Sunday, August 02, 2009
When the Beatles unveiled their Christmas present to listeners in December of '65, it was clear that the group had taken a giant stride beyond the material of the Beatles For Sale/Help! period. This transition toward more sophisticated songcraft resulted in extended nocturnal sessions, with an eye toward utilizing more exotic instruments and actually getting behind the board with the engineers to see how they could further manipulate sounds. Tearing down the wall between recording artists and tape operators was one of the largest contributing factors to their maturation. In addition, regular cannabis intake was inspiring larger concepts and three of them (Paul being the hold out) had taken LSD during the course of that incredible year. Now this is not to say that they were putting acid in their cereal every morning (not yet anyway) but it did have a profound effect on John and George. Consequently, the use of psychedelics would play a much larger part in their evolution. It would also contribute to their deterioration as ensemble players and would ultimately let some rather suspect ideas slip past quality control.
For the time being, things were getting interesting.
How about that album cover? Four unsmiling faces, elongated slightly with the title stretched out in a trippy, liquid fashion. No mention is made of the band name on the front of the jacket in what would be another groundbreaking piece of sleeve artwork. As with most of their innovations, many fans of that time were turned off or simply not receptive to the changes. Fanzines received letters from disgruntled kids who thought that their heroes "looked like corpses" or "old" and found Rubber Soul "boring".
Those who were on their wavelength quickly realized what was behind it, thus bringing in a slightly more erudite group of followers. Mindless screamers would continue their histrionics as they toured, some dropped the Beatles in favor of the latest teen bubblegum. Many more would come to view them as spokesmen for a movement that was sweeping away narrow minded convention in favor of unbridled experimentation. Youth would now come to dictate social trends from here on in.
Rubber Soul rightly holds a coveted position on many people's list of desert island discs, though, like every previous release, it was surgically altered for US consumers. Four tunes from the intended running order were yanked and two ("I've Just Seen a Face", "It's Only Love") from the UK issue of Help! were added. Substituting these acoustic based songs to market the album as "folk rock" was another misstep by the Capitol promotions team. Superimposing a trendy label on the biggest band on the planet was unnecessary , while chopping up their work of art was akin to scribbling a moustache on the Mona Lisa. They certainly needed no help when it came to selling records.
Some apologists for these actions claim that American version of Rubber Soul was improved by the changes and is more in line with the type of album the Beatles had intended to make.
Much of the inspiration for the songs came from the soul and R & B acts that were in their purview during this time. Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Booker T and the MGs all had a far greater influence on the band than any of the "folk rock" confections that littered the charts in the summer of '65. The skin tight, dual bass/guitar riffs that fuel "Drive My Car" and "The Word" bear out how much the Stax sound held them in its sway. Paul even remarked that they were a bit embarrassed, thinking that listeners would be able to easily spot what/who they were emulating. As usual, they infused the material with their own stylistic touches so it really wasn't that obvious. Hence, the punning album title had two inside jokes to thank for its existence. The first being "Plastic Soul", which is the label that some African-American performers were using to describe the stage mannerisms of Mick Jagger. (You can hear McCartney muttering this following an early take of "I'm Down"), while the second was a direct reference to the way the Beatles were reshaping the soul records that they devoured in their leisure time.
It would take another year before the mad scientists at the Capitol Tower in LA stopped fucking around with the master tapes that were routinely flown in from London.
With a couple of exceptions, the writing and execution of their sixth LP was economically wrapped in just under one month. Unbelievable when you consider the quality packed into the grooves of this gem. All the more impressive considering that it was bookended by a US and UK tour, which they hustled out to do after completing tracking. "Drive My Car" provides the ear-grabbing intro, loaded with tortuous shifts, rock solid rhythm section and the all important hook. All that's missing is a horn section, though it really isn't necessary as John and Paul weave a tale that disguises the sexual innuendo (slightly) and does not waste a second of space. Those overlayed piano chords are the proverbial cherry on top of an excellent sundae. Particular emphasis is given to the bass, which was much more prominent in the mix.
