Counterbalance No. 29: The Beatles’ 'Rubber Soul'
Everywhere I go I hear it said—Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger are onto the Beatles' Rubber Soul, the No. 29 album on the Great List. Counterbalance is the word I'm thinking of...
Mendelsohn: Klinger, this is the fifth time we will be talking about a Beatles album here at Counterbalance and we haven't got out of the top 30. Think about that for a second. This one band put out a string of six records from 1965 to 1969—four years, six records—and all but one ended up in the top 30 of the Great List. Nearly one-fifth of all the records we've gone over so far were Beatles records.
Klinger: Assuming you’re not counting Yellow Submarine, which you’re justified in doing, you’re correct. Not only that, but the one that got away was originally only released as an EP in the UK. Capitol for once in its life showed foresight, stringing together a few stray singles and making Magical Mystery Tour a full-length LP upon its release in 1967. So it could be argued that the Beatles went 1.000 in the UK from ’65 to ’69.
Mendelsohn: You're killing me with semantics. But now we're on Rubber Soul, the album that pushed the Fab Four from being mere teen pop idols to something much, much more.
Klinger: Indeed. Coming off the heels of two lesser albums, Beatles for Sale and Help!—“lesser” being an extremely relative concept where the Beatles are concerned—everything seemed to just about coalesce. I agree with the critical consensus that Revolver was the true great leap forward, but in listening to a ton of Rubber Soul lately, I’m remembering just how much there is to like.
Mendelsohn: What's not to like? Rubber Soul represents the intersection where regular-old '60s pop meets what would become the Beatles' ratcheted-up version of pop. But as much as I'd like to give Rubber Soul a perfect grade, I think it is an incomplete album; but that has more to do with the Beatles youth and inexperience. The dynamic range has not yet been established. There's a raw energy to songs like "Drive My Car" and "The Word", but at the same time they still somehow come off as flat, almost one-dimensional.
Klinger: See now, that’s the thing about the Beatles—it’s pretty easy to compare the callow youths of the fall of 1965 with the seasoned pros they had become by the spring of 1966. That’s how far and how fast they were moving for a while there. Of course, they were also soaking up the influences around them like moppy-headed little sponges. Having appropriated R&B sounds (and their show-tune antitheses) on their first few LPs, followed by a fairly significant shift into C&W on Rubber Soul's two immediate predecessors, the addition of folk-rock to their sonic palette was a considerable step outward. I’m not sure it was one-dimensional so much as a solidifying of the Beatles' sound.
But it seems that the real news about Rubber Soul was the great leap forward lyrically. In his landmark Beatles exegesis Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald spends a lot of time relating the songs of this era to a few stray remarks McCartney made that suggest he and Lennon are trying their hand at “comedy” numbers. But while “Drive My Car” and “Norwegian Wood” do have something approaching punch lines, and “Michelle” and “Girl” could pass as parodies of Maurice Chevalier and Zorba the Greek, this is a far cry from comedy—even if you do get a distinct whiff of irony from all those “Ooh-la-la-las” in “You Won’t See Me”.
Mendelsohn: Congratulations, you now own the only reference to Zorba the Greek on PopMatters.
I am always amazed at the cottage industry that is the Beatles. I can see what MacDonald might be driving at, and if the Beatles were indeed trying to write "comedy" numbers, it may have been a helpful exercise as they explored the possibilities of song craft. Regardless, the jokey, tongue-in-cheek nature of those songs is a reoccurring theme throughout their career. And personally, I would attribute a song like "Michelle" to Paul's penchant for old-timey music. On Rubber Soul, we also get to see them tinkering with another Beatles staple, the character vignette in "Nowhere Man".
So, in a sense, Rubber Soul does represent the solidification of the Beatles, but they wouldn't find that integral sonic lushness until Revolver—be that through an organic evolution or by the new advances in sound recording technology.
Klinger: Not to mention, of course, the introduction of certain mind-expanding substances, which brings us to “The Word”.
