1965 was a monumental year for The Beatles and for music in general. Not only did they release their fifth album, Help!, in July, but they also completed a mammoth North American tour that August, which lead them to meet Bob Dylan and their longtime hero Elvis Presley. Not a bad effort for the ‘Fab Four’.
Not only was Help! a massive album featuring ‘Ticket To Ride’ and Paul McCartney’s iconic ode ‘Yesterday’, but the band were also about to start their most pioneering period. The follow up to Help!, Rubber Soul, was to kick off the latter – and most of significant – half of the Beatles’ career. The album’s composition was greatly inspired by the folk-rock of The Byrds and the American soul labels Motown and Stax. The Beatles were exposed to soul while on their American tour, and it had an indelible impact on them.
Furthermore, Rubber Soul demonstrated a turning point in the Beatles career as it was a reflection of their growing maturity as a band. In every sense of the word, they started to depart from their youthful, sugary earlier iteration. Lyrically, musically and artistically, Rubber Soul brought together new elements that culminated in the Beatles truly beginning to find themselves. They incorporated new instruments such as the sitar and harmonium, whilst Paul McCartney started to experiment with a new fuzzy bass tone. Additionally, the group played around with arrangements in an effort to gain a more expressive sound. Most critically, though, it marked the start of the band realising the potency of an album as a unified body of work, an ethos that they’d continue to develop on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper.
Another element that marks Rubber Soul out in the Beatles back catalogue is the way that the Liverpool quartet had started experimenting with drugs. Not only did the band become interested in psychedelic exploration and the effect it had on the recording studio around that time, but the band were also smoking boatloads of weed. Guitarist George Harrison once marked Rubber Soul out because they were “fully-fledged potheads”.
Again, this narcotic sentiment would be further explored on Revolver and its successors; it was the dawning of the psychedelic age after all.
Upon finishing this soulful foray into music’s vast possibilities in November 1965, the Beatles needed a suitable title. At this present juncture, owing to their newfound interest in the concept of an album as a piece of art, the band were keen on putting effort into naming it, looking for a title that aptly summed up its contents.
It would be Paul McCartney who devised the name for their “pot album”. However, he would get his inspiration from an unlikely source: Mick Jagger, the swaggering frontman of the Beatles perennial frenemies, The Rolling Stones. In the 2000 book, Anthology, McCartney recalled reading about an old American bluesman who had offered up an opinion on Jagger and The Stones’ appropriation of the blues.
McCartney explained: “I’d just read about an old bloke in the States who said, ‘Mick Jagger, man. Well, you know, they’re good, but it’s plastic soul.'” This was perfect. Changing plastic to rubber, they had a fitting title that doubled up as a pun. Using their native scouse wit, ‘Rubber Soul’ inferred the falseness behind popular music and the rubber-soled shoes that were ubiquitous at the time.
The inference didn’t end there, though. John Lennon also claimed that McCartney’s idea referred to the band’s take on the records of Motown and Stax, which he dubbed ‘English soul’. This was ideal as Harrison admitted that his classic riff on ‘Drive My Car’ had been inspired by soul legend Otis Redding’s 1965 single ‘Respect’.
Building on this soulful sentiment, in a 1966 press conference, drummer Ringo Starr claimed that they chose the title as a means of admitting their secondary status to the American soul artists. Starr claimed, “We are white and haven’t got what they’ve got”, and proceeded to add that this was true of all British acts who attempted soul music.
In his 2008 biography, John Lennon: The Life, Phillip Norman offered an interesting take on the title. He claimed that it acted as “a sly dig at their archrivals (and private best mates) the Rolling Stones” and the suggestion that the Beatles’ ‘rubber’ take on soul music was “stamped out by a good strong northern (English) Wellington boot”.
Duly, Rubber Soul is now legendary. The title, composition and album background all culminate in it being a significant moment in the Beatles’ career. With a title inspired by their cockney rivals, it marked the start of their star truly shooting into the stratosphere.
Listen to Rubber Soul, below.