Lennon's attempt to write about an affair and disguise the details is his own summation of what inspired "Norweigan Wood". McCartney takes credit for the bridge and the suggestion of burning the house down to end the song. People got quite caught up in trying to decipher the meaning of the lyrics, which eventually ended up in an anthology of British poetry. Later, the storyline revealed that Lennon had met his female match, only to be screwed and dropped as callously as any of the groupies he'd treated himself to over the course of touring. Another key ingredient came from Harrison. He couldn't even hold the instrument properly at this stage, though he doubled the guitar line on his newly acquired sitar, unwittingly setting off another trend that would inspire some very laudable and terrible records all at once.
Depending on which account you've read, George was turned on to the wonders of East Indian classical music by David Crosby or Jimmy Page. The curry restaurant sitars that filled in spaces on the Help! soundtrack were (likely) GH's first real taste of this effervescent, complex form of music. What is certain is that the engineers recoiled in horror as this exotic, 21 stringed beast sent VU meters deep into the red zone. When it was all worked out, something oddly beautiful happened and western music shook hands with the mystical east.
"You Won't See Me" had fairly complex modulations and another very sharp bass figure going for it. McCartney was venting lyrically about his girlfriend at that time (Jane Asher) and her refusal to conform to his ideal of subservience. The oooooh-la-la-la's get tiresome with repetition and you can hear the voices cracking in spots. More time would have omitted these flaws. Melody saves the day.
"Nowhere Man" holds the distinction of being the Beatles first recorded composition to lack a "love" theme, reportedly falling into place without concentrated effort by its author.
Lennon: "I remember I was just going through this paranoia trying to write something and nothing would come out so I just lay down and tried to not write and then this came out, the whole thing came out in one gulp.I thought of myself sitting there, doing nothing and getting nowhere."
The harmonies are handled beautifully, with that crisp guitar sound achieved by putting George's new Fender Strat straight through the board, with all bass rolled off.
Paul: "We were always forcing [the Abbey Road staff] into things they didn't want to do. Nowhere Man was one. I remember we wanted very treble-y guitars, which they are, they're among the most treble-y guitars I've ever heard on record. The engineer said, 'All right, I'll put full treble on it,' and we said, 'That's not enough', and he said, 'But that's all I've got, I've only got one pot and that's it!' And we replied, 'Well, put that through another lot of faders and put full treble up on that. And if that's not enough we'll go through another lot of faders'...Anyway you'd then find, 'Oh, it worked!' And they were secretly glad because they had been the engineer who'd put three times the allowed value of treble on a song. I think they were quietly proud of all those things."
The chorded solo is played in complete service to the song, right down to the harmonic that finishes it as a quiet punctuation mark.
Harrison brought two songs to the Rubber Soul table. "Think for Yourself" evolved from a political argument. Decent structure, fine three part harmony, but this is McCartney's show. Just listen to those fuzz bass patterns. He out-Motowns the James Jamerson prototype in a strutting performance that is the musical equivalent of a rolled up sock wedged into the crotch of spandex pants. Only John Entwhistle was going the extra mile in this fashion at that time. Paul was consistently brilliant in constructing his lines for most every track. More importantly, the bottom end can actually be heard clearly. Similarly, he and Ringo both shine on John's first crack at sending positive vibes into the minds/hearts of their listeners. "The Word" is fairly one dimensional lyrically, but the bass/drum combination is tight, with Ringo pulling off great backward rolls. Paul explores the higher areas of the fretboard successfully, with the guitar line doubling his part while a sustained, whiny note on harmonium hovers over everything in the fade out.
"Michelle" I can do without, though it is another McCartney standard, polished up from a joke song that he would sing in Hamburg to get the attention of the ladies. He would busk the tune, singing in broken French. Under pressure for more material, it was dusted off and given a proper arrangement with Lennon providing the "I love you" middle section. "What Goes On" was the product of Lennon's late 50's songbook, so it was rehaped and updated in country-rock form for Ringo to sing. He added the line about "waiting for the tides of time" and was duly issued a writing credit. The other selection that made the cut due to deadlines was "Wait", which was recorded during the "Help!" sessions. It's a good song, with more patented rolls from Mr. Starkey, though it is redolent of the boy/girl fare that they were currently moving away from. The volume tone pedal that was employed on "Yes It Is" and "I Need You" also shows up, further dating the track to earlier that year.
