The opening track from The Beatles’ 1965 album Rubber Soul is arguably one of the raunchiest in their catalogue. It came at a time when the group’s ambitions were beginning to shift away from the stadium-sized venues and towards the recording studio, away from empty-worded pop and towards songs with depth and meaning.
As Lennon once recalled: “Things were changing. The direction was moving away from the poppy stuff like ‘Thank You Girl’, ‘From Me To You’ and ‘She Loves You’. The early material was directly relating to our fans, saying, ‘Please buy this record,’ 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'”. I don’t know about deep, but this song is certainly entertaining.
This change in direction provoked The Beatles to look for inspiration from new sources. One important influence on Rubber Soul is Bob Dylan’s philosophical folk balladry, but Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr also looked to the world of soul and R&B in their quest for a new sound. In doing so, they stumbled across a young singer called Otis Redding who, by 1965, was one of the biggest names in the business, having just released his immensely successful studio album Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul. After years of struggle, the young star was finally being recognised for his talent. Indeed, the second song from the LP even caught the attention of George Harrison, who heard Redding’s ‘Respect’ just a few days before he went into the studio to record one of McCartney’s many contributions to Rubber Soul.
As Harrison recalled in a 1977 interview: “If Paul had written a song, he’d learn all the parts and then come in the studio and say ‘Do this.’ He’d never give you the opportunity to come out with something. But on ‘Drive My Car’ I just played the line, which is really like a lick off ‘Respect,’ you know, the Otis Redding version. And I played the line on the guitar and Paul laid that with me on the bass. We laid that track down like that. We played the lead part later on top of it.”
Otis Redding’s original version of ‘Respect’ was later covered by the great Aretha Franklin, and it has since been described as one of the greatest R&B songs of the era. The Beatles took the soul-infused vibrations of Redding’s original and placed them in a rock-band context, dialling down the horn sections for rich, multi-layered harmonies and jaunty-piano sections. However, the lyrics proved to be a point of tension for Lennon and McCartney. “This is one of the songs where John and I came nearest to having a dry session,” Paul began.
“The lyrics I brought in were something to do with golden rings, which are always fatal (to songwriting). ‘Rings’ is fatal anyway, ‘rings’ always rhymes with things and I knew it was a bad idea,” he added. “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.”
Tongue-in-cheek is certainly one word for it. Anyone who has listened to ‘Drive My Car’ knows that it is a thinly-veiled sexual innuendo. Thankfully it was this school-boy humour that eventually saved the song from falling by the wayside, as McCartney recalled: “‘Drive my car’ was an old blues euphemism for sex, so in the end all is revealed. Black humour crept in and saved the day. It wrote itself then. I find that very often, once you get the good idea, things write themselves.”