If there’s one album that signifies the moment The Beatles’ transformation from perceived ‘boy band’ to budding musical icons, then there’s no doubt it’s 1965 effort Rubber Soul. The album was the LP that the band finally decided to kick the pop habit and became artists in their own right, changing their songwriting style and delivery as they went.
Prior to 1965, The Beatles were a pop sensation. They topped every chart with their releases and delivered bundles of good times to their fans, all wrapped up in some of their more sugary sweet coatings. Songs about girls, fast cars, rock ‘n’ roll and other notable tropes were rolled out as chart smashes for all to enjoy. But following a meeting with Bob Dylan in 1964, the group’s attitudes changed and they were no longer happy to make music purely to sell records. Now, they wanted to express themselves and showcase their growing artistry. It would provide not only a pivotal moment for the group but a sensational record in Rubber Soul.
It was a moment that would change the band forever. Featuring tracks like ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Nowhere Man’, the LP is seen as a breakout moment and happens to be George Harrison’s favourite to boot. “Rubber Soul was my favourite album,” he once revealed. “Even at that time, I think that it was the best one we made,” he added when reflecting on the iconic record in the ’90s. “The most important thing about it was that we were suddenly hearing sounds we weren’t able to hear before. Also, we were being more influenced by other people’s music and everything was blossoming at that time—including us.”
If you’re new to the record and don’t have the time for a straight-through listen, then below we’ve got you covered as we’re ranking the album’s songs in order of greatness. It’s a piece of work which showcases the future of The Beatles and, in turn, the future of music itself. It’s a piece of the band’s rich catalogue that is not given the respect and credence it deserves. Below, we try to do just that.
The Beatles Rubber Soul ranked worst to best:
14. ‘The Word’
There’s always been one underlining factor to Rubber Soul and that’s the band’s introduction to marijuana. While that intro was made by none other than Bob Dylan, it was on ‘The Word’ that the band explicitly explored it. “‘The Word’ was written together (with Paul), but it’s mainly mine,” Lennon told David Sheff. “You read the words, it’s all about gettin’ smart. It’s the marijuana period. It’s love. It’s a love and peace thing. The word is ‘love,’ right?”
In a similar conversation in 1994, McCartney confirmed this notion: “We smoked a bit of pot, then we wrote out a multi-coloured lyric sheet, the first time we’d ever done that. We normally didn’t smoke when we were working.” The track is as dreamy as expected but doesn’t quite reach the level of the rest of the LP.
Another moment of sixties bliss, the introduction of more and more instruments as the band continues through the track, it’s hard not to be swallowed up by this song and the nostalgia it provides. However, the song is also equally swallowed up by one of the band’s most progressive albums.
It proved that the band were never going to return to their polished shoes and sparkling suit days and now, things had changed forever. Despite this, the track isn’t quite up to the same standard as the rest of the album.
12. ‘What Goes On’
There’s an undeniable groove to ‘What Goes On’, afflicted with the broad spectrum of Americana, the Fab Four, known as fantastic lyricists, seemingly took a day off on this one. So much so, that Ringo Starr contributed some lyrics to the song: “I contributed about five words to ‘What Goes On’. (laughs) And I haven’t done a thing since!” said Ringo.
The skiffle influence on the song is hard to ignore and it’s because of the track’s inception that we’re treated to such an Americanised sound: “That was an early Lennon, written before the Beatles when we were the Quarrymen or something like that,” remembered Lennon in 1980. “And resurrected with a middle-eight thrown in, probably with Paul’s help, to give Ringo a song… and also to use the bits, because I never liked to waste anything.”
11. ‘Run For Your Life’
One of the more potent songs on the album, and often a moment detractors will point to when calling Lennon a serial abuser, ‘Run For Your Life’ is certainly more menacing than the band had ever been on record before. “It has a line from an old Presley song,” Lennon told David Sheff.
“‘I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man’ is a line from an old blues song that Presley did once. Just sort of a throw-away song of mine that I never thought much of… but it was always a favourite of George’s.” The song is far more aggressive than the group had previously released and we’d imagine grew excitement for their next stage of rock ‘n’ roll development.
10. ‘You Won’t See Me’
The third track on the album and there’s more than a touch of sunshine on this song, despite its somewhat sombre tone. A song drenched in the glimmer and shimmy of the sixties pop music, McCartney’s undeniable ear for a tune is showcased once again on the track.