"If I Needed Someone" was transparently based on the riff found in the Byrds' "The Bells of Rhymney" and played on the off-beat as well. Pure George, as the author coolly assures the listener to leave their number and he might call. He even sent the demo version of this to McGuinn prior to official release. His best song up to that point. McCartney's "I'm Looking Through You" is another highlight of the second side. The stereo copies feature a false start on acoustic guitar. Take one was radically different from the finished product, being far more aggressive in tone. His melodic sense eventually took over, which resulted in the bridge section (missing from the early version) and the rethink on removing the stinging lead guitar bit that wanders quite a bit, adding nothing of value. Having other opinions on hand helped to edit away ideas that seemed decent on first go but needed work. Hence the great benefit of having time to revisit some of the songs after basic takes were completed. One standout that was revised lyrically in much the same manner was "In My Life". Just a cursory look at what Lennon originally had in mind is quite interesting but the verses are clumsy. Try and match them to the tune.
"Penny Lane is the one I'm missing/Up Church Road to the Clock Tower/In the circle of the Abbey/I have seen some happy hours/Past the Tramsheds with no trams/On the five bus into town/Past the Dutch and St Columbus/To the Dockers Umbrella that they pulled down."
Doesn't quite work smoothly, though you now know that John was the first to try and write a song about Penny Lane. Finished with Paul contributing a hefty portion of the music, this is a stellar example of why these two men possess shoulders upon which most every songwriter of worth that came after is currently standing on. Only Ray Davies poignant jottings rival (and sometimes eclipse) their accomplishments.
During the course of recording "What Goes On", a blues based jam entitled "12 Bar Instrumental" was laid down. This was allegedly positioned as a title track and given a couple of tries. Works well as a homage to Booker T's "Green Onions" but the rhythm that Lennon provides downshifts to country midway through. They weren't a threat to any blues bands of the period, though their striking original style made this a moot point. That genre was already mined more successfully by the Stones, Yardbirds and John Mayall's revolving crew of crack virtuosos.
Saving the best for last, I nominate "Girl" to be one of the absolute best things that John Lennon ever committed to tape. It is flawless in both conception and execution, with every word expertly placed. He would later talk about this as being his idea of the dream girl, who he had yet to meet. His descriptor seems to paint a rather challenging picture of this woman, who seems to alternately cause pleasure and pain. Lightening the heaviness of his subject matter are three well placed jokes. The first is a heavy drawing in of breath following the beautifully harmonized chorus line, which simulates dragging a huge hit of pot into the lungs. The second is the "tit tit tit" backing vocal in the bridge, no doubt the result of an idea you'd have after finishing a good joint. The last is the incorporation of bazouki styled guitars that come out of nowhere in the end, which come off like the music that Mikis Theodorakis created for Zorba the Greek. It is not hard to imagine everyone rolling on the floor, laughing themselves sick, trying to get through this one.
Impeccably rendered, it is beautiful from start to finish and really should have be sequenced to close this majestic set.
Instead, they picked "Run For Your Life", which Lennon later claimed that he "hated".
Rubber Soul heralded the end of "the cute mop-tops" and effectively washed away all traces of the group that walked nervously into EMI studios just three short years before. A brilliant double A sided single was issued along with this LP in the form of "Day Tripper"/"We Can Work It Out. Both tore up the charts. Longtime engineer Norman Smith left the team, citing the material as being "not really his bag". He would go on to produce the first two Pink Floyd albums. The Beatles would lose fans over their change in direction, though they were simply moving too fast for these listeners. The modern rock era was about to step through the looking glass.
What was former EMI engineer Norman Smith called by the Beatles? What was his own 1973 hit and under what name did he release it?