Track-by-track: the Beatles' Rubber Soul reconsidered on its 50 year anniversary
A peak, a trough or a stepping stone? We reassess the Beatles' sixth album
‘Plastic soul’, a description used by black musicians of the time to describer Mick Jagger – a white man singing soul music – warped by Paul McCartney into ‘Rubber soul’ (also a play on rubber soled-shoes), finally finding its rightful home as the title of the Beatles’ sixth studio album.
Regarded by many as the first album to truly cement the band’s musical maturation, Rubber Soul is an curious mix of the Beatles’ influences up until this point: pop, folk rock, R&B and the first stirrings of psychedelia. Knocked up just in time for the Christmas market, the album climbed to the top of the charts (replacing The Sound of Music soundtrack) and chilled out there for 42 weeks.
Fifty years on, we take a track-by-track look at the album to see if it stands the test of time.
‘Drive My Car’
The first version of the lyrics for the McCartney-penned ‘Drive my Car’ were blasted as ‘crap’ by Lennon and, in truth, they were. ‘You can buy me golden rings’ worried the pair that they’d fall back on to lazily rhyming ‘rings’ with ‘things’, so, after a ciggie break, ‘baby, you can drive my car’ was swapped in. Surprising no-one ‘drive my car’ was a euphemism for sex, but, in a nice twist, gender roles are reversed and it’s the women who’s out to get hers.
'Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)'
A beautiful little song whose quaintness belies the tale of a cheating man who, denied sex from his conquest, proceeds to burn her house down. One of the first Beatles tracks to feature Indian-inspired music, it’s notable as the point where George Harrison begins to wear his eastern influences on his sleeve – he was responsible for the inclusion of the sitar, after becoming enamoured with Ravi Shankar. Lennon sings this one plaintively, but there’s always that hint of menace behind the innocence in his tone.
'You Won’t See Me'
McCartney intended the song to have a Motown vibe, inspired by bassist James Jamerson. Based on the troubles McCartney was having with then-girlfriend Jane Asher, it’s more biting than his usual swooning love ditties but lacks any real punch, almost as though he’s simply going through the motions of putting her on blast.
Once you realise Lennon wrote this about himself, ‘Nowhere Man’ seems that bit sadder. In Hunter Davies’ acclaimed book about the group, Lennon is quoted, around about the time of writing the song, as saying: ‘I can see my hands and realise they’re moving, but it’s a robot who’s doing it.’ The melancholy stands alone; the tune is plain and simple, almost to the point where Lennon’s feelings of isolation and helplessness are affecting how good the song could be. It’s given a nice re-imagining, however, in Yellow Submarine when the band sing it to Jeremy Hillary Boob PhD, a creature who lives in the Sea of Nothing.
'Think for Yourself'
This one is George Harrison’s doing, the first of his credited tracks not to be a love song, instead he blames the government for his vitriol. It’s got a pretty nice line in unexpected syncopation, but the lyrics, while typically early-Harrison blunt and dour, don’t show him at his best.
Probably the worst track of the album. Strained harmonising, terrible lyrics and pseudo philosophising, it’s best skipped over. Except for producer George Martin’s harmonium noodling, which is cut off woefully early as the track meanders to a blessed halt.
McCartney wanted to write a French Left Bank-inspired song, so asked a French teacher friend to come up with a two-word phrase to go along with the name ‘Michelle’. ‘Ma belle’ was the response and he dashed the song out after also been given the translation for ‘these are words that go together well’. The McCartney twee is bailed out by bluesy discord and the Nina Simone-inspired ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ refrain. Probably responsible for all those Michelles you know.
'What Goes On?'
A close contender, with ‘The Word’, for worst Beatles song. By pure coincidence, it’s the only Beatles track credited to Lennon-McCartney-Starkey. Lennon wrote it when he was a kid playing in the Quarrymen, and it shows. There’s nothing to write home about, unless you find picturing Ringo’s wee face helps to alleviate the song’s banality.
By Lennon’s own admission, this is about ‘the dream girl’, which doesn’t say much about what he expected from a woman: one who puts you down in front of your pals then cries when you try to leave her. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison are verifiably singing ‘tit tit tit’ in the background, in a slightly naughtier version of the Beach Boys’ habit of singing ‘la la la’ to flesh out their songs. Probably too misogynistic to be bothered with these days.
'I’m Looking Through You'
Another McCartney-Asher drama song. Another fairly bland offering. Another one to skip.
'In My Life'
Lennon in full-on nostalgia mode and the results are beautiful. A retro reminiscence of growing up in Liverpool and the first time Lennon realised that he could write a decent melody. The extremes to which Lennon swings on this album (see ‘Run for Your Life, below’) are fascinating; if anything, Rubber Soul shows glimpses into all the facets of a really complicated man. Forget ‘Hello’, this is real heartbreak for times gone past.
Not considered good enough for previous album Help, ‘Wait’ was plucked off the shelf when Rubber Soul needed one more track. Probably the boilerplate of that mid-60s Beatles sound, with McCartney and Lennon alternating the vocal track: very much a filler track.
'If I Needed Someone'
It’s very frustrating to see Harrison struggling to keep up with the Lennon-McCartney partnership, given how refined he went on to be after leaving the group. He’s clearly trying here, but it feels like Lennon and McCartney tried to do something, – anything – interesting with the music to back up shoddy lyrics. It’s definitely on the folkier side of the Harrison coin, but also very easy to get confused with the other of his tracks on the album.
'Run for Your Life'
Oh boy. A difficult one to stomach, despite its proper catchy tune and snappy vocals. It’s hard to tell, with the overly politically-terrified mindset of these days, whether or not Lennon’s lyrics are truly awful or just tongue-in-cheek, but either way the sentiment isn’t pretty, and they do nothing to help dissuade modern listeners of his shitty attitude towards women. The lyrics are threatening and jealous and really don’t see the album to a satisfying conclusion.
Rubber Soul is a good album, but certainly not the Beatles’ best. There are benefits and pitfalls to an album that shows a band in such transition – some of the earlier LPs are more assured and fun, while the later records are revolutionary forces of nature. While there are a few gems nestled in there, Rubber Soul is best viewed as an important stepping stone in the evolution of The Beatles as a band, rather than them at a peak or trough.