The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul”

The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" album cover

I dedicated this week to listening to The Beatles‘ sixth album “Rubber Soul” from 1965. Of course, I’m well aware of the Beatles. My tastes, especially since a teenager, was for their later work from 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper” on. I thought I wasn’t quite so familiar with “Rubber Soul,” but some of my favorites are on this album as well. With so many great songs, it’s difficult to choose only a few songs to focus on.

One of the most noticeable things about “Rubber Soul” on a whole is the hard-panning. During this period, albums often saw both a mono and a stereo release. The mono mix was given more care and attention, often bands like the Beatles were present and involved in the mono mix. The stereo mix was considered by some to be unnecessary, a slight variation of the mono, or worse, a gimmicky trend. 

I’ve seen two main reasons given for the Beatles stereo mixes using hard panning (each track (instrument) is completely in the left, right, or center.) Limitations of the studio equipment provided the first reason. Up until the late-60s, mixing consoles had a three-position switch for panning: Left-Center-Right, or LCR.

Another reason came from concern of playback equipment and what might happen if the stereo record was played on mono equipment. This second reason lead to the Center position being avoided. One “Rubber Soul” everything is either Left or Right. So, if the two channels were summed together as mono, the mix levels would be preserved.  That separation ccan sound nice in a room with wells-spaced speakers; However, it’s a very strange feeling in headphones to have the center be a void and everything is right in one ear or the other.

The album’s second track “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” is a slower folk-rock song in ¾ time with Indian influence. Not only incorporate influence from music of India, it was also the first rock song to feature an actual sitar rather than just imitating the sound with guitars. George Harrison had a genuine interest in Indian music and culture, which had an influence on much of his work.

Lennon’s lyrics about a less-than-satisfying love affair perhaps don’t reflect any sort of connection to the Indian flavor. Though there is a sense of exotic strangeness to the girl’s house, which can be like being a stranger in a foreign land. Apparently the last verse is about burning her house down, but it’s so vague it’s difficult to say. Though, knowing that Lennon has used the phrase “Norwegian wood” to refer to cheap wood paneling helps a little.

And when I awoke I was alone

This bird had flown

So I lit a fire

Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

The intro and verse probably have no real chord progression, but rather stay in the I chord continuously. At the very least a chord progression of I-v7-IV is implied by the melodic riffs. In this way, the accompaniment further imitates drones heard in Indian music. The sitar plays a riff in the left channel, which doubles the melodic portion of finger-picked acoustic guitar in the right channel. The same melody is almost completely followed by the vocal melody.

I have loved the Beatles “Nowhere Man” as long as I can remember, so definitely since I was a young child. It’s one of those songs that can be appreciated at any age. Gershon Kingsley recorded a great instrumental version of the song using Moog synthesizers that I have adored since first hearing it about 15 years ago. I love the sounds Kingsley has designed for the song, but I also really like the melody of this song. Again, the focus of most Beatles songs is the melody and the accompaniment supports that melody. 

The Beatles keep the instrumentation pretty simple on this track. In the left channel, we have drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitar. The acoustic guitar strums through a I-V-IV-I-ii-iv-I-I chord progression for the verses and iii-IV-iii-IV-iii-ii7-ii7-V7 for the chorus. I especially like that sound of the iii-IV-iii-IV part of the chorus. Still, though this is not a common chord progression, the acoustic guitar strumming pattern definitely is. The bass guitar, as I’ve noticed in several Beatles songs, plays the most interesting part of the accompaniment. McCartney gives the music a groovy counterpoint to the vocals. 

The electric guitar in the left channel mostly plays small melodic riffs during the short pause between verses. Another electric guitar in the right channel plays a solo after the first chorus. Backing vocals are also in the right channel, going ‘ahhhh, ahhhh, la la la’ during the choruses and doubling the lead vocal during verses.

I recognized during the week that one of my favorite tracks “I’m Looking Through You” sounds the most like a Monkees song, and I do love the Monkees. The bit after the chorus gets my attention. Right after they sing “I’m looking through, you’re not the same!” The organ and electric guitar pick up in energy getting a little louder and driving. The organ hits two chords along with the guitar and then guitar continues with a pattern of rapid notes. This interaction adds great energy to the song.

The percussion for the song consists mostly of Ringo tapping his fingers on a box of matches. There’s a few instances of tambourine, which seem to have perhaps been played in the background and picked up by another microphone. During the post-chorus sections, Ringo also plays a minimal but effective pattern on the drum kit. 

“Rubber Soul” deserves more praise among Beatles albums. I liked this album far more than “Revolver.” But, I also like “Abbey Road” more than “Sgt. Pepper“. Anyway, this was definitely another great album and one I’m glad I’ve gotten to know better. I’ll continue listening to this one for years, I’m sure.