Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Rubber Soul (2)

I’m going to try to stop this post from being a rambling load of nostalgic nonsense, but I may not succeed.

I’ve already written about obscure favourite Beatles songs, and how far you have to dig into their back catalogue to find one if you want one. However, there’s one that’s not very famous which I do usually include in my top ten Beatles songs. If I’m honest, I don’t think it’s one of their ten best songs: it’s more of a ‘desert island Beatles’ playlist, and this song is in there because it’s the song which made me realise how good The Beatles were.

I think Rubber Soul was probably the third Beatles album I bought, after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and A Hard Day’s Night. I’ll talk about why Sgt Pepper is an unusual example of a best album by a big group when the time comes, but suffice to say it’s so celebrated as a whole that I wasn’t surprised to find some great tracks on it that I’d never heard before. The stand-out tracks on A Hard Day’s Night were ones I already knew. So I hadn’t been hugely surprised by The Beatles when I bought Rubber Soul.

The first two tracks I already knew about: I’m not sure how, radio, cultural osmosis, whatever, but ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’ were not surprises. The third track was. ‘You Won’t See Me’ isn’t rated by everybody (Ian Macdonald gives it a poor write-up in Revolution in the Head) but I thought it was great: a characteristically Beatles descending melody, a simple but well-constructed and melancholy lyric (‘Though the days are few / They’re filled with tears / And since I lost you / It feels like years’) and a lovely movement between its different sections. It’s also superbly sung, both by a double-tracked McCartney and a chiming-in Lennon and Harrison.

I was taken aback to realise that (a) this was a great song that most bands would kill for and (b) I’d never even heard it mentioned before. Because there are too many great Beatles songs for it to get noticed. It still doesn’t: it isn’t even on the ‘Red’ Best Of album, which has six sodding tracks from Rubber Soul on it (and only two from Revolver, a decision that can only have been taken by a maniac.) I mention it to people who know Rubber Soul and they usually comment on what a cracking song it is, but I’ve never seen it figure in It’s Your Very Best All-Time 50 Greatest Beatles Songs Of All Time polls. Instead people vote for hippy nonsense like ‘It’s All Too Much’, which I like but it is a right load of hippy nonsense. And to me that says so much about how brilliant The Beatles are: that they could be so heavily exposed and yet have great songs that I’d not only never heard, I’d never heard of them.

And as I said before, you have to go some distance to find a Beatles song to slide into your list of favourites which makes me think ‘Trying too hard a bit there, fella’. With many groups – even great ones – you have to make a pretty good case to convince me that such-and-such a track is better than the famous ones everyone knows. (I would come up with an example or two but I don’t want to have an argument about it in the comments.) But with The Beatles, the choice is so massive you do find yourself turning to less heralded songs. I can’t think of any artist with as many potential favourites in their back catalogue except perhaps David Bowie.

Every time I hear ‘You Won’t See Me’ I remember that, and that’s why I still love it. That and the fact that it is of course great. But you just watch, someone will turn up and leave a comment saying they think it’s a bit meh actually.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Rubber Soul (1)

The later Beatles have long been more fashionable than the early Beatles, and it’s between Help! and Rubber Soul that the dividing line is most often drawn. There are lots of reasons why this happens: Help! is a tie-in to a movie designed to exploit their popularity before it went on the wane, and very much a product of The Beatles’ ‘showbiz’ years, belonging to a different concept of their career. Rubber Soul, by contrast, sees the group abandoning cover versions once and for all and developing their subject matter beyond love songs for the first time. It also happens to be their best album up to that point, kicking off a run of five iconic studio albums, each quite different in character, each still influential in its own way. Ignoring the posthumous Let It Be (always an annoyance in the Beatles chronology), that’s five albums of ‘pop’ Beatles and five albums of what Lennon once referred to as ‘the clever Beatles’.

But even discounting the fact that this underrates both the importance and the quality of the Beatles’ early work, it is of course an arbitrary dividing line. How could it not be? The Beatles didn’t have a band meeting in the summer of 1965 where they decided that now would be the ideal time to get really good. It’s true that they were searching for a new direction before recording Rubber Soul, but rather than deciding to reinvent pop music (again), their big idea was comedy songs.