Not many people at the time were writing about the idea of breaking up with their romantic interest. Of course, heartbreak had been on the agenda for quite some time but this one was almost threatening the break-up. It was a strange proposition for the band who spent most of the previous years asking girls out in their songs to now be breaking up with them. But it also acts as the perfect metaphor for the Fab Four’s love affair with pop.
9. ‘I’m Looking Through You’
A cheery number to kick the album into gear, it’s hard not to see this song as a bridge between the band’s past and their future. Starting with a simple rhythm and lyrics style, the song unleashes some rock ‘n’ roll licks every so often and it reels with the optimism of the future.
That optimism, however, didn’t stretch to McCartney and Jane Asher’s relationship, about which the song was written: “As is one’s won’t in relationships,” Macca recalled in 1994, “You will from time to time argue or not see eye to eye on things, and a couple of the songs around this period were that kind of thing… I would write it out in a song and then I’ve got rid of the emotion. I don’t hold grudges so that gets rid of that little bit of emotional baggage… I think it’s my song totally. I don’t remember any of John’s assistance.”
The Beatles may have tried to move away from hitting the classic rock tropes of lost-love and blistering lust but that didn’t stop them from “writing about my dream girl— the one that hadn’t come yet,” said Lennon, the composer of ‘Girl’. Though thankfully finding her in Yoko, Lennon was clearly at a strange point in his life, desperately seeking some comfort.
The song is also notable as the group, a la The Beach Boys, also managed to sneak in some naughty lyrics to the recordings. “So we were looking around for another phrase— ‘dit dit dit dit,’ which we decided to change it in our waggishness to ‘tit tit tit tit.’ And it gave us a laugh,” McCartney said in 1994. “It was good to get some light relief in the middle of this real big career that we were forging. If we could put in something that was a little bit subversive then we would. George Martin would say, ‘Was that dit-dit or tit-tit you were singing?’ ‘Oh! dit-dit George, but it does sound a bit like that, doesn’t it?’ Then we’d get in the car and break down laughing.”
When a song includes Paul McCartney doing some fake French posturing then you know you’re in for a treat. What’s more, the song was inspired by the fantastic Nina Simone and her track ‘I Put A Spell On You’ and so is drenched in the smokey haze of the sixties jazz clubs.
“He and I were staying somewhere,” Lennon told Playboy in 1980, “And he walked in and hummed the first few bars, with the words, and he says, ‘Where do I go from here?’ I had been listening to Nina Simone. I think it was ‘I Put A Spell On You.’ There was a line in it that went, ‘I love you, I love you.’ That’s what made me think of the middle-eight for ‘Michelle.’ So, my contributions to Paul’s songs was always to add a little bluesy edge to them. Otherwise, ‘Michelle’ is a straight ballad, right?”
6. ‘Drive My Car’
Perhaps one of the most pop moments on the entire album somehow fits within the record as a reminder of the group’s trajectory to the top. The opening song of the LP welcomes The Beatles’ fans in with open arms and a familiar pep but, soon enough, the songs on the album begin to swirl and morph into a brand new sound.
That doesn’t mean ‘Drive My Car’ is any less pleasurable though. In fact, it lands rather nicely in comparison to the LP’s otherwise more intense construction — ‘Drive My Car’ acts as the perfect sweet refrain. The song’s content may seem an easy jump for the rockers to make, after all, bands had been singing about their cars for quite some time, but this one nearly became something entirely different: “I came in and I said, ‘These aren’t good lyrics but it’s a good tune.’ Well, we tried, and John couldn’t think of anything, and we tried, and eventually, it was, ‘Oh let’s leave it, let’s get off this one.’ ‘No, no. We can do it, we can do it.’ So we had a break… then we came back to it, and somehow it became ‘drive-my-car’ instead of ‘gol-den-rings,’ and then it was wonderful— because this nice tongue-in-cheek idea came.”
5. ‘If I Needed Someone’
Often described as The Beatles “pot album”, this George Harrison track, in particular, was drenched in the hazy style of The Byrds.
Written with a 12-string Rickenbacker, ‘If I Needed Someone’ was penned for primarily for Pattie Boyd, Harrison’s then-girlfriend whom he married soon after its release, and also played into his other love — Indian classical music.
The track possesses a wealth of songwriting gold and is often suggested to have multiple meanings, one in particular points to Harrison as the first pop star to write a song about the jaded lifestyle of groupies and free living. Naturally, he was rather dismissive of the song: “‘If I Needed Someone’ is like a million other songs written around a D chord. If you move your finger about you get various little melodies. That guitar line, or variations on it, is found in many a song, and it amazes me that people still find new permutations of the same notes.”
