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.


The Beatles’ “Abbey Road”

The Beatles' "Abbey Road" album coverI’ve devoted the past week to the Beatles‘ 1969 album “Abbey Road” for what I can learn to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician. This album has long been my favorite Beatles album, though I must admit I’m not familiar with all of them yet. I’ve been looking forward to this week. It would be a challenge to keep it short, but it’s also been a busy week for me otherwise; I haven’t had a lot of time to write

As with the two Beatles albums I’ve already spent a week with, melody drives these songs. The band plays interesting accompaniment throughout, but it’s usually in support of the vocals. Between vocal lines, some other instrument often follows the melody path tying parts together. These songs provide a lesson in the importance of melody and focal point.

Come Together” starts the album with a classic bassline. This paired with percussion that rolls across hi-hats and toms creates cyclic coming and going groove. The effect is engaging, groovy, somewhat bluesy and even a little sinister. I can almost see the motion created by this rhythm. It’s one of the most rock n roll songs on the album. The verse are in a common rock I-V-IV progression performed in a blues style. Then the chorus hits with a vi#-IV- V that builds in intensity to drop back to the opening tonic bassline groove. I really enjoy the lyrics; I can’t say they mean much. It’s rock n roll injected nonsense.

Here Comes the Sun” bears a bright open optimistic feel appropriate to the lyrics. The song accomplishes this even with several moments of descending glissando on accompanying instruments. My favorite part of the song is probably the middle eight, which begins exactly at the mid-point of the song. I like the combination of use of the Moog synthesizer with very nature sounding handclaps.

I find the lyric to be a bit too cheerful hippie-dippy; Yet, I do appreciate the pastoral quality of lines like “Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter. Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here: Here comes the sun.” They sidestep excess elements of human society and modern life to focus on a basic and enduring fact of nature: the change of the seasons.

My favorite part of the album is the medley of songs that make up most of side two: “You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End.” I’ve always had a thing for songs with multiple sections and side 2 of Abbey Road more than qualifies.

These were apparently unfinished songs written by the Beatles, therefore worked together to form a whole. Somewhat of an exception is “Golden Slumbers”, a song largely based on “Cradle Song” by Thomas Dekker. This poem from the 17th century read:

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,
Smiles awake you when you rise;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby,
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.
Care is heavy, therefore sleep you,
You are care, and care must keep you ;
Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby,
Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

The main difference in the Beatles song is the addition of the lines “Once, there was a way to get back homeward. Once, there was a way to get back home.” which draws out the melancholy latent in the original. This beautiful tune with theatrical qualities leads into the burst of a ending march “Carry That Weight.” “Carry That Weight” repeats the melody of “You Never Give Me Your Money.” This ties the medley together. The lyrics then makes what I believe to an inverse reference to “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On” with “I never give you my pillow, I only send you my invitations.”