The Beatles Mono Reviews 7: Rubber Soul

An edited version of this essay is now included in my book The Beatles In Mono. Hardback paperback

Cover of Rubber Soul by The BeatlesRubber Soul, the Beatles’ second album of 1965, is generally considered the first album of their middle, most creative period. Only the second album they made to consist entirely of originals, it saw the band’s influences opening up – to include Stax, Indian music and the Byrds – and saw the band’s lyrical style change dramatically, many of the songs being comic short stories.

It also saw one of the stranger stereo mixes in the band’s history, with almost every song being mixed with the rhythm track in the left channel and the vocals and instrumental overdubs in the right channel. This makes the 60s stereo mix fantastic for isolating different instrumental parts, but absolutely horrible for listening on any system with any kind of separation.

Drive My Car, the opening track, is very obviously influenced by Stax, and one of the band’s first truly funny songs. Originally, the chorus was to have been “You can buy me diamond rings”, but Lennon decided this was horrible, and he and McCartney rewrote this into a story about the nature of fame which seems more, rather than less, pointed as time goes on and ‘celebrity’ becomes more divorced from ‘ability to do anything’.
This is very much McCartney’s track – with almost no guitar and what little there is sounding more like McCartney than Harrison or Lennon, and with McCartney adding piano, I think the only other Beatle to play on this one is Starr on drums and percussion, though Lennon adds some harmonies and takes the line ‘and maybe I’ll love you’. But it’s one of the band’s most powerful tracks, even though its most notable features (the dropped-in piano and the spiky guitar solo) were done better elsewhere (the piano on What You’re Doing, the solo on Taxman. This is mostly because of the astonishing bass sound, easily the most prominent and interesting bass-line on any British recording up to that point, along with McCartney’s double-tracked vocals in two distinct voices.

McCartney and Starr were also at the height of their powers as a rhythm section at this point – incorporating elements from the Funk Brothers (the Four Tops’ first couple of hits had been that year, and these were the records that really established the Funk Brothers as the innovative musicians they were – they definitely influenced the Beatles around this time, with Lennon singing a snatch of It’s The Same Old Song on the band’s 1965 Xmas record), the MGs (especially the slight behind-the-beat sound caused by the MGs having to play in a studio with a huge natural reverb) and the Carol Kaye/Hal Blaine team into their own sound. While their natural tightness together began to decline after the band stopped playing live, from 1965 through 1967 there wasn’t a better rhythm section in Britain than McCartney and Starr.

The version on this CD sounds far, far punchier and more dynamic than any release of the track I’d heard before.

mono/stereo differences Rather pleasingly, while the stereo version is panned absolutely insanely (though to be fair, Martin was trying to mix the stereo version so it would be listenable on mono equipment) it manages to capture the bass as well as the mono – were one to put this through a single speaker, it would sound almost indistinguishable from the mono version. However, the stereo mix being so widely panned does mean that it’s easier to hear the annoying ducking in the mix of the piano, as well as being able to hear (especially in the last verse) leakage on the right channel of a lead guitar part that never made it into the finished version (possibly one of the earlier examples of McCartney wiping a Harrison part after the fact – one of the things that later led to the band’s breakup?). Also the stereo mix fades a second earlier.

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) is primarily Lennon’s song, though McCartney apparently suggested the punchline at the end (where the narrator burns down the flat of the girl after she won’t sleep . Very obviously written in the style of Dylan, it may actually have been ripped off from him – Dylan once claimed to have played Fourth Time Around, which many took as being a parody of this song, to Lennon before this was recorded.

However, the main musical element it added to the Beatles’ sound is the sound of the sitar – double-tracked on here by George Harrison – which had been inspired by the Indian musical scenes in the band’s film Help! (though it’s likely they were also thinking of the Kinks’ Indian-influenced See My Friends, a hit in the summer. As the song barely leaves its home chord of E, and its mixolydian melody features many of the same intervals as the Indian pentatonic scale, it seemed a natural choice for the song.

This is one of Lennon’s best works, knowing and funny, an oblique confession to his wife of an affair, turned by McCartney into a comic short story, much as Lennon had done to McCartney’s previous track.

