With the release of Rubber Soul hitting its 50th anniversary on December 3, Tune Groover takes an in-depth look at what most experts argue is one of the greatest albums of all time.

by Greg Gargs Allard

The name “Rubber Soul” was an evolution from the term “plastic soul” that popular black musicians of the early and mid-60s coined to described Mick Jagger, a white person who was singing soul music. At the end of the song, “I’m Down,” Paul McCartney can be heard saying “Plastic soul, man, plastic soul.” For the Beatles, “plastic” turned to “rubber,” and the rest is music history.

Rubber Soul was one of the first albums that did not include the artist’s name on the cover of the album. A less is more strategy that came off as cool and relied on the extreme familiarity of John, Paul, George and Ringo to the public.

Perhaps an even more interesting explanation for the album name involved photographer Robert Freeman, probably the Beatles photographer of choice between 1963 and 1966, who did the cover for the record. As Paul McCartney described it, Freeman was showing the four lads different pictures of them all through a projector whose image was cast onto a piece of cardboard, about album-cover size on a chair. After the boys all agreed on a picture that they all liked how their own image looked, the cardboard started to slide down just before Freeman shut off the projector, creating a stretched out effect of the faces. “That one,” someone in the group immediately hollered and the rest concurred.

When the Beatles sixth studio album, Rubber Soul, was released in the UK on December 3, 1965, it differed quite a bit from what fans and critics had come to expect from the Fab Four. Actually, it was hard to know what to expect from the group because from day one their sound was evolving – it’s progression just became more apparent as the years rolled on and the albums accumulated.

It was the second of the Beatle British releases to contain only original material, with the first being A Hard Day’s Night – and how original the sound turned out to be. While Rubber Soul is considered a rock album, in many ways it isn’t one at all, or at least is much more than that, incorporating pop, soul, R&B, folk and psychedelic music. It became the first pop or rock record to really utilize the Indian instrument sitar when George Harrison played it on John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood,” clearing the way for the sound of raga-rock.

It is interesting to note that the American version of the album contrasts greatly with the original UK album. First of all, four songs from the British version were dropped and saved for Yesterday and Today… (which had only an American release), namely “Nowhere Man,” “What Goes On,” “If I Needed Someone,” and “Drive My Car.” The songs “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love” were added on from the UK Help! LP, to give the album more of a folk rock feel, since it was a burgeoning genre in the mid-sixties in the US.

I personally remember playing a cassette version of the American release in my car while giving my heavy-metal influenced friend Mark a ride somewhere in the early 1980s. After some time he bitterly complained that the record sounded too tinny and that the jingle jangle of the acoustic guitars did not sound rock ‘n’ roll to him

While the American versions of the Beatles’ LP’s were shorter in length and more in number, partly to milk the American economy for as much money as possible, the British versions are the originals and really the summun bonum of Beatles albums. In other words, when you say Rubber Soul or Revolver in Beatles circles without any other qualifier, you are referring to the UK versions without exception.

The first track on the album, “Drive My Car,” was also the opening track for the American Yesterday and Today LP. The song, an example of early power pop, is cheerful (with its playful “beep beep b-beep beep, yeah) has what turns out to be a happy ending. John Lennon wrote most of the lyrics for this one after visiting Paul McCartney’s flat, where Paul had been working on the song.  Both John and Paul concluded that Paul’s lyrics were crap and sounding too much like “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “I Feel Fine.” Paul’s basic melody was kept, so this is a true Lennon-McCartney collaboration.

From the opening guitar and George Harrison’s sitar notes to John Lennon’s relaxed voice and wry lyrics, all 2:05 of “Norwegian Wood,” a song that John wrote about an apparent one-night stand while he was still married to Cynthia, feels somehow like a journey through a magical land than what it really was. Of course, many would argue that every minute of being a Beatle must have been magical. Words like the opening “I once had a girl or should I say, she once had me,” to “She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere. When I looked around I noticed there wasn’t a chair,” and finally “She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh. I told her I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath,” have captured the consciousness of many generations.

