Happy 50th Anniversary, Rubber Soul!

Today is Britney Spears’ 34th birthday, and while it’s fun to speculate what might be going through her mind now that she’s a year from aging out of the 18-35 demo, it’s also the day of another memorable rock milestone.

Today is the 50th anniversary of Rubber Soul, the Beatles sixth album. A very unscientific poll conducted over the course of many years has revealed that most Beatles fans under 40 rate Revolver as their favorite album. There’s a strong case to be made that it bridges the early and late periods, and I love it dearly. (“Tomorrow Never Knows” is particularly mind-blowing.)

But Rubber Soul, released eight months earlier, is arguably the most Beatle-y record. It shows the four at the peak of their powers as a rock quartet, before the studio experimentations or the splintering of their camaraderie, and without any cover songs to pad things out. (Brian Epstein was still alive, and nobody had compared himself to Jesus yet.) Rubber Soul emerged just as Beatlemania was cresting, and its lyrical maturity proved that the Fab Four were more than a fad. Lazy tabloid journalists would continue to use “(Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!)” as the sub-headline for virtually any story about the various Beatles’ public lives, but tracks like “Norwegian Wood” show the band had graduated far beyond simple tunes like 1963’s “She Loves You.”

The highlights are many. “Norwegian Wood,” a story about a botched one-night stand, was comparatively adult subject material, and it marked the first use of the sitar in the pop canon. “Nowhere Man” has the finest three-part harmony in the band’s oeuvre apart from “Because,” off Abbey Road (which is really a nine-part harmony, since John, Paul, and George triple-tracked their vocals). Its structure is unusual, too: A guitar solo follows “Nowhere Man”’s first verse, with two more to come. In spite of a censorious BBC, the band got away with repeating “tit-tit-tit-tit-tit-tit…” as the background vocals to the ennui-laden “Girl.” And George Harrison was only 22 when it came out! 

Recorded in less than a month and rushed out for the holiday sales bonanza, Rubber Soul came only a few months after Help!. (To get really into the weeds for a second, I’m speaking about the British version of the LP. The U.S. version was two tracks shorter, because the American label was sucking songs off every Beatles record until it had enough to form a stand-alone release. That would be 1966’s Yesterday and Today, which caused a huge uproar over the amazing “meat and doll-heads” cover.)

But the recording process wasn’t the only thing brief about Rubber Soul. People talk about how every Ramones song was short, but apart from the three-minute-and-one-second “You Won’t See Me,” nothing on the album is longer than 2:47. That’s impressive.

If there’s one thing that’s inexplicably awful about Rubber Soul, it’s the cover art. Shot with an ugly fisheye lens and some bluish lighting on the four mop-tops, it shows George looking gaunt to the point of ill health. But the worst are John’s eyes, which are facing different directions, giving him a smug, sinister cast. It’s also, arguably, a Lennon-heavy album. Apart from the jangly opener “Drive My Car” and the lovely “Michelle,” all the best songs are his: “Norwegian Wood,” “Nowhere Man,” “Girl,” “In My Life,” and “Run for Your Life.” George Harrison, as ever the dark horse and borderline object of pity, wrote two middling songs, “Think for Yourself” and “If I Needed Someone” (a personal best for him). And Ringo, as per his contract, got handed one to sing: “What Goes On.”

Yet it doesn’t feel like four individuals tugging each other in four directions, like the White Album would only three years later as the slow-motion divorce gained steam. In late 1965, the whole was still greater than the sum of the parts.

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