Summer 1965 found the Beatles heading back over to the United States for another round of touring. These shows were definitely of interest, as they included a return engagement on The Ed Sullivan Show, their first appearance at Shea Stadium in New York, and two shows at the Hollywood Bowl (which were recorded and, along with songs from their 1964 appearances there, were edited, mixed (as much as they could be, at any rate) and released on May 1977’s The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl compilation). Also of note is their stop in southern California at the end of August–on the 27th, they were driven to Beverly Hills to visit their one-time hero, Elvis Presley. The meeting was less than stellar, as the story goes–the boys felt Elvis, who was already deep into his B-movie phase, was a bit of a sell-out, and apparently Elvis felt less than impressed by the band that stole his popularity. The brief but busy tour ended on 31 August with two shows at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Thankfully, they were given six whole weeks off between that last show and recording time.
In hindsight, it was definitely one of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” sort of things, recording and releasing two albums in one year. They’d done so since their first albums in 1963, and back then it was considered important to keep oneself in the limelight throughout the year. This was especially important during fourth quarter, when sales were the highest. Even though Help! had been released at the start of August, they’d still need to create something new in time for the Christmas rush. In 1963, this was probably not much of a problem, considering the band’s songwriting and recording were relatively quick and relatively easy. Now two years later, their songs and recording styles were becoming more complex; they were no longer writing the simple love songs they could dash off in a day or so…they were now writing and recording songs with minute details and intricate melodies. By 1965 and with about a month and a half to work with, coming up with sixteen completely new songs–fourteen for the album and two for the lead single–was going to be one hell of a chore.
The Rubber Soul sessions took exactly one month: 12 October to 11 November. They were also a continuation of the nighttime sessions that would become typical of the band in their later years. While many of the sessions for Help! had started in the early afternoon and occasionally lasted well into the late evening, the Rubber Soul sessions saw even more nights where they entered the studio mid-afternoon and stayed past midnight. Most of this was due to the ridiculously tight deadline (the last day was a marathon thirteen-hour session lasting from 4pm to 7am the next morning), but at the same time the band (and Martin) had realized they felt more comfortable with a night shift. This was partly due to the “studio boffins” (aka the house technical crew at Abbey Road, complete with white lab coats) having gone home for the night, leaving the boys to their own devices. This would actually work well for them, as they could get away with more. Many of their later sonic experiments–the phasing vocals of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, the straight-to-mixing-board overmodulated sound of “Revolution”–would have given these boffins a heart attack, daring to abuse the machinery in such manner. Of course, there was also the fact that this also left time for the boys to flex their social wings and meet up with friends and celebrities around town during the day. This was especially embraced by Paul at the time, who had still been seeing socialite Jane Asher at the time.
Still…one month to record what would end up becoming a gamechanger of an album had to be equal parts luck, ability, and insanity.
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Single: “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out”
Released: 3 December 1965
It had been an agreement between the band, George Martin, and Brian Epstein to have the singles contain all-new songs, or at least songs that had not been released on the album that had currently been released. This was not strictly adhered to, but for the most part they preferred to keep each release as “new” as possible. The end result was that both this single and Rubber Soul were released on the very same day, but are separate entities. Additionally, this is considered the band’s first “double A-sided” single, where both songs are considered the hit, instead of one being relegated to a forgotten b-side. They would return to this type of release multiple times in the future.
Side A: Day Tripper
This track was recorded on the third day of the sessions (16 October), and similar to their previous single-only track “I Feel Fine”, it starts off with one hell of a great guitar lick, courtesy of John, who wrote the majority of the track. However, it’s Paul who sings the main verses, most likely as the melody is more in his range than John’s. John however does come in to sing the lead on the chorus. This is also a good example of where they were at the time in terms of recording style: while the majority of that day’s session was given to this song, there were only three takes recorded, with most of the vocals and extra sounds overdubbed onto the third (and only complete) take later that night. John and Paul both considered this a throwaway song that was written too quickly, but it remains a classic and a great example of their new sound. While the base of this track is a variation on a twelve-bar blues and sped up, with an altered chord progression for the chorus, they make it their own with flair. There’s a delayed build-up of instruments at the intro (guitar, then bass, then rhythm guitar and percussion), the amusing commentary in the lyrics (Paul and John have said this song is mainly about “weekend hippies”, the wannabes of counterculture but only in their spare time), and at the 1:30 mark, instead of a middle eight, we have a glorious build-up-and-release before returning to the last verse and fade-out. All in all, a wonderful song.
Side B: We Can Work It Out
The flip side is equally fantastic, introduced to the group by Paul, with a significant amount of collaboration with John. This was also another example of a song arranged while recording in the studio, nearly all of it on 20 October. It’s mostly Paul’s song, a semi-autobiographical account of his current relationship with Jane Asher. Despite his misgivings in the relationship’s status, he remains positive, expecting everything to eventually work out. John, on the other hand, gives a counterpoint, both in verse and melody: we can certainly have our problems, but life’s too short to avoid fixing them. His short interlude is also in a minor key, adding to the tension. Even George offered something here, suggesting that short waltz-time passage in the midst of John’s section to add a bit of imbalance. It’s definitely a dark song, much more so than the tracks on Beatles for Sale–it’s more personal, and the resolution is left up in the air.
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Album: Rubber Soul
Released: 3 December 1965
Whereas Help! (especially the latter half) introduced us to the band’s growing interest in American folk of the sixties, Rubber Soul saw the Beatles fully embracing it and making it their own. There was also continued interest in American soul, especially the newer soul sound similar to Otis Redding and the like. American soul was being fully appropriated by a lot of British musicians at the time, especially the Rolling Stones, thus the “plastic soul” epithet that was given to Mick Jagger at the time. The Beatles, as always, sought not to take the sound and make it their own, but to take certain elements and feed it into their own creations. Thus we have the groove of “Drive My Car” and “You Won’t See Me”, the folk rock of “Nowhere Man”, the Parisian café atmospheres of “Michelle” and “Girl”. Perhaps because of the tight deadline they were forced to find inspiration where they could find it, and in the end it paid off, as the wealth of ideas on this album reach quite far. It’s also the first Beatles album that’s truly a studio album: while Help! was in fact “built up” organically in the studio, there was a certain acoustic sameness to it. Rubber Soul on the other hand embraced so many different sounds that it was not only a much-loved release to their fans, but an inspiration to many musicians, including the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who often said this album was part of his inspiration for their classic Pet Sounds album.
Track 1: Drive My Car
The first track kicks off the album with another great guitar lick, but the real star here is the absolutely phenomenal bass line throughout–and it’s played by George, who doubles himself on guitar. Previous Beatle songs had the odd bass flourish or two, but it really wasn’t until this track that their bass lines stood out like that. This is a perfect example of their arranging habits at the time as well–there were only four takes of this track, all done on 13 October, but a majority of that night’s session was dedicated to the sheer number of overdubs they put on this track. In an interesting twist of fate, this track nearly wasn’t written, as Paul’s original lyrics, in his opinion were hackneyed and unusable. It wasn’t until he brought it over to John’s house in Weybridge that they settled on a chauffeur theme (again, going somewhere they hadn’t in the past) and it worked out well from there.
Track 2: Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
A lovely folk track written in 6/8 time by John (with help from Paul on the refrains), it’s a personal track of his: he later admitted that this was a song about his extramarital affair at the time and wondered if he could get away with writing a song about it. At the same time, it’s got the very typical self-effacing John being the butt of the joke at the end, with the girl he’s cheating with not really caring about him either way. It features many atypical instruments, including George playing a sitar, the first Beatle track to feature it. He’d been introduced to the instrument during the restaurant scene in Help! earlier that year, found the instrument and the sound fascinating, and double-tracked himself on this song. Ringo’s contribution was not of drums but many handheld instruments such as maracas and finger cymbals. The outcome was a bona fide classic track by the band.
Track 3: You Won’t See Me
Paul offers another track here, another personal song of his up-and-down relationship with Jane Asher; this time she had been either avoiding or ignoring him, and he wasn’t sure why. Recorded on the last day of the sessions, this track is a rather simple melody with few chord changes, but its descending melody and counterpoint vocals are used perfectly as part of the song’s melancholy theme. It tries to be happy, but it’s just not getting there because it has nothing positive to connect to. Even the backgrounds are little more than an “ooh la-la-la” an occasional echoing line, and Ringo’s percussion is quite jittery with high hat triplets and tom fills on the fourth beat. It’s a song of not just sadness, but of irritation.