The new mastering is absolutely stunning, allowing me to hear tiny things like a cough after ‘told me to sit anywhere’ that I’d never heard in nearly thirty years of loving this track.

mono/stereo differencesApart from again being terribly panned, the main difference is that the stereo mix has more reverb on Lennon’s vocal. It also runs a second shorter, and I suspect that though the time includes a few seconds between-tracks gap, the tape ran fractionally faster. I don’t have very good pitch, so this might just be me ‘reading in’, but it sounds like the stereo mix is ever so slightly higher in pitch.

You Won’t See Me is one of McCartney’s songs about his fraught relationship with Jane Asher. Overlong and repetitive at a frankly excessive 3:30, it could easily have stood to have a minute or more trimmed from its running time, and it just plods. While even the worst mid-sixties Beatles track has its redeeming features, and this is never less than competent, it’s unremarkable filler which none of the band seem especially interested in. The handclaps on the fade aren’t fooling anyone

mono/stereo differencesIn the stereo version the background vocals are slightly higher in the mix, Mal Evans’ held single organ note is much more noticeable, and it fades two seconds earlier. So far the main difference between the mono and stereo mixes has just been the atrocious panning – heard through a single system the mono and stereo mixes are very close in feel, unlike with Help!. The most noticeable thing about both is how improved they are by the new mastering.

Nowhere Man is the first sign of the band being influenced by the Byrds – notable in that this is the first time they’re showing the influence of someone they have themselves influenced. It sounds very much like the Beatles saying to the Byrds ‘this is how it’s done’ – the layers of double-tracked three-part harmony, the ringing twelve-string guitar, these are all Byrds techniques, but the Byrds – aside from never writing a song as good as this – never had a bass part as interesting as McCartney’s and never paid enough attention to their production to have tiny touches like the pinched harmonic at the end of the guitar solo or Ringo’s little rolls into the middle eights and out of the guitar solo.

This is how one might imagine the Byrds sounding had their early records not been produced by incompetent buffoon Terry Melcher, and had they been as good as their reputation suggested. It’s the Platonic Ideal of a Byrds record.

The song itself was one of those that Lennon wrote in a trance state (much like Across The Universe and In My Life after giving up on trying to get anything done that day. He later claimed it was a comment on his own state at the time – he was in his ‘fat Elvis’ period, overweight and dissatisfied with his suburban existence.

Unfortunately the song is sabotaged on Rubber Soul by being placed directly after You Won’t See Me – in the worst bit of sequencing on any Beatles album, both have exactly the same backing vocal part and some slight melodic similarities, and after listening to three and a half minutes of the McCartney song, Nowhere Man seems tiresome. Out of context, however, it’s a gorgeous track, one of the band’s best of the period.

mono/stereo differences And suddenly we’re back to the old ways of the stereo mix having no bass end whatsoever and a ton of reverb. This sounds like the Byrds’ early records *actually* sounded rather than how they *should* have sounded…

Think For Yourself is another milestone, being George’s first “I know better than you, and you sheep should all think for yourself like I’m telling you to” song. That being said, it’s an astonishing record as a record, again largely down to the rhythm section – Rubber Soul is the first album where the band really understand the possibilities of overdubbing, and here we have two bass parts – a straight one and a fuzz bass presumably inspired by the Stones’ Satisfaction. Likewise as well as his normal drum part, Starr contributes several layers of percussion which give the track a much-needed urgency.

The whole production is incredibly clever – it’s almost impossible to hear the electric piano part in the finished mix, for example, but its presence (like the similarly almost-inaudible rhythm guitar) pushes the track forward. A rather poor song, but a great record.

mono/stereo differences The stereo version is bass-light, much like the previous track, and thus loses a lot of its power. However, the nature of the mix in this case makes it interesting. Harrison’s vocal is double-tracked, and panned one track in each speaker. This means that one can listen to just the left channel and hear the song as it would have sounded two years earlier – non-fuzz bass, basic drum kit, rhythm guitar and vocals.

