“People always wanted us to stay the same, but we can’t stay in a rut. no one else expects to peak at 23, so why should we? Rubber Soul, for me, is like the beginning of my adult life.” – Paul McCartney.
“You don’t know us if you don’t know Rubber Soul -John Lennon
Rubber Soul was the sixth studio album recorded by the Beatles. The title came from Paul, who said he’d overheard another musician refer to Mick Jagger’s singing style as “plastic soul.” You can hear Paul use the expression “plastic soul,” for the first time, at the end of the first take of the Beatles record “I’m Down” (released a few months earlier). John confirms the title credit: “That was Paul’s title… meaning English soul. Just a pun.”
It was the second album (after A Hard Day’s Night) to feature all original Beatles songs. It was the first album to feature composing credits from all four Beatles. The U.S. Rubber Soul album featured 10 new songs, with two carry-overs from their previous album Help! The British LP featured 14 all-new songs. The recording sessions for Rubber Soul began on October 12, 1965.
Rubber Soul marked the first time the Beatles were free to record, without the encumbrance of touring dates, radio dates or filming dates. This new level of freedom was enjoyed, appreciated, and used to create heretofore new sounds and bring forth new levels of experimentation in their music. The resulting genre mixture of songs represent a wonderful blend of rock, baroque, country western, Indian and folk music.
John and Paul, as always, dominate, but for the first time, George was allowed to contribute three songs, and Ringo one.
“Drive My Car” took the longest of any Lennon-McCartney song to write. It was the result of an almost three hour writing session together- it was very rare (unprecedented, in fact) for John and Paul to take that long to knock off a tune.
John’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird has Flown)” was a song about an affair John had had on his wife, Cynthia. John said he wrote it in “gobbledy-gook” to camouflage the fact of the affair from poor Cyn. (“Norwegian Wood” is also notable as the first rock song to feature a sitar, with George plucking out the historic passage).
“You Won’t See Me” was the longest song the Beatles had recorded to date, clocking in at 3:22. it was about the rough patch Paul and his then-girlfriend, Jane Asher, were then having in their relationship. It marked a departure from the usual happy, carefree love songs Paul had written to date.
“Nowhere Man” was a song John had a very tough time composing. He tried and tried, for several hours, to come up with a suitable tune, with no luck. Then he simply laid down, and the entire song, words and music, came flowing (gushing!) out. “Nowhere Man” was a deeply autobiographical song and hinted at John’s growing desperation and disquiet in his own life.
“Think for Yourself” was a George song and was unique in that, years later, the composer himself had forgotten the song’s original inspiration. According to George, a few decades later: It “must be about somebody, from the sound of it- but all this time later, I don’t quite recall who… probably the government.”
“The Word” was a John-Paul song and marked the first time they had tried composing a song under the influence of marijuana. Although all four were indulging in the drug big-time by then, John and Paul usually composed songs “straight” and without the effects of drugs. Paul discovered the experiment was not a good one and decided to save future indulgences in that area to non-writing hours.
“Michelle” was mainly a Paul song, with contributions not only from John, but from a woman (!). Jan Vaughan, the wife of Ivan Vaughan (the guy who had introduced John to Paul back in 1957) was a French teacher who Paul asked to supply a French name for the song’s title. It was Jan who came up with the immortal “Michelle, ma belle.”
“What Goes On” is a rarity, the only song co-written by three Beatles, i.e. John, Paul, and Ringo. This was to be the first Beatle song with Ringo’s name on the composer’s credits.
“Girl” was a John song. John said it was about “That girl. The one we’re all looking for.” For John, it was to be, albeit a a few years in the future, his beloved wife Yoko Ono.
“Run for Your Life,” another John song, was dismissed by him as a “throwaway” or “a piece of crap.” Although John had no affinity for this song, it was always a favorite of George’s.
The highlight of the album was definitely John’s “In My Life.” A deeply autobiographical song, John later called it his “first major piece of work.” (“In My Life” was named by Mojo magazine as the best song of all-time in 2000.)
The last three Rubber Soul songs were Paul’s “Wait”, George’s homage to his wife Patti “If I Needed Someone,” and Paul’s “I’m Looking Through You” (another result of Paul and Jane’s tempestuous relationship).
The Rubber Soul recording sessions ended on November 15, 1965. Released on December 3, 1965, Rubber Soul received a few rave reviews, although surprisingly, many very mixed reviews were thrown in. It was almost as if the music critics of the time weren’t quite ready for such a giant leap in a rock album.
As with every Beatles record or album, sales were brisk, on both sides of the Atlantic. Rubber Soul overtook the soundtrack of The Sound of Music at the number one spot on the UK charts, where it remained at the top for 8 weeks. In America, it was number one the Billboard Hot 100 charts and remained there for 13 weeks.
Rubber Soul was the first Beatles album that did not feature the name “The Beatles” on it’s cover- a practice very rare for 1965. The rather strange looking cover photo of the Fab Four, all decked out in their suede leather jackets, was taken at John’s home in Weybridge.
The cover was shot by Robert Freeman, who was showing the boys photos he had taken of potential album covers, these shots being displayed on cardboard, album-sized paper. While showing them the potential photos on a screen, one of the displays fell askance, resulting in an elongated Beatles look, stretching them out.
Excitedly, the boys said “Can we have that? Can you do it like that?” Freeman informed them that he could, and the Rubber Soul cover was to be a template for future various and sundry psychedelic album covers, photographs and posters.
Producer George Martin called Rubber Soul “The first album to present a new, growing Beatles to the world.”
Ringo called it “the departure record.” He said that, at the time, the Beatles “were expanding in all areas of our lives, opening up to a lot of different attitudes.”
In 1995, George Harrison chose Rubber Soul as his favorite Beatles album. He said, “We certainly knew we were making a good album. we spent more time on it and tried new things. but the most important thing about it was we were suddenly hearing sounds we weren’t able to hear before.”
Perhaps John Lennon (as usual) summed it up best: “Rubber Soul was a matter of having and experienced the recording studio, having grown musically as well, but (getting) the knowledge of the place, of the studio. We were more precise about making the album, that’s all. And we took over the cover and everything.”