Interestingly, this approach did come up with two of the ‘newest’ sounding tracks on the album – ‘Girl’ and ‘Michelle’, tongue-in-cheek songs which adopt pastiche ‘German’ and ‘French’ styles respectively. At the time, unsure of just how to expand their sound beyond that of a beat group, this was the best they could do – alter the lyrical approach and let the sound follow – and they’re not actually that much of a departure than the downbeat calypso of ‘No Reply’. There’s nothing on the album which builds on the startling sound-world of ‘Ticket To Ride’ – the closest being the listlessly dragging (i.e.: stoned) ‘Nowhere Man’, with its idiosyncratically positioned middle eight. There’s also no repeat of the use of strings heard on ‘Yesterday’, with the group largely sticking to guitar/bass/drums and a bit of keyboard. The use of a sitar to jazz up ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’ marks that out as one of the more ‘progressive’ tracks, as does its brilliantly obscure lyric (another effort in the ‘comedy’ vein) – but it’s untypical of the album as a whole.

There is progression on Rubber Soul of course, but heard from the perspective of what The Beatles had done so far it sounds less like a new direction and more like the kind of album they’d been trying to make since Beatles For Sale. It’s the culmination of a process of refinement, and more than anything reflects the level of work which went into the album. Beatles For Sale and Help! were both made in about thirty hours of studio time, snatched between their numerous other engagements: for Rubber Soul they took about a hundred hours, with sessions extending past midnight for the first time during recording of ‘Drive My Car’. (History does not record just what Mrs Martin thought of this.) A song could easily take more than a full day in the studio to record.

Yet although the success rate is higher on Rubber Soul and fewer of the songs feel like lightweights, many tracks could be slipped into the line-up of Beatles For Sale or Help! without disconcerting the listener. Indeed, ‘Wait’ – a decent song, nicely melodramatic – was recorded for Help! and bafflingly omitted (difficult to see how they judged it inferior to ‘Tell Me What You See’, but there you have it). ‘You Won’t See Me’, although it points the way towards late-period Beatles by pushing piano into the foreground, could have been among the despondent Beatles For Sale numbers, as could ‘I’m Looking Through You’. The songs I consider to be the two duds – ‘What Goes On’ and ‘Run For Your Life’ – both have the country tinge of Beatles For Sale. Even ‘Drive My Car’, which has a swagger about it not seen since ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ gave way to the boys-next-door era, mixed easily with ‘What You’re Doing’ on the Love album.

Harrison clearly raises his songwriting game, and his two contributions are way better than anything he’d managed before. ‘Think For Yourself’ debuts that slightly hectoring, self-righteous tone which we’ve all come to know and love, thereby expanding the group’s range of subject matter even further. ‘If I Needed Someone’ enjoyed the distinction of being the first Harrison-penned track to make it into their live set since they signed to Parlophone.

However, I think there are two tracks which really show The Beatles moving on. ‘In My Life’ has PROPER SONG written through it like a stick of rock: even more than ‘Yesterday’, it feels like an attempt to compete with the kind of guys who wrote for Sinatra. What’s less commented on is that it’s the beginning of a new world of sonic trickery, because George Martin’s ‘harpsichord’ solo in the middle eight is actually an electric piano recorded at half-speed and then played back at normal speed. Within a year the group would be doing stuff like this as a matter of course. The other track which feels very new is the underrated ‘The Word’. One of the final tracks recorded, it has no real chorus and rides along on a groove in a way most Beatles songs don’t – a nicely-executed take on recent soul records, belatedly fulfilling the promise of the album’s title. This influence would have been more pronounced had the album also included ‘12-Bar Original’ (an ironic title, as it’s a clear knock-off of ‘Green Onions’ by Booker T. & The MG’s), but as the world discovered when the track was finally released on Anthology 2, they made a right hash of it. I was originally puzzled that the Anthology version is an edit rather than the full six minutes-plus – there’s room for the full version on the disc, why not just include the whole thing? Then I listened to it and realised I didn’t particularly want to hear another three minutes of that. But the longer one is on YouTube, so let’s have it to play out this post, as it was originally supposed to play out the album. Enjoy.