Listen to just the right channel however and you have an entirely different mix of the track – tons of interesting hand-held percussion, electric piano, interesting harmonies and fuzz bass, with none of the standard ‘rock band’ elements. Either channel actually sounds like a reasonable mix on its own, had you never heard the combination, and comparing the two allows you to see how far the band had come in its use of the studio over the previous couple of years.

The Word, yet another R&B groover based around a piano part, is generally noted for being the first Beatles song about ‘the power of love’, a la All You Need Is Love, but it’s very different in feel from the later song. Other than the four bar verses (which provide a certain amount of key ambiguity, hinting at a key change to C from the D the majority of the song is in), the song is just a twelve-bar blues in D. In fact it’s very tempting to see this as a reworking of the ‘Twelve Bar Original‘ instrumental they recorded a week earlier in the style of Booker T and The MGs, right down to both featuring harmonium.

But of course this is a much cleverer track, again more because of the arrangement than anything else. McCartney once again plays two basslines – a riffy one and a simpler, sparser line accenting certain notes. Meanwhile the harmonium ‘solo’ by Martin consists of essentially one chord – hinting back at the almost monotone vocal melody (the band, especially Lennon, were becoming obsessed with drones at this point). And once again we have an astonishing performance by Starr, with layer upon layer of hand percussion and inventive drum fills.

I also love the Scouseness of the vocals on here, given the American idiom they’re playing in – “It’s the weeeeeeeeeerd, luv”

mono/stereo differences Once again, they seem to have decided that reverb is better than any bass, any day.

Michelle is another Paul-and-Ringo-only track (though with at least John in the backing vocal stack), with McCartney on acoustic guitar, bass and bass solo (the ‘guitar solo’ is played on a capoed bass). While the verse is a McCartney composition, the words to the first verse are actually by Jan Vaughan (a French teacher and wife of the Quarrymen’s original bass player, Ivan Vaughan) as McCartney couldn’t speak French, while the middle eight is Lennon’s work (inspired by I Put A Spell On You). George Martin apparently wrote the instrumental melody, too.

Michelle is a pleasant enough melody, but really only works as the joke song it was clearly intended as, and it’s quite surprising it was taken seriously enough by anyone to have become the standard it did.

This song is one where the clarity of the new mastering is *almost* counterproductive. The song required a great deal of overdubbing and ‘bouncing down’, and is mostly on relatively quiet acoustic instruments, so at the beginning there’s a great deal of tape hiss audible. This is one of the few spots where I wish they’d used a tiny bit of noise reduction. However, that clarity also means that, again, tiny studio noises (the coughs at 0:03 and 0:04) which I’d never heard before are audible for the first time (they’re louder on the mono version than the stereo but present on both).

mono/stereo differences The backing vocals sound louder on the mono version, while the rhythm guitar is mixed *ludicrously* high compared to the bass melody in the closing seconds (about 2:20 onwards).

What Goes On is Ringo’s first songwriting credit, shared with Lennon & McCartney. A throwback to the country style of much of Help!, it’s a Ringo song and so no-one seems to have cared very much, if the sloppy guitar work and rudimentary drumming are anything to go by.

mono/stereo differences The guitars are seriously unbalanced in the stereo mix, removing the interplay between them, one of the few points of interest in the track. The backing vocals are also mixed lower, and as always someone seems to have forgotten that it’s possible to have a bass end to the track.

Girl is an astonishingly good track, mostly due to Lennon’s breathy, sardonic vocal. Probably influenced equally by Zorba The Greek (listen to the bouzouki-like guitar part in the last verse) and Michelle, the song is unique in the Beatles’ catalogue for its mittel-European sound, and is a far more nuanced look at the belle dame sans merci figure who haunts Lennon’s lyrics than he would usually manage.

Lennon’s lyrics around this time period – and especially this album – are at his most misogynistic, but here the woman’s bad characteristics (“she’s the kind of girl who puts you down when friends are there, you feel a fool”) are in her superiority to the narrator (who even the backing vocals call a tit, repeatedly) – Lennon’s authorial voice is admitting that his misogyny lies in his own inferiority complex, and his need to put women on a pedestal is what makes him angry when they come off it.

mono/stereo differences No significant differences, although Lennon’s voice sounds fuller in mono.

