In October 1965, the Beatles, a still young but now globally known band from Liverpool, began work on their sixth studio album, Rubber Soul, at EMI Studios in Northwest London. It was the height of the band’s popularity. A year and a half earlier they had embarked on their legendary first tour of the United States, where they performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. That same year, their rock comedy “A Hard Day’s Night” hit theaters; a cute, jovial black-and-white about what a few days in the life of the Beatles was like. Earlier in the summer of 1965, they played to a near sold-out crowd at Shea Stadium. They were musical saviors to many, to college girls and hippies and young intellectuals, and the Antichrist to others (John made his infamous “more popular than Jesus” gaffe only months after Rubber Soul came out).
But for better or for worse, whether you hated or loved them, they were the talk of the town- and really the only entity, artistic or otherwise, that began to capture the complicatedness of the time; the lure of drugs and pre-marital sex, the integration of music across racial and national barriers, the political gap that existed between an older generation decorated for fighting a great war and a younger generation that expressed less of a desire, for good reason, to fight its own.
And while the Beatles, to all those listening ears outside the UK, were foreign in origin, they were intimate and visceral in sound- and in a weird way seemed to repudiate the one country, one military, one culture idea that had so completely defined Europe from the Thirty Years War to World War II. This was, after all, a band that achieved technical mastery by playing all-night shows at strip clubs in post-war Germany only fifteen years after the fall of Berlin. And whether you were a German club owner or an American kid from a typical middle-class family, whether you lived in Miami or Moscow, they had you dancing.
Well-known musicians are familiar with the sometimes suffocating consequences of their work becoming popular; the studio, occupied by money-minded people, thrusts on them an image they may not want to wear. We see this often in American music, from Cate Blanchett’s insistence, while playing Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, to “never create anything” unless you want it follow and define you, to Kanye’s refusal to be innocuous and listener friendly, to Bieber’s drag-racing escapades (maybe he was tired of the Mama’s boy and middle-aged lesbian remarks). And it’s because, consciously or not, they understand that image and art are not compatible; and whether they like it or not, all musicians in the public spotlight eventually have to decide between one of the two.
Luckily, for the rest of us, the Beatles chose art.
But seriously, how could they not have? McCartney was way too good of a musician, and Lennon and Harrison far too eccentric and soulful, for them to have just become a brand band. Still, when trying to bridge the gap between their earlier and later music, it’s hard not to be dumbfounded by how they got from point A to point B; from “Twist and Shout” to “A Day in the Life.” As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson beautifully put it in a recent piece about the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, “he had so many lives within him.” One gets the same feeling when listening, from start to finish, to the Beatles’ discography.
Rubber Soul is the best place to start if you want to get to the hearts of these many lives. This past Friday, while torturing over my thesis, I listened to the album for the first time all the way through, and emailed my Dad immediately afterward about how accessible I found it to be (compared at least to some of their later albums, which are more unpredictable). “Not one bad or underwhelming song. Not one,” I confidently wrote to him. He emailed me the next day saying that what struck him the first time he heard Rubber Soul, nearly 40 years ago to this day, was the contrary; its lack of Top 40 hits.
This disparity- between its don’t-think-twice listenability today and its foreignness then- is striking. It seems palatable today, even quotidian, because it has been copied and rehashed by bands across the spectrum trying to draw the line between electric and acoustic. But at the time it was revolutionary. It demonstrated the Beatles’ unprecedented ability to absorb other genres and strains of genres into their own sound. On Rubber Soul, that meant integrating the Rock N’ Roll and Bebop of their earlier albums with American folk and European classical. In a world used to barriers, to classification- in art as well as politics- the Beatles were more than just widely appealing; they were mind and soul liberating.
And that’s the way it went. Every year, for five years, the Beatles would come out with an unprecedented album, each time leaving the old rules in the dust and redefining popular music; Rubber Soul in ‘65, Revolver in ‘66, Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band in ‘67, The Beatles (better known as the White Album) in ‘68, and Abbey Road in ‘69. And while their sound was fluid, changing from year to year as they borrowed from other bands and traditions, one thing was not: the Beatles were the best band on the planet, and the gap between one and two wasn’t really that close at all.
All of us who were born after 1970 sometimes forget this- or don’t even realize it in the first place- when we talk about or listen to them; when we sing along effortlessly to songs from the earlier and later years; when we scream at or ignore thereafter the artistic opinion of anyone who has the audacity to say they were bad. The Beatles are the standard-bearer, even cultural kitsch. We like them, in part, because people who know music tell us we ought to, and also because, hey, their music rips.
But when we take the music out of its context- out of its time and place- we lose its novelty; that time in the 1960’s when the Beatles weren’t the standard bearer; when psychedelic couldn’t be heard at every convenient store and super market in the US; when Rubber Soul was not, at first glance, a masterpiece.
Part of the problem is that we don’t listen to albums anymore, and therefore don’t really experience music in its natural state. Because of radio listening, mix-tapes, and the internet, we are naturally inclined to listen to singles, instant and repeatedly gratifying, than we are to listen to albums, which are longer and more time-consuming. But albums are not only far more rewarding listens; they are the measurement, the benchmark, that artists want you to take into account when grading their music. Sure, great artists make great singles, but more importantly they make great albums- and we seem to forget that a lot.
Another part of the problem is that less and less people listen to challenging music. Luckily, a lot of artists (Drake, for instance) make music that is both good as well as entrancing on first listen. But the truth is that most good music takes some working in, multiple listens, the first few which may not be immediately rewarding. Even though young people in the late ’60’s may not have been instantly sold by Sgt. Pepper’s, they kept playing it because they only owned a limited number of LP’s, and after five or six listens they finally saw it for what it was; a work of genius. Nowadays, really good music is easily dismissed and never given a second chance. Instead, people flock to the infinite hoards of Internet singles, which sound great on first listen but mediocre after repeated play.
That day, after listening to Rubber Soul, I listened to the other four albums previously mentioned while cooped up in Poppa. It was glorious. And while I can never experience those albums, emotionally or temporally, firsthand the way my Dad did, I also realize- as a lens to understanding history, community, and the human mind- that it’s important that I listen to the Beatles, and to understand the effect, though un-immediate and indirect, they have had on me and other members of the iPhone generation along our great chain of being.
And it makes me feel a sense of comfort too; a reassurance that good things will always be good. And even with the great mass of contemporary artifacts that pass into and out of our imagination- the outgrown clothes and the candy wrappers and the crappy action movie sequels that remind us of all the baggage we accumulate and the dubiousness of our right to consume- there still remain those things that cannot be disposed of.