Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rubber Soul Remastered: A Whole Scene Going

It seems a truly ludicrous flabbergastacious fact, in an era when the average successful band will think nothing of taking three years between CDs, but here it is: Rubber Soul was recorded in thirty days (12 October to 11 November 1965). Absolutely astonishing, is it not? And all of this was, let's remember, just four months after The Beatles previous LP - Help! - had been released, the time-scale being dictated almost entirely by EMI's wish to have another Beatles LP 'in the shops by Christmas.' Maybe it was the daft pressure they were under that brought out the creativity in The Beatles. After all, compared to 1964, 1965 had been a relatively quite time for the band - they'd only toured America, played Shea Stadium and made another film, after all. And recorded two LPs and three singles. Workshy gits. More likely, of course, it was a series of new, potent influences in their life that began to change The Beatles' sound into something more reflective, more worldly and perhaps a touch more cynical. (McCartney's emerging interest in classical and Harrison's in Indian music, for example.) Plus the fact that, over the previous few months the competition from other bands - both in Britain and America - had started to get worrying. The presence of all the herbal jazz cigarettes probably helped too. Whatever the reason, Rubber Soul was a quantum leap forward in terms of songwriting, performance and, indeed, concept something that wasn't just noticeable in retrospect but was spotted, by those who knew what they were looking for, at the time. This was, as George Martin would subsequently note, 'a fine LP.' If nothing else, it showed the Beatles' significant bouncebackability after the pot-induced lethargy of the Help! period.

The sessions for Rubber Soul – which also produced the glorious 'Day Tripper'/'We Can Work It Out' single and the Booker T & The MGs-influenced instrumental 'Twelve Bar Original' (finally released thirty years later in edited form on Anthology 2) - clicked almost immediately, once they had gotten the first song, Lennon's astonishing nasty and mean-spirited 'Run For Your Life', out of the way. Yeah, good old peace-lurvin' John, anticipating 'Smack My Bitch Up' by thirty odd years, threatening his girlfriend with murder if he catches her with another man. He was an inspiration to an entire generation, so he was. Actually, it must be said, the Scouse junkie wife-beater was on a particularly good songwriting form during the autumn of 1965, 'Run For Your Life' notwithstanding, coming out of his self-styled 'Fat Elvis' period with a bunch of wickedly witty, acerbic short-story songs written in the isolated splendour of his Weybridge mansion ('Norwegian Wood', 'Nowhere Man', 'In My Life' and the under-rated 'Girl'). This pushed McCartney to a truly spirited response, producing one of his most covered songs ('Michelle') and two of his most admired 'Drive My Car' and the elegant 'I'm Looking Through You.' The latter, like most of his best work from this period, was influenced by his fractious relationship with then-girlfriend Jane Asher. Harrison, his confidence much boosted by the various musical friendships he had started to develop with other guitarists like Clapton, Roger McGuinn and Dave Davies, came up with his two best songs to date, the gorgeous Byrds-influenced 'If I Needed Someone' and the deep, introverted 'Think For Yourself,' (the only Beatles song to use the word 'opaque'). Even Ringo got in on the act, providing some lyrics to Lennon's throwaway country rocker 'What Goes On' (notable for it's Dylanesque allusion to 'the tides of time'). There was a big R&B/soul influence all over the LP (the stomping, bass-driven 'The Word' is a great example) - the Beatles had, after all, spent the summer of 1965 touring the US and being exposed to the gospel according to Motown and Stax all over again. (Listen, for example to their enthusiastic parody of the entire Holland-Dozier-Holland songbook oeuvre on 'You Won't See Me' with its Four Tops-style crotchet beats and Macca's decent efforts to match James Jamerson's fluid Motown groove.) But there are other contemporary homages too - very much to Dylan, of course, everyone was doing that in 1965. But, also to The Who, The Byrds, The Animals (the 'wild mercury sound' of Alan Price's Vox Continental is aped beautifully on several songs) and, a really radical departure this, the punning London-scene social comment of many Ray Davies and Jagger and Richards songs of the era. On Rubber Soul, the Beatles acknowledged their friends and contemporaries and then, with apparent lack of anything approaching effort, pushed forward with their own agenda. An LP to put a big fat idiot-grin on the face of even a professional misanthrope (the US version inspired Brian Wilson to create Pet Sounds for a start), Rubber Soul is the essential bracket that joins the two halves of The Beatles recording career together. It's a triumphant and stylish goodbye to the Mop-Top years and a visionary prophecy of the work still to come. It is, in short, a genuine - world class - twenty four-carat masterpiece.
The remastered CD of Rubber Soul is an absolute triumph from the EMI restoration team. The tiny trace of echo on 'Drive My Car' in which the tambourine seems to be pushed higher in the mix leaps out the speakers leaving the listener fully aware from Song One that this is going to be a pleasurable experience. There's an underlying power in Macca's over-driven guitar solo that you might not have noticed before, something that becomes a recurring theme as the CD progresses. 'Norwegian Wood' sounds less claustrophobic than previously, with the sonorous delights of George's sitar and Ringo's tambourine flourishes no longer partially hidden in the muddy wash of the mix. The tambourine also becomes a key instrument on 'You Won't See Me' (presumably that was The Beatles intention since they were aiming for the 'push' of a Motown/Snake Pit recording). The backing vocals still sound a touch wobbly but there's a sharpness in Paul's piano that most listeners will instantly prick up their ears to. 'Nowhere Man' has never sounded better - all of the super-bright guitars (George and John playing sonic-blue Fenders) packed into the right stereo channel are suddenly given space to breathe like never before. McCartney, of course, has often told the story of how when they were mixing the song they asked Norman Smith to shove up the treble to quite silly levels (and then, shove it up some more) and even on a not-particularly-brilliant stereo like mine, you can hear that more clearly on this CD than you ever could in the past.