I’m Looking Through You is very much a call-back to the style of Help!, right down to the intro on acoustic guitar not being repeated anywhere else in the song. A fairly standard McCartney song – another one about how his relationship with Jane Asher was going (“I’m looking through you” and “you won’t see me”), this is a very, VERY odd production, very bottom-light, and it sounds, to be honest, like listening to a proper record through tin cans.

One other odd point about this track – and one I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere else, to the point where I’m questioning my own ears – is that it sounds to me clear as day like it’s Ringo, not John, singing the harmony. Yet *EVERYONE* credits John. Is this just me?

mono/stereo differences Both versions have the strange production sound, but the mono version has three or four more seconds of fade, including some nice guitar work.

In My Life is one of the most perfect songs ever written. Another one where the lyrics came to Lennon in a trance-like state while exhausted (this time after trying to write a song about his childhood, and a bus route he used to take regularly, naming both Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields), it’s one of only two Beatles songs where Lennon & McCartney disagreed significantly about the authorship of the song.

Lennon claimed he wrote the music, except for ‘the harmony and the middle eight’, which were McCartney’s work, while McCartney claimed he wrote all the music himself, inspired by the MIracles. Most people tend to take McCartney’s side in this, partly because there *is* a significant relationship to the Miracles (listen to those ‘li-i-i-ife’s – pure Smokey) and partly because there *is* no middle eight for McCartney to have written.

I tend towards Lennon’s side myself, just because it *sounds* to me like a Lennon melody – though really, truth be told, it sounds like an early Lennon/McCartney collaboration. The way the melody moves in two-bar call-and-response phrases, it sounds to me for all the world like McCartney (who sings the melody to Lennon’s harmony on the first and third phrases of the verse) came up with “there are places I remember” while Lennon (who had been far more influenced by the Miracles than McCartney in the past) came up with “all my life though some have changed”, and the same back and forth. The drum part, however, definitely sounds like McCartney’s idea…

However, since neither man claimed the writing went that way, one must assume it didn’t, and that one or other was misremembering. I would suspect, myself, that Lennon’s ‘middle eight’ was either the bridge or – more likely – that he misremembered George Martin’s piano solo (overdubbed later) as being McCartney’s work.

Speaking of which, that solo introduces another layer of influence – baroque music, and specifically Bach – that would remain throughout the rest of the Beatles’ career (see especially For No One and Penny Lane).

Whoever wrote the music though, this song, and performance, are among the band’s very best.

mono/stereo differences Not many, apart from the strange panning, but the piano solo sounds slightly lower in the mix.

Wait is filler. A Lennon/McCartney collaboration (Lennon taking the verse/chorus, with McCartney writing the middle eight), this was actually a leftover from Help! (with, I think, extra percussion added for Rubber Soul and sounds it – it’s most noticeable in the lead guitar, which has the volume pedal sound Harrison used on I Need You and Yes It Is but never returned to. The song actually sounds even earlier than that – thematically it’s closer to a lot of the songs on A Hard Day’s Night than to anything else.

mono/stereo differences The stereo version has the guitars and hand percussion mixed much higher and an almost inaudible bass, and as a result sounds much less coherent. Oddly, this actually gives the middle eight more momentum in the stereo version, as without the bass grounding it the track sounds like it’s building a lot more (though it builds to something of an anticlimax). But overall, the stereo mix is just sloppy.

If I Needed Someone is George’s second song on the album, and his first to really approach the quality of Lennon & McCartney’s work. An intriguing lyrical conceit (“*If* I needed someone to love, you’re the one that I’d be thinking of”) and a few interesting lines (“carve your number on my wall and maybe you will get a call from me”) show his growth as a lyricist, while musically this is the second Byrds-alike track on the album, and shows Harrison’s propensity to… borrow… from other musicians – the guitar part that the song is based on is a dead ringer for the Byrds’ The Bells Of Rhymney.

However, once again, the arrangement is far more inventive than the Byrds would have managed, though curiously reminiscent of some of the Byrds’ later work at one point. The almost-subliminal country style double-time picking under the guitar solo, which I never heard until this release, is completely out of keeping with the genre, but is exactly the kind of thing the Byrds started to do after Gram Parsons’ brief tenure in the band some years later.

