In my opinion, Rubber Soul represents the exact moment in time when the Beatles were transitioning from their early day sound (like “A Hard Day’s Night”) to their studio masterpieces. However, this doesn’t mean Rubber Soul should be overlooked. In fact, if the band never made a record after Rubber Soul, they’d still be going to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Kind of like Michael Jordan coming out of retirement the first time to win his 2nd three-peat. Just because their next two albums are widely considered two of the best albums ever made doesn’t diminish the brilliance of Rubber Soul one bit. I mean, look at the song list. (I’ll wait for you to Google it.) I know, right! There’s not a stinker in the whole bunch. And that’s in part what makes Rubber Soul so special is that for the first time in rock history, a band set out to create a work of art from start to finish. Back then, the point of the album was to drive singles sales, so the majority of the albums back then contained a few really good singles, a couple of cover tunes, and some filler. Other than a British version of A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul was the first Beatles album to feature all original music. For example, The Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me, had 6 cover songs on it, constituting about 43% of the tracks. I don’t have a problem with cover songs, when I was in a college band it was the majority of what we played as well. But to create something completely new I think is much more artistic than a remake. It’s a big reason why we’re always experimenting with new beers here at the brewery rather than rebrewing some of our old favorites.
But it’s not just the fact that all the songs are original that makes Rubber Soul great, it’s that every one is solid from start to finish. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was so impressed with the album, that he set out to create the greatest album ever created, which became Pet Sounds. If you’ve never listened to Pet Sounds, I highly recommend you do. If you want extra credit, listen to it after Rubber Soul and you can hear the influence. As we get into the tracks, we’ll be focusing on the British release and not the American release, which had 4 songs removed and another track added by the record company. I’m actually more familiar with the American release since I have it on vinyl, but since the British release was what the band had originally intended, we’ll go off of that.
“Drive My Car” gets the album started and is classic McCartney. It’s lively and fun, with a little more than a touch of innuendo. The chorus has a lot of blues influence in it, and reminds me a bit of their earlier works, with a little more edge to it. The next song, “Norwegian Wood”, is where the transition starts to become more visible. It is believed that “Norwegian Wood” is the first western pop song to contain the sitar, which later had a much larger influence on the band, especially Harrison. The lyrics are non-descript and quite Dylan-esque, which was a big step for the band. It is a little strange, Lennon meets a girl, goes home with her, she tells him it’s late and she has to work early, so he decides to sleep in the bathtub. In the morning, he wakes up, she is gone, and he lights a fire. According to McCartney, the fire actually meant burning her house down. Yeah, I was a little surprised when I read that as well. I guess he didn’t take too kindly to not getting to sleep in the bed. But with “Norwegian Wood”, the Beatles blended folk, eastern and Dylan into one of their most enduring songs, ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as the 12th best Beatles song of all time.
“You Won’t See Me” is a bit of a departure for Paul, who is normally known to write happy go lucky love songs, and this one is about relationship troubles. Interestingly though, the medley is still very poppy and upbeat, which hides McCartney’s anguish a bit. But check out these lyrics, “Though the days are few they’re filled with tears/And since I lost you it feels like years/Yes it seems so long girl since you’ve been gone/I just can’t go on/If you won’t see me, you won’t see me.” At first glance it almost seems like something you’d write your high school girlfriend after she broke up with you, but this is Paul frigging McCartney here! His willingness to put heartbreak onto the album showed a tremendous amount of growth on his part. Next is “Nowhere Man”, a song John has admitted was autobiographical. Again, this shows a significant jump in their songwriting, as the song is introspective instead of about a girl. Running through the lyrics, you can see how Lennon’s mind was working at the time, with moments of self-doubt interrupted by instances of clarity, like when he reminds himself “the world is at your command.” “Nowhere Man” is also a great example of the band’s harmony work. In fact, the last verse of the song, “Making all his nowhere plans for nobody” is probably my favorite Beatles short harmony. (“Because” from Abbey Road is no doubt the best and most complex they got with their harmonies, and the acapella version of it is especially stunning)
Harrison gets his first song on the album with “Think for Yourself”, a cautionary tale about listening to other people’s lies. Again, the band showing growth in their songwriting. The distinct sound on the song is made from Paul playing the bass line through a distortion pedal. Between the pedal, the sitar, and the more personal lyrics, you can start to see that the Rubber Soul Beatles were really attempting to do something special.
The next song reminds me more of earlier Beatles works, as it deals primarily with love and is fairly simple in it’s composition. According to McCartney, “The Word” was the first song him and John wrote together after smoking marijuana, which they usually reserved for when they weren’t working. Fortunately, they got better at writing songs while under the influence as I think it’s one of my least favorite tunes on the album. The next song, “Michelle”, also sounds more like early Beatles, but shows more sophistication than “The Word” with a more complex harmony structure and musical composition. It also features some French lyrics, which I believe was a first for the band. It’s a beautiful number, and always reminds me of a family wedding where Michelle walked down the aisle to “Michelle”.
