On the nights of June 11 and 13, crowds of Beatles fans attended the limited showing of Scott Freiman’s film Deconstructing The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, as part of the “talkback series” at the SteelStacks Theater. Rubber Soul strikes me as the red-headed step child of “favorite Beatles albums.” Usually, the choices are Sgt Pepper or Revolver or Abbey Road, or sometimes The White Album or even With the Beatles. Indeed, when I asked the audience for their favorite, even on a night specifically dedicated to this 1965 album, only four or five chose Rubber Soul. But they were all there and all excited to walk with Scott Freiman through the album’s creation.
Certainly one reason for that excitement is the remarkable consistency of the Beatles throughout their career. As someone in the audience noted, all their albums are great, or, I’d hasten to add, at least culturally significant. However, a second reason, and one that Freiman himself argues, is that Rubber Soul may be the most significant album in the Beatles catalog for how it moved the band forward. To put it another way, before Rubber Soul, the Beatles were great; with Rubber Soul they became transcendent. To put it yet another way, there is no Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, or Abbey Road without Rubber Soul.
Rubber Soul: The Great Leap Forward
A few words about Rubber Soul itself: The album was written and recorded in less than a month, under a harsh deadline after the band returned from touring. The label needed the record for the Christmas release, so the deadlines were intractable. The band also had to do a TV program, record two singles, and record a Christmas fan club record in the same period. Despite all this, the album includes some of the most-loved of Beatles songs, including John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood,” “In My Life,” and “Nowhere Man,” and Paul McCartney’s “Michelle,” “Wait” and “Drive My Car.” George Harrison, coming into his own as a songwriter, contributed two excellent tracks, “If I Needed Someone” and “Think for Yourself.” The aforementioned singles are also two classic Beatles tunes, “We Can Work It Out” and “Day Tripper.” In short, the band did incredible work in a limited amount of time and the album changed not only their pubic perception, but also how they worked in the studio.
Before Rubber Soul, the band, with a few exceptions, stuck to a typical recording schedule. They’d show up for work about 10 AM, work until lunch, take a break, come back and finish up. This pattern was largely followed by all musicians recording for EMI Records, in part because of the other employees of the studio, including producer George Martin, who maintained a typical work schedule. The musicians kept to the more or less 9-5 work day. But Martin had recently left EMI to start his own recording company that, for complicated reasons, still worked at Abbey Road Studios, but was contracted by the artist, not the record company. Rubber Soul was the first album in which Martin was working for the Beatles and not vice-versa. The effect of this change (plus the tight deadline) led to two major innovations. One was that the band began working past midnight as a norm, and the other was far more studio experimentation. New instruments, new ideas, and even new technology were developed in these sessions. And the Beatles being the Beatles meant that they used this extra time and experimentation to challenge the popular music of the day. Songs became less about “boy meets girl” with a hook, and more about life, philosophy, and musical risk-taking.
Hearing Rubber Soul for the First Time Again
Normally with the talk back series, discussion centers on the film—the lighting, the mise-en-scene, the plot, etc. However, Frieman’s Beatles movies are basically filmed lectures, albeit with excellent video and audio from the Beatles, their influences, and their contemporaries. Think Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth but just a little more light-hearted. After this particular film, we instead discussed the album and what we learned, if anything, from Freiman’s presentation. As something of a Beatles scholar myself (i.e. a huge fan) and, having read, seen, or listened to most of Freiman’s sources, there wasn’t much I learned per se. However, seeing it all put together and, indeed, hearing Freiman’s collection of individual tracks, made that knowledge come alive in an exciting way, almost like hearing the album again for the first time.
The audience agreed. Almost everyone was eager to discuss what they had discovered or rediscovered about their favorite Rubber Soul songs. The song that inspired the most conversation was John Lennon’s “In My Life.” In the film, Freiman includes a photo of the original lyrics, a much more specific song at the time, that literally names places Lennon lived, including “Penny Lane,” some two years before the release of that McCartney song. So we got to see the evolution of the song as it was being written. Freiman plays the original piano track that producer George Martin added to the song at its original speed. It was sped up for the final recording. As one audience member admitted, “I always thought that was a harpsichord.” (She was certainly not alone in believing this myth.)
Seeing and hearing the antecedents for some of the songs was also enlightening and entertaining. For instance, Freiman plays a Byrds song and directly segues into “If I Needed Someone,” demonstrating where Harrison’s signature introductory guitar riff likely originated. Likewise, Lennon’s first line of “Run for Your Life,” (the rather frightening and sexist “I’d rather see you dead little girl / Than to be with another man”) was lifted word for word from Elvis Presley’s version of Arthur Gunter’s “Baby, Let’s Play House.”
Audience discussion turned to whether these are examples of borrowing or stealing from other artists. One man wondered if artists could get away with such blatant plagiarism today. It was certainly a different time, as many of us noted, and it appears that the Beatles, at least in 1965, could do no wrong. Yet, as many in the audience pointed out, both Lennon and Harrison would later face court cases for similar acts of plagiarism. (Lennon for “Come Together,” in which he nicked a line from a Chuck Berry song, and Harrison for “My Sweet Lord,” the melody of which bears a striking resemblance to the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine.”)
As the audience deconstructed the deconstruction of Rubber Soul, we came to realize that what we were all really doing here, including Frieman, was celebrating. We traded Beatles trivia, we traded Beatles stories, and we traded Beatles favorites. Freiman’s films might be a journey into how and why particular Beatles albums were made, and their cultural impact, but really, his films end up being about a guy who really loves the band talking about the songs. And that’s really how both nights of the talkback went—a discussion among a large group of fans celebrating what the Beatles and Rubber Soul meant to each of us.
Note: This film is part of a sort of filmed lecture series. Lecturer, producer, director, and composer Scott Freiman revisits the writing and recording processes of seminal Beatles albums. Others in the series—which will be returning to the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas post-Musikfest—include deconstructions of Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and The White Album.
Feature Photo Credits: “BEATLES , RUBBER SOUL” by badgreeb RECORDS, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.