The song originally had the working title “Knowing She Would,” but the band changed it to “This Bird Has Flown” and then finally “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” knowing it to would never be approved by manager Brian Epstein for commercial reasons. “Norwegian Wood” was code for a cheap affair, like the cheap plywood “norwedgian wood” that was used to make furniture during the Beatle days or that Peter Asher’s walls were made of. It was also, of course, one of the band’s nicknames for marijuana, which they smoked in the men’s room in Buckingham Palace before performing for the queen – similarly, John’s character smokes it at the end of this song. “Bird” is what English people of the Beatles’ age called a young woman. “And when I awoke, I was alone – this bird had flown. So, I lit a fire. Isn’t it good – Norwegian Wood?” Some instead say “I lit a fire” is in reference to a scorned John setting the girl’s place ablaze after seeing she had taken off, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support this other than a tongue-in-cheek comment by Paul McCartney.

“You Won’t See Me” was written by Paul about a period that his then-girlfriend Jane Asher was giving him the cold shoulder (I guess it also happens to the very best of us). “When I call you up, you’re line’s engaged. I have had enough, so act you’re age. We have lost the time that was so hard to find, and I will lose my mind if you won’t see me.” This song sounds a little different because Paul sings lead in a lower vibration than John and George do while singing harmony on the song. Roadie Mal Evans plays the hammond organ on this one.

What strikes you first about “Nowhere Man” is the three-part harmony of Lennon-Mccartney and harrison that starts the song out. But what stays with you perhaps even more is that the song is perhaps the first Beatles song to be completely unrelated to romance and , with the possible exception to “Help.” Taking the nod from Bob Dylan, Lennon wrote this one and additional songs with a more philosophical orientation would soon follow for the intellectual Beatle. “Nowhere Man” was not on the US version of Rubber Soul but appeared in the US Yesterday and Today and later in the Yellow Submarine songtrack. John wrote, I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down. Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.” It hit number one in Australia and number three in Canada.

“Think For Yourself” was one of two George Harrison songs on the album. It is an anti-gossip song against believing lies, which may have had something to do with a Pete Best lawsuit that was going on at the time, and thus is sort of a precursor to his solo song of 1987 “Devil’s Radio” from “Cloud 9.” On a personal note, when I took guitar lessons as a kid and brought a George Harrison song to my teacher Daniel Glow, he used to regularly comment how curious the chord progressions were on George Harrison songs and this is one of them, which includes restless root movement and overlapping of major and minor harmony.

“The Word,” an almost evangelistic song about the religion called love, is one of the few songs that Lennon and McCartney wrote together under the influence of marijuana. Paul said they usually found it was was better to write songs”straight” because otherwise marijuana “clouded your mind.” The song was written in the chord of D, much like “Drive My Car” and “Taxman.” George Martin played harmonium on the solo.

It sort of dawned on me that love was the answer, when I was younger, on the Rubber Soul album. My first expression of it was a song called The Word. The word is ‘love’, in the good and the bad books that I have read, whatever, wherever, the word is ‘love’. It seems like the underlying theme to the universe.

The song “Michelle,” the last song of the first side of the LP, was a hit ballad that has gone onto become one of the most played songs in music history. The song was a product of the French Bohemian scene called The French Leftbank Culture that was happening in Liverpool in the sixties. Paul had attended some artsy parties and mimicked a song he heard at one by writing his own composition and and substituting lyrics with manning and groaning in a French accent and playing it at parties. Later, Paul reworked it into the incredible love song it became.

We’d tag along to these parties, and it was at the time of people like Juliette Greco, the French bohemian thing… So I used to pretend to be French, and I had this song that turned out later to be ‘Michelle’. It was just an instrumental, but years later John said: ‘You remember that thing you wrote about the French?’ I said: ‘Yeah.’ He said: ‘That wasn’t a bad song, that. You should do that, y’know.’ – Paul McCartney

The first song of side two, “What Goes On,” was co-written by John, Paul and Ringo, who also took on the chore of being the lead vocalist for this one. The song is a rockabilly number with a George Harrison heavily-influenced by Carl Perkins on guitar. The key is a good one for Ringo’s vocal range.Lennon had written the original version back during the Quarrymen days.

