The album as a work of art
Rubber Soul is one of the most important albums in the history of the Beatles (and that means in the history of rock). It is the work that separates them from their first period as pop idols and put them at the vanguard of the genre, turning the recording studio into the perfect place to experiment. It was the album with which they made it clear that they had matured both lyrically and musically, showing the influence of other contemporaries such as Bob Dylan and the Byrds. It was also the album with which they established that between commercialism and art they opted for the latter and it was, therefore, the work with which they opened their period of artistic splendor.
Its impact was immediate, it became the album that inspired every artist of the moment to give the best of themselves on every album; in a way it was Rubber Soul and not Sgt. Pepper's that changed the balance between albums and singles. It is not only that there were no ‘fillers’, something they had already achieved on albums like A Hard Day's Night, but that the Liverpool band used it to open up to new influences and continue adding new forms to pop music, in such a way that the album became a cohesive work and offered a more mature face of the group. This was no longer about ‘I love you and you love me’, it was about lost men (Nowhere Man), childhood memories (In My Life), poetic infidelities (Norwegian Wood), sex and domination (Drive My Car) or doomed relationships (I'm Looking Through You).
It may be the album in their repertoire of absolute masterpieces (Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's, The White Album and Abbey Road) in which John Lennon has most importance, as he was in charge of composing half of the songs and delivering some of the best tracks of their career, such as In My Life, Nowhere Man, Norwegian Wood and Girl. It was also the album that saw George Harrison's importance increase, not only as a composer, with two songs penned by him – like he did in Help -, but also as the architect of his sound through his guitar, while Paul McCartney is left with the song that opens the album, (a position for which they always competed), Drive My Car, and with the hidden gem, the excellent I'm Looking Through You, as well as other interesting contributions such as Michelle and You Won't See Me. For his part, Ringo Starr is the luckiest guy on the planet to be surrounded by such talent, but no one can doubt that he is also a great drummer, as can be appreciated on songs like The Word, Drive My Car and Nowhere Man.
The album opened in style with McCartney's unstoppable Drive My Car, on which Lennon and Harrison also collaborated, the former on the lyrics, like that cynical "and maybe I love you", and the latter on the music, as he was responsible for the riff that the bass and guitar play, heavily influenced by Otis Redding, and his Respect in particular. Paul is also on lead guitar, as he was onTaxman. Then came the first of Lennon's many wonders, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown). Influenced by Dylan, Lennon switches to acoustic and delivers a beautiful melody in which he is accompanied by McCartney's wonderful harmonies (no two voices have ever sounded better together than these two). The most memorable element of the song is George Harrison's sitar, an instrument that would as a consequence enter into the equation for half the bands on the planet... Of course, beyond the ambitious music, the lyrics also made it clear that this was not the same old Beatles, with John talking about an extramarital affair in the most poetic way possible.
This was followed by one of the many hidden gems on this album, McCartney's irresistible You Won't See Me, a spectacular track with wonderful backing vocals by Lennon and Harrison, with Paul again showing the influence of Motown bassist James Jamerson. Lennon then returned with another of the best songs of his career, Nowhere Man, with some unlikely three-part harmonies and a huge Harrison and Lennon on dual lead guitar (their '61 Stratocaster), making clear the mutual band influence of the Byrds and Roger McGuinn.
Next up was the first of Harrison's two contributions, a great song called Think For Yourself with McCartney connecting his Rickenbacker 4001 to a fuzzbox pedal for the first time in rock history - here you can see why McCartney was, with John Entwistle, Lemmy's big influence. The lyrics again make it clear that the band has left teenage love songs behind and is capable of adult meditations on a Dylanesque level. The Word is another little known song, - within their canon- and it deserves much more recognition, and sees Lennon begin to talk about love as a philosophical concept, something that would reach its peak with All You Need Is Love, which again musically highlights Paul's funky bass and George Martin's solo on harmonium. The first side closed with the well-known Michelle, a ballad in the style of the French chanson that McCartney had composed long before, when he was trying to pick up girls at parties. It was John who remembered it and told him, "you remember that French song you used to sing, it was good, we could recover it". In a Beatles that released two albums a year, plus several singles and EP's, no song was wasted.
Another perfect example of this is the song that opens the second side, What Goes On, which is an old Quarrymen song that Lennon recycled for Ringo to sing. McCartney had also helped out a bit and was in charge of preparing a demo for the drummer to learn. Starr added about five words to the lyrics, earning him the first songwriting credit of his career. Like most of Ringo's songs, it was one of the weakest on the album, but its country and rockabilly tone gave it some added value.
Then came another Lennon marvel, Girl, one of the most complex and melancholic songs recorded by the Beatles. It is also one of the best vocal performances by an absolutely sublime Lennon. This was a sort of answer to Michelle's French touches, though this time with a Greek flavor as it was augmented by Harrison's lead guitar, a '64 Framus 5/024 Hootenanny. I'm Looking Through You is the best of the album's lesser-known songs, a real stunner in which McCartney, mixing acoustic (Lennon's Gibson J-160E) and electric (Harrison's '61 Stratocaster), makes it clear that his relationship with Jane Asher is falling apart.
The best moment of the whole album comes with Lennon's spectacular In My Life, one of the great moments of the band, a song in which the Liverpool native recalls his life from an adult and melancholic perspective, which is close to the style he had used in his book In His Own Write. The melody is worthy of Mozart or Bach, and it is understandable that George Martin came up with such a baroque (and wonderful) solo. Wait is the weakest of McCartney's compositions, who sings it with Lennon. The song was recorded during the Help sessions but was reworked for this album. For the level of the album and its author, it is a weak song - on the other hand, if it were a song by the Hollies or the Spencer Davies Group it would have been chosen as a single, as that is the level we are talking about.
The penultimate song is If I Needed Someone - the second song by a George totally fascinated by the Byrds. In particular, this song starts with a riff very similar to The Bells Of Rhymney, played, as could not be otherwise, with a Rickenbacker 360 12-string. It could have been the perfect ending for the album but in the end Run For Your Life appears, which is the weakest of Lennon's contributions to the album; although its rockabilly flavor and its references to Elvis' Baby Let's Play House made it one of Harrison's favorites. Harrison made his particular tribute to Scotty Moore using two of his guitars, a 1963 Gretsch Tennessean from '63 and his Fender Stratocaster from '61 through a Vox AC-100.
The year after Rubber Soul was released its influence could be found on all the bands that were part of rock aristocracy - from the Kinks inaugurating their imperial phase with Face To Face, to the Rolling Stones with Aftermath, the first album of the Stones’ career with songs only by Jagger and Richards; in the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension; and the most important of all, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. This latter record was the celebrated work that had as its starting point an album that Brian Wilson had totally fallen in love with and had decided to surpass (the curious thing is that Pet Sounds would be the spur for Paul McCartney and the rest of the Beatles when it came to creating Sgt. Pepper's).