When The Beatles first exploded on to the pop music scene in 1963, with a flurry of activity and high-selling singles, the word on the tip of the industry’s tongue was “ka-ching!” The four lads from Liverpool presented themselves as the perfect cash-cow for a brand new group of consumers to feast on. Though John Lennon and Paul McCartney were the team’s central pillars, it didn’t stop record executives and studio producers from enacting their own visions for what The Beatles should be.
That meant, for the band’s first years in the spotlight, they ran around like headless chickens trying to match the demands of their superiors and trying to still write and record songs that they believed in. However, as you might expect, it still meant the Fab Four were phoning it in on some occasions and, looking back, the band have often been critical of that time in their lives being so controlled by others. Eventually, the four artists in the middle of proceedings would break out and define themselves on their own terms, and there was one album that saw them do it — 1965’s Rubber Soul.
The album has often been cited as a landmark moment in The Beatles’ career. It’s the record that many people point to as the jumping-off period for their most creative era as well as the moment they truly left all notions of being a boy band behind. There were several reasons for the LP being so pivotal too.
One such reason was the band’s connection with marijuana. The Fab Four had toyed with smoking pot in Hamburg but had never truly committed to taking the drug. Then, after a scheduled smoke with Bob Dylan, during which Paul McCartney ascertained the meaning of life, the band began smoking much more regularly. A sudden expansion of thought meant their style dramatically changed compared to their debut LP Please, Please Me. Smoking pot had opened up the band to their position within the world as figureheads of a new generation. It meant that songs like ‘She Loves You’ — a classic pop number — had now turned into songs like ‘The Word’ — a song about the unifying ability of love.
The drug may have opened the band’s eyes to the world’s troubles, but the man who passed the joint, Bob Dylan, had also encouraged the group to look inward. The Beatles may have been topping the charts, but they hadn’t impressed Dylan. The folk singer had made his name infiltrating the scene with his own expressive poetry and was now keen to encourage the band to do the same.
“We got involved completely in ourselves then,” said Lennon in 1968, reflecting on the album and the change of style for the group. “I think it was Rubber Soul when we did all our own numbers. Something just happened. We controlled it a bit. Whatever it was we were putting over, we just tried to control it a bit.”
The bespectacled Beatle expanded in 1971: “We were just getting better, technically and musically, that’s all. Finally, we took over the studio. In the early days, we had to take what we were given — we didn’t know how you can get more bass. We were learning the technique on Rubber Soul. We were more precise about making the album, that’s all. And we took over the cover and everything.”
Paul McCartney remembers the change back in 1988: “We’d started to learn what was involved (in the control room), and it was all so fascinating being allowed to do it. As we got more power they started to let us sit there during a mix,” it was an enticing property for a group that had always been kept under the spotlight — now they were directors.
It was this moment that confirmed The Beatles were more than just pop stars, they were bonafide musical icons. The album also provided them with the confidence to take their creative vision forward. “I liked when we got into Rubber Soul,” recalled George Harrison in 1977, later calling it his favourite of the band’s catalogue. But, the most important thing about Rubber Soul is that, after it, “Each album had something good about it and progressed.”
The legacy of The Beatles wouldn’t have been anywhere near as rich had the band not pushed for creative control, and it was on Rubber Soul that they finally broke through.