and more experimentation. Released in August 1965, the soundtrack to the band’s second feature-length film is as self-conscious as it is catchy.
The 2009 remaster of Help! includes the 14 tracks from the British release of the soundtrack. The version originally released in the U.S. only compiles the seven original Beatle-songs that appeared in the film; the other seven tracks are from composer Ken Throne’s film score. Those instrumentals, including campy renditions of “A Hard Day’s Night” and “I Should Have Known Better”, were America’s first exposure to the Indian sitar which would eventually become George Harrison’s signature. The film, Help!, is a Technicolor trip that weaves half-hearted lip synching with slapstick parody of Eastern spiritualism and spy movies. The plot is inconsistent and ultimately discomfiting, much like the film’s U.S. soundtrack.
But the original UK album is the definitive article: delivering the expected radio-ready love songs, but which were exhibiting exciting new folk influences, and an awkward sprinkling of wry covers. While “You’re Gonna Lose that Girl”, “The Night Before”, and “Another Girl” play it safe with the familiar bubblegum hooks and puppy love lyrics, the rest of the tracks are tinged with subtle experimentation. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” are blatant Dylan-nods, and the rumbling bassline and impulsive drum beat make “Ticket to Ride” the Beatles’ heaviest song yet. The dissonant strings on “Yesterday” create a masterful balance with Paul’s unpretentious lyrics. Paul’s uncharacteristic earnestness justifies why the track will eventually become the most covered song in the history of recorded music.
While most of the tracks bear the mark of Lennon/McCartney collaboration, the two “other” Beatles get plenty of opportunity to make their case. George’s songwriting contributions to the album are agreeable as always. The innocent harmonies on “You Like Me Too Much” and “I Need You” maintain the carefree naivety that defined the Beatles’ U.S. tours. Ringo gives his obligatory two-cents in a rendition of the country classic “Act Naturally”. The sarcastic lyrics reveal the Beatles’ resistance to being canonized teen idols. They gonna put me in the movies, /they gonna make a big star outta me. But when the album closed with John’s spastic take on a guttural cover of Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”, John was reassuring loyal fans that though the Beatles sound was starting to change, they hadn’t forgotten their rock’n’roll roots.
If the critical and box office success of A Hard Day’s Night was the peak of Beatlemania, Help! was the beginning of its end. The boys were growing up; their shags were nearly chin-length, and they’d abandoned the matching suits for turtlenecks and corduroy. The screaming teenage girls were starting to lose their voices. The Beatles were crying help! because they were tired of suppressing artistic energy to follow their own bandwagon of Top 40 gimmicks. Help! was only a sip of the drug-induced ardor we would hear more explicitly from Rubber Soul onwards. But, for now, the Beatles’ creative independence seemed to vanish in the haze.
Sure, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band may get all of the front page glory in rock magazines. Yeah, “The White Album” may provide a fascinating glimpse into the splintering of the Fab Four. And of course, Revolver is regularly heralded at the tip-top of best-of lists as the greatest long-player ever recorded (and deservedly so). For most intents and purposes, though, Rubber Soul was the Beatles’ great leap forward, and in a very important sense, their defining recording document. It may not have all of the storied romanticism of their latter-day records, and the kinetic energy of their early years may have been missing, but never before and never again had any recording unit tapped into such a vast wealth of emotional depth as John, Paul, George, and Ringo had here. This was the sound of the four greatest musicians in the history of pop music simultaneously firing from all corners at their absolute peak, their songwriting prowess stunning in its resonance and their ensemble playing unrivaled in its rich, absorbing unity. Time has not only illustrated how enveloping and wondrous the music created here is, it’s strengthened its level of endurance for an entirely new generation of fans.
It’s impossible to view Rubber Soul in an isolated light without considering its follow-up, Revolver: George Harrison has said himself that he viewed the records as two parts of one whole, opposite flipsides to a coin. While the expanded production can’t be understated on the art-pop of Revolver, it’s important to note how impossible that feat would have been without the breakthroughs in craftsmanship offered on Rubber Soul. Indeed, what’s immediately gripping about the album is the warmth offered in the sound of the record: the closely mic’d interplay between largely acoustic instrumentation, the organic yet lush recording techniques sprouting such aural intimacy between the band members, these elements lending the material its melancholic tone and enhancing the heartbreaking tales of emotional maturity and romantic ambiguity involved. While Beatlemania had displayed an exuberance in pop music that’s hardly been bettered in the near-half decade since its cultural ubiquity, that peak in joyous celebration culminated in the most beautiful hangover in the history of recorded sound.
