Almost as soon as the ‘Help!’ movie hit the theatres of the world, the Beatles set off on what is up there in the top five or ten most iconic tours by a band ever. Personally, I’d put it at number 1, but there will be arguments for the Rolling Thunder Revue and at least one of the Zeppelin tours, and so on. But I need only mention two of the venues on that tour to begin to explain why it’s so significant. On August 15th and 16th 1965, The Beatles played Shea Stadium in New York, and on the 29th and 30th, they played the Hollywood Bowl. If you’re in this thread, you’ve seen at least some of the Shea Stadium footage, and it’s nuts.
On the first night, there were 56,000 people crammed in, with the band barely visible on a puny-looking riser in front of the pitcher’s mound. Even without the screaming masses, the sound was pitiful – no-one had ever considered the logistics of amplifying a band’s sound enough so it could be heard in the back row of an outdoor stadium with an audience the size of a mid-sized town all screaming at them. The only way to properly hear what it had sounded like was to tune in to the Ed Sullivan show in September and watch the recording. Sound at the Hollywood Bowl was better, partly because it has a great natural acoustic, and partly because even at the back of that vast auditorium, you’re still close enough to be able to identify which Beatle is which. The live album, partly made up of tracks from the 1965 shows, is worth a listen, as is – and I know I’m repeating myself here – the soundtrack to Ron Howard’s documentary.
Mercifully, the band – revelling in the level of control they had gradually acquired – chose to spend the rest of the year writing and recording songs rather than playing inaudible concerts in larger and larger venues. The result is not only the 14 songs on ‘Rubber Soul’, but the double A side single released on the same day, ‘We Can Work it Out’ and ‘Day Tripper’:
In some respects, this is the first actual Beatles album. Everything which had gone before was either a mixture of originals and covers at the record company’s request, or film soundtracks. In America, the situation was even more dire, with a dozen albums floating around with the band’s name on them, but with little or no input from the people who actually made the music. ‘Rubber Soul’ changes all that. The band (and I’m not being naive here, they were absolutely on a deadline to have something out before Christmas) went in to Abbey Road deliberately to make an album; something few, if any, rock bands had ever done before. Everything about this is on their terms now, from the cover to the running order, to the instrumentation and arrangements. George Martin is a co-conspirator in it all, but he’s no longer calling the shots; all four Beatles are in full control now. The result is something which is so obviously epoch-making now that its hard to even imagine how it was received at the time. The genius of it is that there’s enough of the old way of doing things left that everything new is coming from a familiar place: the regulation 14 tracks? All present and correct. The publicists blurb and general clutter on the back of the sleeve? Absolutely. Roughly 15 minutes of music on each side? Well, there are a couple of slightly longer songs, but pretty much, yes. It looks like an LP record from 1963 did, but it sounds like the future.
Consider the front cover. The stories about it are well-worn; the elongated image the result of the cardboard it was projected on to falling over, the proto-psychedelic logo the result of nothing more than a graphic designer trying to replicate the shape of the sap of a rubber tree when it is tapped; even the decision to leave the band name off – hugely controversial, of course, but by the end of 1965 you’d have been hard pressed to find any sentient being in the world who couldn’t tell you who those four were, even in a distorted image. But the name of the band isn’t the only thing missing from the front cover. Gone, too is the near-ubiquitous white bar at the top. This isn’t, by a long chalk, the first album not to feature it – even ‘Beatles For Sale’ hides the white part – but after this, it’s impossible to imagine a serious rock album which featured the record company and the band name in a dead space at the top of the cover image, unless it was being done in a knowingly ironic way. ‘Rubber Soul’ changed the way we bought albums because it was no longer enough to simply flick through the bins without really seeing the whole sleeve; now you had to stop and look at each one individually; you had to pay attention to the design to figure out what you were looking at, and you had to pull the thing out of the stack to flip it over if the name of the band wasn’t in a prominent position. It may not have been deliberate, but for the next 20 years, spotty herberts in record shops had a way of looking for new albums, and that happened because ‘Rubber Soul’ changed how albums worked.
