1965 marked a turning point for The Beatles. That year saw them release their sixth studio offering, an album that, looking back, seems to mark the beginning of the grand metamorphoses that turned The Beatles away from their early rhythm and blues incarnation and towards something far more explorative and mature. A quick look at the releases that fell either side of Rubber Soul and it’s clear that the LP marked a watershed moment in the way the Beatles approached their songwriting, switching from pop flattery to intellectual introspection in the time it took George Harrison to form a lush G7 chord.
Pre-Rubber Soul, you’re looking at tracks like ‘Hard Day’s Night, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ and ‘Please Please Me’. After the LP’s release, however, you’ve got everything from ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, and countless other mind-bending offerings. As a result of its liminal positioning, Rubber Soul is regarded by many as the spotty teenager of The Beatles’ output. This has often meant that it’s left on the sidelines, while albums like the bristling Revolver and its exuberant heir, Sgt. Pepper’s, are frequently celebrated for their conceptual cohesion. But, for me, Rubber Soul contains all of the stuff that made The Beatles great in near-perfect balance: humour, introspection, and good, honest songwriting.
By the time The Beatles took on Rubber Soul, they were on the hunt for a new sound, something to drag them away from the sickly-sweet love songs that had defined their early days. This eagerness to do away with their teeny-bopper status coincided with Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr’s increasing fascination with the music coming out of America, with Bob Dylan from the east and early jangle-psych groups like The Byrds in the west. As Paul McCartney recalled in Anthology: “Things were changing. The direction was moving away from the poppy stuff like ‘Thank You Girl’, ‘From Me To You’ and ‘She Loves You’.”
For Lennon and McCartney especially, Dylan’s ability to confront social issues whilst remaining universal marked him out as something of a modern prophet, a musician who was half messiah, half left-bank intellectual. Indeed, tracks like ‘Norweigian Wood’ were deliberate attempts to capture the singer-songwriter’s almost novelistic approach to lyric writing: “The early material was directly relating to our fans, saying, ‘Please buy this record,’” Paul continued, “But now we’d come to a point where we thought, ‘We’ve done that. Now we can branch out into songs that are more surreal, a little more entertaining.’ And other people were starting to arrive on the scene who were influential. Dylan was influencing us quite heavily at that point.”
Considering The Beatles output had been defined by inoffensive declarations of adolescent romance up until this point, The Beatles’ shift in gear was remarkably brave. In tracks like ‘In My Life’ for example, John Lennon didn’t even step near the universal subject of love, choosing to paint a nostalgic and highly-individualised portrait of his native Liverpool, a decision informed by a journalist friend, who suggested he “put something about your childhood into the songs?.” This set off a chain reaction that was subsequently adopted by Paul in tracks like ‘Penny Lane, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and Strawberry Fields’.
Despite the self-concerned subject matter of Rubber Soul, on release, the LP was a huge hit. While it had been a bit of a risk, The Beatles managed to blend their new songwriting innovations with tried and tested structural formulas plucked from both classical and modern pop music. In this way, Rubber Soul took on the quality of a Trojan Horse, its proto-psychedelic elements allowing it to sit well with teeny boppers on the cusp of the psychedelic age, and its hazier components expertly responding to the young public’s burgeoning desire for more expansive and experimental sounds in the world of pop.
Today, however, Rubber Soul is rarely treated with the same reverence of Revolver – primarily because we probably take The Beatles a little too seriously. It’s important to remember that when Rubber Soul came out, The Beatles were looking not only to develop their sound but to imbue it with a sense of fun. In a 1965 interview, for example, they revealed that writing “comedy songs” would be their new focus, something that comes out in Lennon and McCartney’s innuendo-laden ‘Drive My Car’, and which laid the foundations for both Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour. Of course, the beauty of Rubber Soul is that it balances the light-hearted and the pastiche with the intellectual and the poignant, allowing for a record that captures both the light and the dark of The Beatles.