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Friday, December 9, 2011

RUBBER SOUL - side one

You may be surprised to learn that the album generally regarded as the group's first masterpiece was a rush job.  In order to keep pace with the Epstein/Martin master plan of two albums and a handful of singles per year, the Beatles had to have an album out in time for the Christmas market.  In 1963 and '64, they had begun sessions for the end-of-the-year releases in July and August, respectively.  But in 1965, they waited until almost the last possible minute, not going into the studio until October 12th, and with only a handful of new compositions.  By November 11th, they had recorded the single Day Tripper/We Can Work it Out and the album Rubber Soul, received their MBEs from the Queen and appeared on the television special The Music of Lennon and McCartney.  Nobody in show business can produce at that pace and on that level anymore.  Few ever could.

Because of the pressure to deliver the goods, these sessions were by far the most intense yet.  They worked a total of fifteen days, twice as many as for any previous album.  And for the first time, sessions went past midnight, in a few cases becoming all-nighters.  This would become the norm from this time forward, as they began to relish the work in the studio and move away from live performance.  Yet the basic tracks for almost every song were laid down in only a few takes, with numerous overdubs then applied to achieve a finished product.

Drive My Car - The album opens with the smoothest, slinkiest, most seductive song the group ever recorded.  In his book Tell Me Why, Tim Riley writes that, "Drive My Car has the smooth bravado of a Jack Nicholson performance..." - an amusing and altogether accurate description.  Though written primarily by Paul, the song is sung as a duet by Paul and John, with Paul singing in his hard-edged She's a Woman voice.  The guitar work by George and the bass line by Paul are sublime, and they blend together superbly in the instrumental break.  Paul also adds some nice bits on piano, and tambourine and cowbell enhance the percussion.  While technically still a love song, the lyrics are humorous and laced with irony concerning the price of fame - definitely a new direction for the Beatles' songwriting.

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) - Lennon's subtle and beautiful composition about an affair is his most mature piece of work to date.  It features George's debut on the sitar, the Indian instrument which had fascinated him on the set of Help! earlier in the year.  He had found one in a shop in London and, though he had no formal training on it as yet, John felt confident enough in his ability that he asked George to play it on this track.  If you listen to take one on Anthology 2, his playing sounds clumsy and amateurish.  The Beatles remade the song nine days later, and the improvement in George's technique is nothing less than astonishing.  Indeed, the entire track is superior, John's vocal sounding more world-weary rather than the matter-of-fact approach he had employed on take one.  Paul's gorgeous harmonies round out this perfect recording.

You Won't See Me - This lesser-known number by McCartney is one of my personal favorites.  The instrumentation is basic, with Paul adding the piano part, but the vocals are glorious.  While Paul sings lead, John and George sing backing vocals which build and build throughout the song, and the bridge absolutely soars, with Paul double-tracking a high harmony.  Beatles' assistant Mal Evans is credited on the liner notes as Mal "Organ" Evans for simply holding down one key on the Hammond organ for the final verse and chorus.  Canadian singer Anne Murray had a number eight hit with this song in 1974.  According to an entry on Wikipedia, John Lennon told her that it was his favorite cover version of any Beatles' tune.

Nowhere Man - Lennon seems to have had a real fondness for three-part harmony.  This song opens with him, Paul and George singing a cappella, the instruments entering at the top of the third line.  He sings the verses with the other two backing him wordlessly until they rejoin him for each chorus.  The band is once again just the basic unit, but George's ringing guitar work is tremendous.  He gets an early instrumental break and turns in an elegant solo, culminating in a harmonic note that travels from one speaker to the other in the stereo mix.  This is yet another semi-autobiographical song from Lennon, but he writes it in such a way that it achieves universal meaning.  A few years later, it was put to good use in the film Yellow Submarine in reference to the character of Jeremy Hilary Boob.

In the US, Capitol Records released this as a single in February of 1966.  It reached number three on the Billboard chart.

Think for Yourself - This rocker is George's first offering on the album, and his songwriting is already getting good enough that it fits in nicely with the flow of the album side.  The outstanding sonic feature of the track is Paul's fuzz bass, which pretty much serves as the lead guitar, as well.  In The Beatles: Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn reports that the tape was kept running throughout the session in case anything that occurred could be used in the group's annual Christmas disc for their fan club (nothing was).  In the transcript of the tape, John is having trouble learning George's unorthodox chord sequence for the song.  Probably as a result of this, he is only credited with playing the tambourine and providing backing vocals in William J. Dowlding's Beatlesongs.

The Word - Almost two years before he penned the anthem All You Need Is Love, Lennon wrote this similarly-themed (and many say better) tune.  Again, we have three-part harmony from John, Paul and George for the refrain and John singing solo during the verses.  And again, the harmonies grow and grow as the song progresses.  Paul plays piano as well as a bass line that can only be described as funky (the only time I will ever use that word in reference to the Beatles) under each refrain.  For the instrumental break and the fadeout, George Martin slowly builds a majestic chord on the harmonium. 

Michelle - Side one ends with this minor classic from McCartney.  It is a quiet, romantic number with an earnest lead vocal from Paul and lazy backing "ooh"s from John and George.  The guitar break from George, which he repeats for the fadeout, is quite lovely.  Dylan thought this song and Yesterday were sell-outs.  He accused the group of "trying to appeal to the grannies," but he was overlooking the fact that the Beatles had been populists from the get-go.  They could churn out pop hits and still rock with the best of them.  And right from their first album Please Please Me, they had demonstrated their knowledge of, and appreciation for, a wide spectrum of popular music.  

Side one of the American version of  Rubber Soul is not unlike this lineup, yet the differences are substantial.  It eliminates Nowhere Man and replaces Drive My Car with I've Just Seen a Face at the top, giving the side a more acoustic feel overall.  Over the years, many writers have accused Capitol Records of trying to make the album fit in with the folk/rock scene which was popular at the time.  But the executives at Capitol were not prescient.  When they held back the track I've Just Seen a Face in August, they had no idea what direction the Beatles would be taking months later in the studio.  It only appears that way in retrospect.

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