'Think For Yourself' is probably the remastered CD's biggest revelation. On the 1987 CD, the fuzzbass smothered much of the subtlety of the song (including McCartney's second, conventional, bassline which, here, cuts through crystal clear). If that's the best on offer, then 'The Word' isn't far behind, offering glimpses of tiny percussion tricks and guitar frills that I'd never even noticed previously. On the other hand, 'Michelle' seems to lose something on the new CD. Certainly it's much cleaner and clearer than before. But, in gaining this welcome clarity it seems to have lost a bit of its delicacy and charm. The guitars sound just that little bit too clinical. Antisceptic, even. And, when you're dealing with a song as well known as 'Michelle', that's counterproductive. The same can be said for 'Girl', which is probably the CD's single biggest disappointment - sounding almost leaden in places - although Lennon's deliberate heavy breathing has never sounded louder or funnier. 'I'm Looking Through You', by contrast, gains hugely from the new clarity that remastering affords it. It was always a sparse recording and that could, sometimes, sound rather cold on higher-end equipment. Now, it sounds hot and angry, Macca positively spitting out the lyrics with a teeth-clenched venom that had previously only been hinted at. The remastering also makes 'In My Life's debt to The Miracles' 'Tracks Of My Tears' much clearer, McCartney's bass figure closely mirroring Marv Tarplin's opening guitar riff on the Smokey Robinson song. George Martin's much-admired keyboard solo also reveals a slight echo that you'd probably not consciously encountered before. And, my favourite song on the LP, 'If I Needed Someone' sounds truly spectacular, the chiming arpeggio jangly guitars demonstrating to a thousand wannabe 1980s indie bands exactly where they wanted to go but didn't have the talent to get.

Rubber Soul saw The Beatles at their most fascinating - reaching out into several new directions at once with no obvious clear idea of where they were going but with more inventiveness and imagination than most bands could manage during an entire ten year career. On Robert Freeman's inspired and much imitated cover have any band ever looked cooler? I mean, not even The Clash managed to strut for the world like this. Suede jackets and magnificent hair. The sodding business. McCartney was probably joking when he said in a contemporary NME interview that The Beatles were now writing 'comedy songs,' but 'Drive My Car' certainly has a punchline and 'Norwegian Wood' is a simple story of married-boy-meets-girl, married-boy-stays-at-girl's-flat-but-gets-no-nookie, pissed-off-married-boy-burns-girl's-furniture-for-a-laugh. Whether Sonny Freeman, Maureen Cleeve, Cathy MacGowan or someone else entirely was the subject about whom Lennon was candidly - and spitefully - writing doesn't really matter. In fact, the song works even better when the identity of the mysterious, bewildering woman at its core is veiled, like the atmosphere the song itself creates, in a fog of pot-smoke and a brain-haze of potent wine and cheap perfume. It was, after all, 1965. It was London and there was a whole scene going. I'm trying to imagine, with a smirk, what it must have been like one night in November at, perhaps, the Scotch of St James, the Ad-Lib or the Speakeasy when Paul casually walks into the gaff with an acetate of Rubber Soul under his arm, gives it to the DJ and then sits, like a Prince on his throne, whilst collective swingin' Stones, Kinks, Yardbirds, Moody Blues, