When Beatlemania hit America in 1964, there was a virtual pop culture explosion that saw The Beatles touring the country multiple times between then and August of 1966 (including the first stadium tour ever—they sold out Shea Stadium in 1965); making two motion pictures in the form of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!; and, of course, there was the music.
In just a couple of years it was obvious that as songwriters and performers, The Beatles were pretty unmatched in their musical prowess or their obvious growth. To explore this, FHM met with a group of Beatles experts to discuss the two albums that preceded but evolved directly into Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
FHM: What would you say was different about Rubber Soul compared to what had come before?
Bruce Spizer (Author, The Beatles And Sgt. Pepper: A Fans’ Perspective): “Rubber Soul was probably the first time that The Beatles were consciously doing an album as a cohesive unit of songs as opposed to just a random collection of songs. If you look at The Beatles hit collection album covering the years 1962 through 1966, you find that eight of those 16 songs are included. That gives you an idea of the quality of the material that they did for Rubber Soul.”
Bill King (Editor, Beatlefan): “What leaps out at me is that it was the album where you’d notice the major advance in the songwriting. It was also a very diverse album musically; their most diverse up to that point. It’s got R&B and pop and soul, and folk and country. Even a little hint of psychedelic.”
Ken Michaels (Host, syndicated Beatles radio show, Every Little Thing): “Rubber Soul had a lot more acoustic elements to it, a more folk sound. That could have been reflected by what was going on at the time in 1965. The Beatles not only influenced other people, but they were also influenced by what was going on all around them.”
Scott Mantz (Critic, Access Hollywood): “Rubber Soul was where they were really spending more time in the studio; they were putting more thought into the songs, they were more intense with the songs. It was the lyrics and the harmonies that really brought The Beatles to the fore.”
FHM: Let’s talk about the music itself. What are the particular strengths of Rubber Soul, musically speaking?
Allan Kozinn (Journalist, Music Critic, Teacher): "While it’s not quite soul, ‘Drive My Car’ is a white band trying to do soul music. Then you go into ‘Norwegian Wood’ and you’ve got the sitar for the first time; you have more autobiographical writing by John, which was not totally new to Rubber Soul, but he’s describing an affair. Then there’s the song ‘You Won’t See Me’—already in these first three songs you’ve got three kinds of songs. You’ve got very acoustic, semi-bluesy, much more electric songs. ‘Nowhere Man’ you’ve got not only an autobiographical, dark side of John, but on the track itself you’ve got those gorgeous opening harmonies.”
Scott Mantz: “When Rubber Soul first came out, the reviews were not raves, because people thought it was a downbeat album. But what The Beatles were doing was growing. The lyrics were deeper and the instrumentation simpler, because they still were able to perform all those songs on stage.”
Steve Maranucci (Writer for Billboard and axs): “The stand-outs for me were ‘Norwegian Wood,’ the lyrics of which always took me in, though I don’t know why; ‘Michelle,’ partially because I had taken French in grammar school, though I don’t know a word of it now; and ‘Girl,’ and not because of the chorus, which I never really paid attention to back when I was a kid. I actually liked the way they sang, but what they were saying in the chorus…well, I didn’t know they were singing ‘tit-tit-tit-tit.’”
Bill King: “Lyrically, ‘Norwegian Wood’ is a very sophisticated song. ‘In My Life’ is considered one of the finest songs they did. I know ‘Imagine’ is the song trotted out in reference to John, but ‘In My Life’ is really a superb song. ‘Michelle’ is a McCartney classic. They were really hitting a groove by then.”
Al Sussman (Executive Editor, Beatlefan; Author, Changin’ Times: 101 Days That Shaped a Generation): “I’ve always said that Rubber Soul is my favorite Beatles album. Of course, then ten minutes later I’d say, ‘Why did I say that? It should be the White Album. Or it should be Abbey Road.’ Overall, though, I think I would still favor it just from a musical pleasure point of view.”
