Thursday, August 7, 2014

Turn Left at Greenland, Part 8: ‘Rubber Soul’

In this monthly feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been looking at how The Beatles were presented on long-playing vinyl in the United States.

Despite such undeniable peaks as “Yesterday”, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, “Ticket to Ride”, and the title song, Help! showed signs The Beatles might have been losing focus. There was the continued reliance on covers and a few pieces of filler and a general lack of coherence from track to track. Nearly all of these issues would get ironed out when the band reentered Abbey Road in the autumn of 1965 to record the record that would be Rubber Soul.  The days of interpreting Larry Williams and Buck Owens songs to bring the track number up to an acceptable tally were done. The impressive progression of Lennon’s recent songs apparently scared McCartney straight, and he delivered his finest assortment of solo compositions yet. There were a couple of stylistic diversions—the jarring C&W of “What Goes On”, the skidding Rock and Soul of “Drive My Car”—but the album mostly stayed true to a folk-rock aesthetic.

That final issue would be resolved completely when Capitol tinkered with what may be The Beatles’ second genuine masterpiece (the first, of course, was A Hard Day’s Night). The aforementioned country and soul songs were placed in reserve and replaced with two appropriately rustic Help! leftovers. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” would now begin the album, easing the listener in with a jaunty but totally acoustic sing-along. The moody rasp of “It’s Only Love” would start Side B in a manner much more appropriate to its surroundings than Ringo’s electrified monotony “What Goes On”. With these two replacements, Rubber Soul started sounding like a near concept record. With the additional loss of The Beatles’ very first song to eschew love themes completely, Lennon’s empathetic “Nowhere Man”, Capitol’s Rubber Soul could pass as a concept record lyrically too—not that a collection of love songs was exactly a novel concept for a group that exclusively recorded love songs up to this point.

Aside from a few minor mixing differences, the most unique touch on Capitol’s Rubber Soul is the acoustic guitar false starts left on the beginning of “I’m Looking Through You”. To some this is a sloppy mistake on the part of Capitol, but I think it contributes to the record’s homey, back porch feel.
The competition was listening. It was the complete musical coherence of the U.S. version of Rubber Soul that pricked up Brian Wilson’s one good ear. “I’d never heard a collection of songs that were all that good before,” he once told the Times of London. “It’s like a collection of folk songs, and they’re all just really, really great songs.” Capitol’s Rubber Soul inspired him to make one of pop’s all time landmarks, Pet Sounds—the album that would then impel McCartney to captain Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. So does this mean that if Capitol had left well enough alone and put out the same Rubber Soul in America as the one Parlophone released in England Sgt. Pepper’s never would have been made? Probably not, but the stateside record still enjoys a significant place on the Pepper timeline. 
Dennis Wilson and Al Jardine even appear in Beatlesque brown suede on the cover of Pet Sounds.
The significance of Capitol’s Rubber Soul doesn’t end there. It is the one American album sometimes rated superior to the British original (though if people really thought about it, they may reach the same conclusion about Meet The Beatles vs. With The Beatles), and that is saying a lot considering that the British Rubber Soul is certainly one of The Beatles very, very best LPs. Musical coherence is the sole reason that preference for the Capitol record persists. “What Goes On” is a weak track, but the other casualties—“Drive My Car”, “Nowhere Man”, and George’s hypnotic jangler “If I Needed Someone”—are all superb and superior to at least “It’s Only Love”. But the way Lennon’s old Help! track— a song he later told Playboy was “lousy” and “abysmal” and he “hated (even McCartney marked it as “filler”)— brings the whole project together helps conjure a mood writer Ron Schaumburg evocatively likened to “wood and smoke.”

Capitol must have started recognizing that you don’t mess with art…at least a little. Photographer Bob Freeman’s Rubber Soul cover was the first to cross the Atlantic without any major alterations. In fact, the one edit, the logo’s shift from bright orange to brown, was another change that supported the Capitol album’s woody mood.
So what of “Drive My Car”, “Nowhere Man”, “If I Needed Someone”, and “What Goes On”? And what of “Yesterday” and “Act Naturally” from Help!? Never fear. They’d find homes on long playing vinyl on a true return to the jumble of The Beatles Second Album and Beatles VI, a record that would leave what many now regard as The Beatles’ best album as butchered as a bunch of baby dolls.
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