The second side starts with a country-western like number in “What Goes On”. It’s the first time Ringo got a songwriting credit, and is the only song on Rubber Soul where Ringo sings. I think it’s appropriately placed at the top of the second side as it certainly sounds more like earlier Beatles, and you can hear a lot of the band’s rockabilly influence in the song. Next is Lennon’s fantastic “Girl”. It starts off sounding like it’s going to be a love ballad, but instead it turns out to be a condemnation. It’s this surprise that I think makes the song so great. It also has a classical music melody going on that I think leads to the mythology to this “Girl”.
Paul must’ve had a rough couple of months when writing for Rubber Soul, as this is his second song on the album about relationship troubles and breaking up. It is similar to “You Won’t See Me” as it’s a breakup song lyrically over an upbeat and poppy composition. It’s almost like a perfect representative for the entire album, where it sounds like the old Beatles, but something is different. Or, shall I say, “You don’t look different but you have changed.” The band had always been superb at writing 2.5 minute pop songs, but now the content is more sophisticated and diverse.
My mom’s favorite Beatles song, “In My Life”, is next, and it further represents the growth the Beatles experienced during the writing and recording of Rubber Soul. According to several interviews, the song was the first time Lennon had written about his own life. There is still disagreement around who wrote what for the song, with Lennon and McCartney each taking credit for large pieces, but it is generally regarded as a John song. Lennon once said that everything he wrote before “In My Life” didn’t have much thought to it, and that there was a “real” John Lennon and a “songwriting” John Lennon that he kept seperate. “In My Life” reflects the first time he let the two intersect. The song does make a reference to the Beatles original bassist Stu Sutcliffe, with “some are dead and some are living.” Stu left the band in July of 1961 and died unexpectedly less than a year later due to an aneurysm. But the song isn’t dark, it’s a celebration of nostalgia and love for everyone who helped make you who you are. This is the song I danced with my mom to at my wedding, and because I know she’ll be reading this, “In my life….I love you more.” Hi Mom.
“Wait” comes next, and supposedly was written for the previous album, Help!, but was left out. When Rubber Soul was one song short, the decision was made to revive it. It definitely has more of a Help! sound on it, especially compared to McCartney’s other numbers on the album.
“If I Needed Someone” is Harrison’s second song on the album, and is the only original Harrison song the Beatles ever played live. Interestingly, it was also released as a single by The Hollies on the same day that Rubber Soul was released. It was somewhat common at the time for two artists to release the same song around the same time, like Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” that was also recorded by The Byrds.
The final song on Rubber Soul is Lennon’s least favorite Beatles song, despite it being his own. “Run For Your Life”, comparative to the other songs on the album, is primitive in it’s lyrics and composition. Unlike their next two albums, Rubber Soul does not end in spectacular fashion (I’m referring to “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Revolver and “A Day in the Life” on Sgt. Pepper). I actually think it unfortunately ends on a bit of a whimper. While I don’t think it’s the worst song by the Beatles, like Lennon did, I don’t think it’s a great song either. But even the Beatles can’t make every shot.
In order to showcase this album through beer, my main thought was to do an old/new collaboration. I wanted to take a traditional English style and Americanize it up a little bit, and also to use traditional and new-school ingredients in some way. It was decided that it would be an ESB, which stands for Extra Special Bitter. I deliberated for a bit about how I could call an ESB a traditional English ale when the style is relatively new, brewed by Fullers for the first time in 1971. Ultimately, I concluded that Fullers did what the Beatles had done years before, take something traditional, in Fullers’ case a strong bitter, and make it even bigger and more complex. The shoe fit.
To keep the traditional British malt flavors of biscuit, caramel, and nuts we used all English malt, with Maris Otter, two types of crystal and oats (four malts, the trend continues). We switched the hopping up a bit, adding much more to the whirlpool and dry hop than would be traditional in England. As far as kettle hops go, 63% of them went in the whirlpool, which is certainly not traditional. For hops, I kept the theme of 4 going and chose a variety of English hops. EKG is a very traditional English hop that has been around for a long time (and represents the past), Progress and Challenger were released in the 60’s and 70’s (which represent when the album was released), and Boadicea, which was released in 2004 (represents the Beatles’ future). All four of them were added to the dry hop. Overall, the hop cocktail lends traditional earthiness and floral notes that you’d expect out of an English ale, as well as some blueberry fruitiness on the back end with a touch of herbally spiciness. We fermented with an English blend that we’ve been using on some of our IPAs lately. Final stats are 6% ABV 50 IBU and 13 SRM.
I really enjoyed this ESB, which unfortunately is now all gone as of the release of this post. You don’t see too many ESB’s in the marketplace, so it’s always fun to have something unique and different. I also really enjoyed the play between the old and new, with the beer representing the transitional stage. Rubber Soul was and is an important part of musical history and paved the way for not only their own future success, but others as well. I hope you had a chance to drink this one while it lasted.