“Girl” is one of those timeless performances by Lennon that will probably hold up for centuries to come – providing there are still women at their height of their powers and with little mercy for those who feel waves of affection for them. Paul McCartney said the backing vocals “la la la” were influenced by the Beach Boys. He also claims he wrote the final lines, “Was she told when she was young that pain would lead to pleasure, did she understand it when they said that a man must break his back to earn his day of leisure. Will she still believe it when he’s dead?” but Lennon disputed that and indicated indirectly that he wrote them.

Like the third song on the first side, “”You Won’t See Me,” the third song on the second side “I’m Looking Through You,” is about the same subject matter: Paul’s dissatisfaction with his five-year girlfriend Jane Asher. The lyrics “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight” seemed to signal the end of the road for the couple.

Ranked 23rd in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, “In My Life” is one of those universal Lennon contributions that touches all those who come into contact with it. Whoever can’t identify with this song must have no memory of their past or must be a sociopath or psychopath, largely devoid of human feeling. The song was in response to journalist Kenneth Allsop’s suggestion that The Beatles should write about their childhoods, and is based upon a poem in response to that suggested where Lennon reminisces about growing up.

“Wait” was originally recorded for Help! but did not make the final cut. It is totally a McCartney-penned tune as both John and Paul testified to later. George Harrison’s tone-pedal guitar is a memorable part of this tune. The song is about Paul’s anxieties about being away from his girlfriend while doing all of his Beatles business on the road.

George Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone” was greatly influenced by the sound of The Byrds. Influenced by Roger Mcglinn’s guitar in “The Bells of Rhymney” and the drumming of Chris Hill In “She Don’t Care About Time,” Harrison sent the song to McGuinn as an acknowledgement of the influence and probably hoping to get Roger’s, who was known by his real name Jim then, stamp of approval. The content of the song seems similar to a song alter recorded by 10cc called “I’m Not in Love.” This is the only original George Harrison composition that George ever performed live in concert with the Beatles as the Beatles stopped touring in 1966, which was before most of George’s better songs were written.

With lyrics like “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with a mother man/You better keep your head, little girl, or you won’t know where I am,” “Let this be a sermon, I mean everything I said/Let this be a sermon, I mean everything I said,” and finally “Catch you with another man, that’s the end, little girl,” it seems that Jon Lennon needed a restraining order more than a guitar. The line “I’d rather see you dead, little girl…” was a taken from an Elvis Presley song written by Arthus Gunter called “Baby Let’s Play House. For Lennon’s part, he later regretted writing this song more than any other Beatle song he ever wrote. Identifying himself as a feminist in 1973, he said that George Harrison had liked that song when it was written but now he (John) wished he never had. The tune remains a catchy, bluesy number that will probably go down more and more as misogynistic mistake as the years roll on.

The first track on the American album (which doesn’t appear on the British version), “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” is one of the few songs in the Beatles catalogue that does not have a bass track. It was written and sung by Paul McCartney with a lively, uptempo beat melded to a distinctive country-rock sound. McCartney’s humming reminds one of the old country, or that would be Ireland considering the mother land of Paul’s ancestors. It was briefly called “Auntie Gin’s Theme” after his dad’s younger sister, because she liked it so much when Paul was working on it.

“It’s Only Love” did not appear on the British version of the album but led off the second side of the American Capitol release. In England, it had already been released on the Help! soundtrack. Both Lennon and McCartney did not particularly like the lyrics of this song but fans like myself, I suspect, will always love John for allowing himself to be vulnerable enough to record this song. Lennon said of it to a British journalist, however, “It’s the most embarrassing song I ever wrote. Everything rhymed. Disgusting lyrics. Even then I was so ashamed of the lyrics, I could hardly sing them. That was one song I really wished I’d never written.” I always imagined the song was written about Lennon’s infatuation with Astrid Kirchherr although I can find no corroboration of this anywhere.

With Rubber Soul and the albums to follow through Abbey Road, the Beatles started their downright metamorphic evolution that would blow the minds of fans and critics for the next 50 years  and is almost certain to continue to for centuries to come. Since then, no band has come close to approach their sonic innovations and mystical magic within the realm of sound vibration and it is highly doubtful that any artist will ever come along with their powers again.

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