The Beatles had experimented with folk-rock aspirations in the past (Help!), and it wasn’t the first time they offered such a cohesive, tight and focused batch of corresponding songs (A Hard Day’s Night), but there was something revelatory going on here. Songwriting in pop music had never been as universal without sacrificing its humanity, and that’s the keyword when discussing the merits of Rubber Soul: how utterly, engrossingly human it is. It’s easy to get caught up in the songs themselves—their peerless hooks and melodious delivery as intoxicating as the Fab Four’s most instantly accessible Merseybeat—only to later realize how many layers of intricacy and feeling are wrapped up in them. Much has been written and expounded about the bittersweet perfection in the complementary meeting between sad words and happy music, yet never before or since has it been executed in such a stirring, affecting fashion, totally lacking artifice and consistently offering new perspectives on love and life with each subsequent listening experience, whether it be your picturesque initial moment as a baby boomer reveling in your first spin on vinyl, or your millionth play as a weathered music fan well into your middle-age during the digital era. The value and gratification of these tunes will never, ever diminish, and that’s a testament to the flawless construction of these brilliantly crafted 14 songs.
So with the strength of this record laid out (the superlative songwriting), let’s explore exactly what makes this album so special. With pleasantries embellished with his own unique vocal approach dotting past Beatles releases, George’s contributions to Rubber Soul really kickstarted the flourishing talent in his abilities as a songwriter. The jangly, Byrds-saluting “If I Needed Someone” exudes a tender vulnerability masked behind a thinly-veiled curtain of hesitation, its beauty counter-balanced by its humility, keeping it from being just another lovely piece of folk-pop and raising it to a new level entirely. On “Think For Yourself”, he unthinkably lends an air of elegance to his menace, preventing a scathing attack on an unnamed peer from slinking into righteousness, the fuzztones in guitar and bass solidifying a sturdy, supportive backdrop for the venom in his message.
Paul’s songs, while potentially feeling slight without close inspection in comparison to the boundless maturity spun by his band mates, over repeated spins reveal themselves as cries of frustration slung with an unrivaled balance of disarming open-heartedness and shameless grace. “You Won’t See Me” just might be the Beatles’ lost masterpiece, the lush, gorgeous harmony vocals from John and George punctuating the swooping melody and disheartened core of McCartney’s ripe performance, his rallying cry calling out a lover intensified by how hypnotically arranged the track is—the perfect pop song. “I’m Looking Through You” offers a similar take on scorned love, the piercing, striking trills of Ringo’s organ underlining the urgency in McCartney’s wake-up call: a surging lament for lost innocence that manages to find comfort in the matter-of-fact yet hard-won lesson that “love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight”. Even his tossed-off piece of fluff—which would later in the band’s career cause a snowballing amount of friction that would eventually fracture the camaraderie between John and Paul—in “Michelle” is saved by its savvy Greek guitar lines and galloping vocal rhythms, serving as an oasis in the desert, a respite from all of the hangdog tales of lost love swirling throughout the record.
Still, for all of the growth inherent in George’s and Paul’s songwriting, it’s John who really towers above the rest in terms of revitalizing what could be achieved emotionally in a pop song. Here, we’re bestowed with the sitar-laced “Norwegian Wood”, whose up-and-down melody structure mirrors the back-and-forth complexity of the story at hand, John’s rough-hewn vocal delivery suppressing its wounded nature with a playful instrumental arrangement. “Girl”‘s opening breath is heartbreaking from the get-go, and that’s before we’re even introduced to a woman who “puts you down when friends are there” and “acts as if it’s understood” when you say she’s “looking good”. John’s wistful lament is afforded extra heft by just how rueful and weary he sounds, a feeling aided by his resignation in the opening line’s torn-up sentiments of inferiority: “is there anybody going to listen to my story?”
On “Nowhere Man”, a track often spotlighted for being the Fab Four’s first complete removal from stories of romantic love altogether, John’s self-loathing hits a boiling crest, folding in restlessly on itself, the monotony in the sprawling melody and the chugging, chiming guitar lines exacerbating the feelings of worthlessness inhabiting the song’s four empty corners of burning isolation. Rarely do pop musicians display so much humanity and honesty in such a baring, bruising manner.
This is all before we even get to “In My Life”, the greatest song in the history of pop music. Avoiding mawkish saccharinity or fatal morbidity by furnishing existential thoughts with a rising coda of self-awareness and love-is-all sentiment, this spinning wheel of human experience ticked by with strolling patience provides a touching, window-peaking glimpse into what makes life so worthwhile and beautiful, even with all of its heartaches and tribulations. And, coming from “the cynical Beatle”, with an arrangement making the case for teamwork as music’s saving grace, it’s all the more moving.
So, the next time you spin Rubber Soul, pay close attention to the reactions and emotional responses you feel from song-to-song. By mourning what makes life so dour and confusing at times, the four greatest musicians to ever take the cultural stage also offered us what makes it so beautiful with its emotive, empathetic execution. While covering so many different facets of the human experience, and driving it home with such fulfilling, reverberating poignancy, the Beatles found a way to not only make music life-changing, but life-affirming as well.
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