And all this before we hear a note of the music.
Now, in keeping with the previous posts, there should be a mention of what was happening in the record stores of North America. Capitol had filled the gap between ‘Help!’ and ‘Rubber Soul’ by releasing six singles at once – essentially, they had reclaimed the rights to all that early stuff which had originally gone out on Vee-Jay, and decided that it was about time they made some money from them. So, just as the band were turning the musical corner, their US record label were turning the clock back. Not content with that, they decided that ‘Rubber Soul’ just had too many tracks on it, and pulled four of them – including ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘Nowhere Man’ – adding ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ and ‘It’s Only Love’. The result is an album which millions of people love, but which definitely isn’t the one the Beatles had in mind. To be fair, opening with ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’ is effective, but to me it totally misses the point of the original running order.
OK, I can avoid this no longer. It is the first properly essential rock album, and while you could swap the two single tracks in for a couple of the more ‘old style Beatles’ tracks (and have hours of lively debate trying to agree which two should go), you shouldn’t, and here’s why:
‘Rubber Soul’ is a statement; a profound and deliberate statement of intent by a band who have understood just how much power they now hold, and who could have churned out pop songs until even their bank managers were complaining that it was all too much. Instead, they now had the power and the freedom to properly explore just what they were capable of. Several (but not as many as you might think) bands who came after them tried the same trick, only a tiny handful managed to improve as they went on experimenting, and only this one changed the world while they did it. It’s a horrible cliche, but everything really did change after this, and it changed two minutes and 37 seconds into side one of ‘Rubber Soul’ when George Harrison picks up Lennon’s guitar melody at the start of ‘Norwegian Wood’ on an instrument no-one had properly heard before. Today, you’ve heard it a million times, you know what’s coming and you hum along without giving it a second thought. In early December of 1965, you heard that for the first time and if you didn’t think ‘What the actual fuck is going on?’ it’s only because you’d lost the power of coherent thought altogether.
So powerful are so many of these songs that it’s easy to overlook the handful of less well-known ones – ‘You Won’t See Me’ with it’s alternating stress pattern between the lead and harmony vocals; ‘The Word’ prefiguring the summer of 1967 without anyone noticing; ‘What Goes On’ featuring a first writing credit for one Richard Starkey (“about five words”), and ‘If I Needed Someone’ proving that George was as interested in the structures of Indian music as he was in learning how to play the sitar. Yet all the way through the album you are never more than a couple of minutes away from a riff, chorus or lyric which is etched into the cultural consciousness of the entire world: ‘Drive My Car’ gives us a way in, sounding like a familiar Beatles song although with more going on than before, including the ‘beep beep’ line which was the Radio 1 traffic jingle when I was a lad. ‘Norwegian Wood’ is an entire essay all to itself (I’m pausing only to note that once again, everything you knew about this band and popular music has been stood on its ear in a gnat’s hair over two minutes); ‘Nowhere Man’ pulls the curtain aside on Lennon’s inner turmoil while entertaining us with a gloriously catchy melody; there’s ‘Michelle’, ‘Girl’, ‘I’m Looking Through You’, and then…
If ‘Yesterday’ is the song which Paul McCartney will be remembered for above all the others, then ‘In My Life’ ought to be the same for John Lennon. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it; how often I’ve hummed along without really thinking about it, and how much more it has meant to me as I’ve grown older – how someone so young could capture that exact feeling so clearly, so succinctly, is beyond me. Oh, and it’s also the track I wheel out whenever I hear the ‘Ringo was an average drummer’ line – just listen to the way he controls the whole song, just behind the beat when he needs to give Lennon space, and gently encouraging him through the emotional honesty of it all. Can you hear the edits in the sped-up piano interlude? Yes, and I don’t care. It’s easily in my top five Beatles songs, probably my top two. Genius needs no explanation; no apology.
There will – astoundingly – be better albums to come, but nothing matches this for sheer impact. To be able to reach this level of craft and consistency just three years after blasting through the recording of ‘Please Please Me’ in a day is almost supernatural. You know how people say The Beatles were the greatest band of all time? This is why.