Track 4: Nowhere Man
A very autobiographical song of John’s–he’s pretty much given up pleading for help, instead giving into stasis and inertia. On the other hand, this is an extremely brilliant song, full of their best work. We’re brought in via an a capella introduction via John, Paul and George’s stellar harmony which stays with us throughout. This too has a descending melody, but while the previous track is melancholy, this one is more relaxed and sunny despite its lyric theme, partly due to the driving beat and the full sound of guitars. George pulls off a simple yet excellent solo here on his Fender Stratocaster, electrified to counterpoint the more acoustic sounding rhythms; there’s a great mix of both chord and melody in that solo, punctuated at the end with a high harmonic E. [Personally, this is one of my top five favorite Beatle songs, partly for that solo alone.]
Track 5: Think For Yourself
George’s first of two contributions to this album, it’s another track typical of his songwriting, full of chord changes and odd musical phrases that seem convoluted yet make sense somehow. He also seems to have gone a more personal route here as well, delivering a song about lies and misdirection–not in relationships, but in life. Paul also introduces a new sound here, plugging his bass into a fuzz pedal to give it distortion. So complex was the song that there’s a well-known bootleg track out there of the vocal session in progress, with John especially having a hard time getting it right (and George finally getting a chance to chide him for it!). They knew they were being recorded, and so much of the tension is played for laughs (though with John, it was real yet played up–again with the self-effacing humor)…but still, the end result is a great example of the dedication they gave to their music. [Trivia: a brief snippet of that recording was used for a scene in Yellow Submarine, when they sing “a bit of a tune” to wake up Lord Mayor.]
Track 6: The Word
John and Paul admit this one was one of the rare occurrences where the song was written amidst the haze of marijuana, which they’d started smoking earlier that year. It’s very much a proto-hippie anthem–John pretty much called this his first attempt at a theme that would culminate two years later with “All You Need Is Love”. It hastily written and recorded near the end of the sessions, so one often notices its relatively simplistic melody and lyrics. There’s not too much going on here, with even the vocal melody repeating itself throughout, only resting when John gives it a counterpoint refrain in between verses. George Martin is featured on the harmonium here.
Track 7: Michelle
This lovely little piece had its origins as a farcical party song from John and Paul’s early days in Liverpool. Story goes that they had gone to a party and met some people who were infatuated with the Parisian Left Bank culture and had started singing Parisian love songs. Paul and John, in their own inimitable way, had created their own take by playing a delicate Chet Atkins-style fingerpicking song high up on the fretboard and making up guttural French-sounding noises in response. Come rush time for the Rubber Soul sessions, they resurrected the melody and put actual words to it, adding a quick French lyric in there (a translation of the previous English lyric “these are words that go together well”), and turned it into quite the romantic track.
Track 1: What Goes On
Ringo gets his star turn in lead vocals with a song originally written by John back in the Quarrymen days and actually attempted once on 5 March 1963 during the “From Me to You” session, but never recorded. It was resurrected with some minor changes (including a few lyrics by Ringo, making it the only song credited to Lennon/McCartney/Starkey) and given a country feel to fit Ringo’s current vocal output. Given the age of the song and the limited melody, there’s not too much to say about this track other than that it feels ever so slightly out of place–it probably would have fit better if it had switched places with Help!‘s “I’ve Just Seen a Face”–but then Ringo would be short a vocal track!
Track 2: Girl
John delivers another melancholy love song–this one of longing, of being in love with a woman quite out of his league. It’s similar to “Michelle” with its French bohemian sound, but it also has a bit of a Bertold Brecht arty story-song to it as well. For a Beatles song of its time, it’s surprisingly laid back–so much so that John couldn’t help but insert a quite audible inward sigh of being hopelessly in love for the wrong reasons.
Track 3: I’m Looking Through You
Another of Paul’s songs about his up-and-down relationship with Jane Asher. Like John, Paul was now working out his inner demons with his songs, and this time he’s starting to question whether or not it’s worth staying on at this point. The original take, found on Anthology 2, is much more acoustic and meandering, but the finished version here has more immediacy and anger; perhaps at this point he had already made up his mind on the relationship and had only to act on it now.