Allan Kozinn: “Every one of these songs is about love from a completely different perspective. Go through this track-by-track and you can see the sheer diversity of love songs. ‘Drive My Car’ is a weird, almost absurd relationship. ‘Norwegian Wood’ is an affair, a little clandestine. ‘The Word’ is love; love is a concept. Love is all you need. ‘In My Life’ is more love for the things and people you knew and the places you knew rather than romantic love. Then you get down to the very end, ‘Run For Your Life,’ which is the darker side with love serving as the backdrop for extreme jealousy.”
Since its release in 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been deemed the crowning achievement of The Beatles musically. In recent years, though, many critics and fans have expressed the sentiment that they feel Revolver may be the group’s best effort. Our roundtable of Beatles experts offer their thoughts on this topic.
Allan Kozinn: “The feel of Rubber Soul is more acoustic dominated, whereas Revolver is not only more electric, but you have electronic effects and backwards tapes and tape loops and all of these new things coming in that they have never done before. So I see a huge leap between Rubber Soul and Revolver, and I see Revolver and Sgt. Pepper as being Part 1 and Part 2. Those two have a lot more in common.”
Scott Mantz: “What I’ve always found funny is that you can actually compare Revolver to The White Album, and you find that both of them are all over the place musically, but there is a unity that defines Revolver, because they were working together as a band. Unlike The White Album—at that point they were not a band. It was chaos, but it was also that chaos of 1968 that makes The White Album such an interesting album to listen to. But it’s not Revolver.”
Bruce Spizer: “I think Revolver is their best album. I wouldn’t call it my favorite Beatles album or their most important. I certainly think Sgt. Pepper is their most important album, but from a pure song-by-song and cohesive listening experience basis, I would put Revolver as their masterpiece.”
Al Sussman: “Revolver may very well be their best album, but Sgt. Pepper’s changed the thinking of the music industry from being strictly a singles-oriented or singles-controlled industry into one that was beginning to become an album-controlled industry.”
Steve Maranucci: “I agree that Revolver is a great album, and I certainly recognize that it was definitely a mark of progression for The Beatles, but I really can’t get past the fact that Sgt. Pepper was the real pinnacle as far as that goes.”
Bill King: “A lot of people at the time didn’t really give that album the attention it deserved. It’s in later years when people have gone back and reappraised The Beatles’ career that that album jumped out at them and they say it’s The Beatles at their best. It’s all over the place, and yet it feels like a cohesive album.”
Ken Michaels: “If you grew up in America and you were used to the American albums as they were released, you heard the American Revolver album. It had 11 tracks as opposed to 14. There were three Lennon songs left off of there and it made a huge difference when the CDs came out in 1987. Suddenly you could see that The Beatles had really expanded in terms of being so musically eclectic. Because of their success, more than anybody else they were allowed to experiment and try different styles of music.”
Bill King: “Musically it’s so diverse and they were really experimenting by that point and starting to use the studio as an instrument. It’s got classical instruments, it’s got John Lennon first really beating the ways into psychedelia and it’s got Motown horns. Also, up to that point, John Lennon was — musically and in their personal dealings—the leader of the band. At the very least McCartney and Lennon were pretty equal, but with Revolver McCartney was surging while Lennon was starting to step back a little bit. It was McCartney that was sort of pushing them forward, saying, ‘Let’s do this, and let’s try that.’”
Allan Kozinn: “With ‘I’m Only Sleeping,’ we’re getting into John’s stream of consciousness kind of writing, and in the same song you have the incredible guitar solo by George, part of which is backwards. Actually, a lot of it is backwards. Basically he figured out what solo he wanted to play forwards, wrote it down and recorded it with the tape going backwards. What we’re talking about is using backwards recording as a compositional element, which was totally new to Revolver.”
Scott Mantz: “The amazing thing about 1966 is that you had two different versions of The Beatles. You had the version that was touring, and the version that was touring was very much sick of touring, because the venues got bigger, the screaming got louder and they could not hear themselves. They couldn’t anyway in ’63 through ’65, but when you watch those performances, you can tell that they were enjoying themselves. By 1966, they weren’t. The studio became a sanctuary for them.”
Look for Part 4 of The Road to Sgt. Pepper on Monday May 8th.
MORE: 'The Beatles' Road To Sgt Pepper: John Lennon Meets Paul McCartney'