While only a minor figure in the Beatles’ oeuvre, “The Word” may well be one of the most important songs to come out of the Lennon-McCartney team. After all, it’s the Beatles’ first reference to love that doesn’t refer to the romantic sittin’-in-a-tree kind. It’s bigger than that. Instead of eros, we’re talking agape, the kind of love that became part of the ’60s hippie ethos. In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find that sentiment expressed in mainstream pop music at any point before Rubber Soul—and even if you can, it’s the Beatles that brought the concept to the masses.
Mendelsohn: Ah yes, abstraction. Before this, everyone was so literal—literally. It's interesting what a couple of boys from Liverpool can achieve with a few illicit substances. That shift to abstract thought was a key turning point in not only music but popular culture in general. Nowadays, teeny-boppers get into drugs and instead of spreading their expanded ideas, they go all fame-crazy and shave their heads and attack minivans with umbrellas before being hauled off to rehab for "exhaustion". Maybe they are doing the wrong type of drugs.
Klinger: Oh, that’s a given, and I’m working on a theory about what type of album you get depending on what substance is in your bloodstream (hint: it’s the difference between Rubber Soul and Revolver). Plus, as we discussed a couple weeks ago, the Beatles’ evolution was almost completely organic. George Martin might have been on hand to facilitate their ideas, and Brian Epstein might have kept the scandals at bay (Lennon once described their road life as “Satyricon on tour”), and all that left them free to develop their songwriting. And I think that emphasis on the song is what’s at the heart of the Beatles genius. Every facet of their experimentation—musical, lyrical, chemical—ended up being put into service of the song.
During the inevitable periods of Beatle backlash, when their legend is allowed to lie fallow for a while, you hear the canard repeated that they weren’t especially good musicians, especially compared to the virtuosos that emerged in their wake. But I’d say it has more to do with their song-first mindset.
Ringo’s drumming on “In My Life” is a perfect example. That variation on the “Anna” beat wouldn’t have occurred to most drummers, who would have likely contributed a more standard 4/4 pop rhythm. Ringo’s beat is surprisingly intricate, and it propels the song even as it keeps the listener slightly off-balance with its syncopation.
Mendelsohn: And that's why the Beatles will always be the gold standard. Some virtuosos elevate their status from good to great simply by the company they choose to keep. Palling around with a couple of guys who barely know their chords can make any guitar player look good. The term virtuoso also carries with it a certain stigma, fairly or not, of a person set apart from the rest by talent and choice. The Beatles worked together in the joint effort of song-craft. You can hear it in their harmonies, in the Lennon/McCartney song credits, even in Ringo's all-important backbeat. Those who say the Beatles weren't virtuosos were unable to distinguish them as such simply by lack of comparison.
Klinger: Can’t leave out George’s contributions here, either. Not only does he step up his songwriting game considerably with the shiny, Byrdsesque “If I Needed Someone”, but he also introduces the sitar to much of the Western world on “Norwegian Wood”.
Along the way, Harrison brings the beginnings of that tough, chunky guitar sound that’s such a hallmark of Revolver. It’s all through the album: on “What Goes On”, where Harrison winds his way between countrified Carl Perkins licks and funky scratch playing that butts up jarringly against Lennon’s rhythm guitar. In that slashing, “Green Onions”-like chord chopping he does on “You Won’t See Me.” And on “Wait”, he finally tames that volume pedal he was mucking about with on Help! In fact, if Rubber Soul didn’t contain “In My Life”—quite possibly Lennon’s most beautiful song—I’d say George could be a shoo-in for this album’s MVP.
Mendelsohn: "In My Life" always struck me as the quintessential Beatles song. It has a lilting pace, the unmatched Beatles harmonies, the introspective lyrics, and the piano break down in the middle. They had songs that were better known, some that were executed to a higher degree, but I would be hard pressed to find a song that better sums up the essence of the band better than "In My Life". I guess, in that case, you would have to give the MVP to Lennon, but then, he was always the Beatles MVP, wasn't he?
Klinger: That’s not a can of worms I’m eager to open, Mendelsohn. Let’s just say that at any given moment, any of the Fab Four could—and did—step up to the plate. That’s what makes the whole thing work. Besides, you don’t want the Ringo Anti-Defamation League coming down on us again, do you?
Mendelsohn: God, no. I just finished cleaning all of the braunschweiger off of the front of my house from their last visit. Why do they have to throw smoked meat? Just ring the fricking door bell.