4. ‘In My Life’
If there is one song that signifies John Lennon’s jump into a brand new style of songwriting then it is the brilliant ‘In My Life’. Lennon claimed it was the first song he wrote “consciously” about his own life, telling Sheff in 1980: “Before, we were just writing songs a la Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly— pop songs with no more thought to them than that. The words were almost irrelevant.”
Having struggled with the lyrics, first using a bus trip he had frequently mad in Liverpool as the base of the song the track eventually arrived at him: “But then I laid back and these lyrics started coming to me about the places I remember.” While Lennon has always claimed the track as his own entirely, bar a middle eight, McCartney thinks differently.
“I think I wrote the tune to that; that’s the one we slightly dispute,” McCartney told a reporter in 1994. “John either forgot or didn’t think I wrote the tune. I remember he had the words, like a poem… sort of about-faces he remembered. I recall going off for half an hour and sitting with a Mellotron he had, writing the tune… which was Miracles inspired, as I remember. In fact, a lot of stuff was then.”
3. ‘Think For Yourself’
It took a little while for the spiritual and sublime songwriting talent of George Harrison to emerge from The Beatles. Harrison, often dubbed the ‘Quiet Beatle’, was being rather more contemplative than subdued as he soon delivered a plethora of songs, both with and without The Beatles, that would concern the spiritual balance of the modern world. One of his first songs for the band was similarly steeped in the subtleties of spirituality and turned pop music on its head upon its release.
It’s not one of Harrison’s most famous Beatles song, in fact, it may be his least famous. But ‘Think For Yourself’ is quite possibly the archetypal tune for the composer, not only delivering a thought-provoking piece of pop but adding a touch of sourness to proceedings too. “‘Think For Yourself’ must be written about somebody from the sound of it,” hazily recalled Harrison in his autobiography I, Me, Mine, “But all this time later I don’t quite recall who inspired that tune. Probably the government.”
It would be a strange case if the government did inspire the song as it is largely considered one of the first true break-up songs, meaning that it’s not a love song for heartbroken teens but written about a pure moment of heartbreak. Lyrically, the song is loaded with more negative words than The Beatles were used to with “misery,” “lies,” and “ruins” all being featured in the lyrics. While it may seem a little trite in 2020, rest assured it was akin to a revolutionary idea in 1965.
2. ‘Nowhere Man’
The group, especially John Lennon and Paul McCartney, were keen to take their music away from the pop charts and radio-friendly hits about ‘boy meets girl’. It was songs like Lennon’s ‘Nowhere Man’, that they proved it.
Instead of pop songs, they reflected on their own journey and ‘Nowhere Man’ may well be the archetypal song for the album. A signature tune which suggested that they knew the path laid out ahead of them, the band were destined to expand the idea of pop music beyond all recognition.
The track, ‘Nowhere Man’, was written by Lennon and birthed out of frustration: “I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down,” Lennon once said in an interview with Playboy. The track then ‘possessed’ him: “Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music… the whole damn thing, as I lay down. So letting it go is what the whole game is. You put your finger on it, it slips away, right? You know, you turn the lights on and the cockroaches run away. You can never grasp them.”
1. ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird has Flown)’
This Rubber Soul track is often considered Lennon’s first real acid-rock tune but the truth is a little way off. Instead, this track is the first time he establishes that sound as part of his own musical vocabulary. Of course, he needed help for the sitar part on the song, luckily he had Harrison on hand.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1971, John Lennon explained why it was decided to use the sitar on this song. He recalled: “I think it was at the studio. George had just got the sitar and I said ‘Could you play this piece?’ We went through many different sort of versions of the song, it was never right and I was getting very angry about it, it wasn’t coming out like I said. They said, ‘Well, just do it how you want to do it’ and I said, ‘Well I just want to do it like this.’”
Adding: “He was not sure whether he could play it yet because he hadn’t done much on the sitar but he was willing to have a go, as is his won’t, and he learned the bit and dubbed it on after. I think we did it in sections.” But the real story behind the song is one a little more scandalous. He disclosed: “I was trying to write about an affair without letting my wife know I was having one. I was sort of writing from my experiences – girl’s flats, things like that. I was very careful and paranoid because I didn’t want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household.”
Lennon then honestly stated: “I’d always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair, but in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn’t tell. But I can’t remember any specific woman it had to do with.”