Melodically, it shows the band’s increased interest in drones, something that probably originally came from Motown music (which, being primarily dance music, had a tendency to obsess on one chord and one riff), but which resonated with Lennon’s lazy melodic style, and which Harrison was going to use more as the influence of Indian classical music on him increased.

mono/stereo differences The stereo mix is bass-light and panned weirdly, as is par for the course, but no other major differences.

Run For Your Life is a very unpleasant song by Lennon, lyrically a bunch of misogynistic crap which he later profusely apologised for writing, saying it was his least favourite Beatles song. To be fair to him, it was written quickly, based off a line from Baby, Let’s Play House (“I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man”), and is presumably meant to be taken as being in character rather than an expression of Lennon’s true feelings. It’s also catchy as hell. That said, it leaves a very unpleasant taste in the mouth, particularly as it’s the closing song of the album.

mono/stereo differences Again, just bass-light and badly separated.

Overall, Rubber Soul is greater than the sum of its parts. While Lennon manages three of his very best songs and Harrison his first great one, there are a couple of embarrassing moments and McCartney’s standards have slipped dramatically since Help! (they get raised again on the next album). That Rubber Soul is rated so much more highly than Help! says more about the quality of the production on the album – which is exponentially better than that on the earlier record – than about the songs and performances. Rubber Soul is considered a classic for a reason, of course, and other than Run For Your Life there’s nothing actually bad on here, but I can’t help thinking that if it had never been released Help! would be seen in a rather better light.

Next – the Beatles’ masterpiece?

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23 Responses to The Beatles Mono Reviews 7: Rubber Soul

  1. Wesley says:

    I usually stop listening to Rubber Soul after “In My Life.” It’s always great when an album ends with its best song.

    After “In My Life,” “You Won’t See Me” and “I’m Looking Through You” are my two favorite songs on the album. I don’t find “You Won’t See Me” excessively long, but then I’m very used to the length of modern pop songs, which frequently run four or five minutes.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, In My Life should definitely be the closer – but you’re missing out on If I Needed Someone…

      And I have a real bee in my bonnet about repetition in music – if something doesn’t contain any new information, either musical or lyrical, it irritates the hell out of me. I can listen to songs that last for hours, so long as they’re constantly changing, but if something repeats the same verse/chorus more than once I start getting edgy. Two minutes is, for me, the optimum time for a verse/chorus/middle eight standard pop song.

      That said, while I sound dismissive of those two songs (and a couple of others) I hope I made clear that even what I consider moderately good for mid-period Beatles is still excellent by any other standards…

      • Wesley says:

        I’ve never liked “If I Needed Someone”–something about the melody gets on my nerves. It’s hard to pinpoint what it is because, although I’m pretty good at talking about books or movies, when it comes to music I don’t have enough of a critical vocabulary.

        I have some tolerance for longer songs because the pop music I like tends to have clever, interesting, non-repeating lyrics. There seems to have been a trend over the last decade or two towards songs that have just a few lines that repeat over and over. Those really do drive me batty. And then there are the covers of old-school two and a half minute songs that drag them out to modern length… there’s a cover version of “Suspicious Minds” out there that is my bete noir. (“Okay! You’re caught in a trap! I get it already!)

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Of course, even the original Elvis version of Suspicious Minds was thought too long by its producer, Fenton Can’trememberhislastnamebecauseits2AM. The extended ending was actually artificially extended by someone after the track was finished – they just dipped the volume then pasted in the same bit of track again, then did it again but with a mono mixdown so it’d sound a bit different. It’s the same bit of recording looped three times, and it drove the producer berserk.

  2. Yeah, the real shame about “Run For Your Life” is that it *is* so catchy. If it was the repellant lyric combined with so-so music, we could all ignore it, but I absolutely *love* the melody and the way the harmony works in the chorus. I just have to tell myself, “Do *not* absent-mindedly sing this to yourself in the grocery store.”