Track 4: In My Life
A deeply heartfelt and breathtaking song from John, quite possibly his most personal yet. Inspired by a journalist’s suggestion that he write a song about his childhood, he eventually came up with this beautifully poetic ode to everyone that had ever had an effect on his life. None are mentioned by name, but that isn’t needed; he instead looks at each and every one personally and lets them know that, after everything is said and done, he deeply and profoundly loves everyone that has ever been near to his heart. The lyrics are so important here that the music is purposely muted, leaving only the vocals up front and center. In perhaps one of their most creative moves, the solo was George Martin’s idea, played at half-speed on piano and sped up when inserted back in, to emulate a harpsichord passage, adding to the pastoral feel of the song. [This is also one of my top five Beatles songs, due to its emotional power.]
Track 5: Wait
In a rare moment of using an older recording, the band grabbed this one from the Help! sessions from June and touched it up with a few percussive overdubs and tone pedal guitar to make it sound closer to the feel of the new album. Because of this the song could fit easily on either of the albums; it has the lighter sound of the former album but the moodiness of the latter. It’s one of many relationship songs written around this time about distance and the fleeting hope that the other would be there upon return. This was considered the very last thing recorded for the new album, the additions done in the wee hours of the morning. George Martin would begin the final remixing of the album that following Monday.
Track 6: If I Needed Someone
The second track offered by George on the new album, this one is much lighter in tone. Its composition is uncharacteristically straightforward, so much that it could almost be considered his attempt at writing a Lennon/McCartney song. George plays a beautiful fingerpicked line played high on his Rickenbacker 12-string repeated throughout. He was heavily influenced by Roger McGuinn’s guitar work with the Byrds on this one–which is ironic, considering McGuinn had been influenced by George’s earlier 12-string work when playing for his own band.
Track 7: Run for Your Life
In counterpoint to the cheating man of “Norwegian Wood”, this time John warns his beloved about cheating on him. [Interestingly enough, both songs were recorded on the same day, 12 October.] He admitted soon after that he wasn’t too happy with this song at all, partly due to lifting two lines from an older Elvis track (“Baby Let’s Play House”) and not really putting much work into it. It’s not the strongest way to end an album, but given the short amount of time they had to work with, it goes out with an uptempo track.
Rubber Soul is considered one of the band’s finest records, and was certainly one of their finest to date. They had chosen to extend on their current influences and expand their lyrical and musical boundaries, as well as search even further into their own personal lives for inspiration. They had indeed been given a month and a half’s respite between the tour and the sessions, but they had also given themselves an incredibly short deadline for a new release in the process. Whether or not that was on accident or on purpose is left unsaid, but it proved once again that they could get away with it–just barely–if they tried. It’s by no means a flawed record, although there are a few weak songs that even the band themselves admit were throwaways. Despite that, they produced a wonderful record full of well-crafted songs that excited the fans and further inspired their fellow musicians. It seems the only boundary they really had here was time; one can only wonder what sounds would have evolved if they’d given themselves a few more weeks or a month more to work with. Come 1966, once they officially gave up touring, they would have all the time in the world. The end results would take everyone completely by surprise.
[Addendum: the iconic album cover was taken by photographer Bob Freeman near John’s Weybridge home, with them standing atop a small hill and Freeman shooting them from below. The elongated effect of the shot was created quite by accident when he and the band were choosing possible shots, and the projected image had been warped by the square album-sized card falling backwards. The band loved the effect and decided on that shot right there and then. Interestingly enough, the original shot has rarely ever been seen since, and only resurfaced online earlier this year. You can see it on the Beatle Photo blog here.]
* * *
Single: “The Beatles’ Third Christmas Record”
Released to the Beatles’ Official Fan Club: 17 December 1965
The boys finished off the year with another holiday message for their fan club, recorded as an afterthought during the session for “Think for Yourself”. This one may have seemed a bit less than inspired, considering they were about to record the same ‘thank you’ message for the third time. They did their best, however, providing multiple quite out-of-tune versions of “Yesterday” and very silly takes on “Auld Lang Syne” and other holiday standards. One would normally think little of these fan club releases, but this would actually be the last of the straightforward Christmas messages; by December 1966 they would be a full-on studio band only, giving them much more time and creativity to come up with new sounds.
Next Up: The “Paperback Writer”/”Rain” single, Revolver and the “Yellow Submarine”/”Eleanor Rigby” single