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah – it used to actually be one of my favourite songs, as a teenager, til I really listened to the words…

  3. TAD says:

    Here’s an excerpt from Ian MacDonald’s “Revolution in the Head” that you might finding interesting, as it relates to Drive My Car. He suggests that the recording is a 50/50 McCartney/Harrison arrangement:

    “Drive My Car” was taped in an unusually long evening session, The Beatles’ first to extend past midnight. McCartney came in with an arrangement in his mind but Harrison had been listening to Otis Redding’s “Respect” and, perceiving the family resemblance between the two numbers, suggested a similar riffing line doubled on bass and low guitar. Having taken much of the session to work it out, he and McCartney, together with Starr on drums, laid it down as the rhythm track, the rest, including the vocals, being overdubbed later.

  4. Mike says:

    I seem to remember reading, I believe it was in that big Playboy interview he did back in ’79 or ’80, Lennon saying that “Run For Your Life” was one of Harrison’s favorite Beatles songs.

    Personally, besides the catchy melody, the thing I like most about it is Lennon’s vocal, especially the bit where he puts the extra syllable on the word “end”: “…and that’s the end-duh, little girl.” Even so, that’s one tune I think it’s safe to say that we’re not going to ever hear a cover version of from anyone.

    • Wesley says:

      I’ve heard that there was a cover version by a female vocalist that switched the genders. Unfortunately I can’t recall where I read this. Google suggests that it was either the Cowboy Junkies, a band called the Nancy Sinatras, or the actual Nancy Sinatra.

  5. mk says:

    The would-be-goods (a great English indiepop band) covered run for your life recently.
    I really dig this song (not the lyrics, but, let’s be honnest, 90% of the Beatles’ lyrics were crap)

  6. Terry says:

    From the first time I heard this album in 1965 I thought “You won’t see me” the stand-out track. I love the harmony singing on the end of the middle eight, “I wouldn’t mind …”, even better than the other wonderful short middle section in the canon, that in “Baby’s in black” (Oh how long will it take…?). I’m not the only person to love “You won’t see me”: Brian Ferry recorded it on “These Foolish Things”.

  7. Tom Wotus says:

    Truly my favorite “PRE-SGT. PEPPER” album. It’s mature beyond their years. Right on the cusp betw. hand holding ,dance crap and psychedelia. Much to offer, artistically.

  8. Pingback: The Beach Boys On CD: Pet Sounds « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

  9. Mike Taylor says:

    So you never did get an answer on whether it was Ringo singing the harmony on I’m Looking Through You.

  10. Jake Gerber says:

    Where did you ever get the idea of the solo on Michelle being played on a capo bass ? It is George playing his Gretsch with the switch set to the bass position,making it sound more jazz influenced. In fact George Martin showed George the exact notes to play for the solo.
    I don’t know how ANYBODY could mistake a guitar for a bass ? This is what tone controls are for. Other issue. ALL FOUR BEATLES PLAYED ON THE SESSION.
    Paul and John on acoustics,George on electric and Ringo on rhythm. They also did the backup vocals.
    This was the first session Paul used a Rickenbacker bass on.
    The first pressings of Rubber Soul mono or stereo UK they did a terrible job at transferring to vinyl. It almost drops out I don’t know how many dB but the fidelity is terrible.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I believe that Ian McDonald’s book is where I got the information about it being a capo’d bass and possibly a completely solo recording. I can’t be certain because I wrote that piece five years ago…

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Interesting stuff. I re-read the Michelle entry in McDonald, and found no reference to the guitar solo being played on bass. Then I skimmed the relevant sections of Lewisohn, and again came up empty. There’s no mention of a bass solo in the Wikipedia entry, nor in Alan Pollack’s notes.

        And yet — when I listen to it, I am inclined to agree with you. The way the notes articulate together feels more like a bass than a guitar. I wonder where you got that idea?

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Coming back to this two more years later, I’m *absolutely* convinced I got it from Revolution In The Head. But I just checked my current copy and it’s not in there.
          The only conclusion I can come to is that it was one of several things that MacDonald stated as fact in the first edition (which I used to have but lent to someone in 2001 and haven’t seen since…) but which turned out to be wrong, so he took it out of the later editions. There were a number of things like that. Which means of course that it’s almost certainly wrong :-/

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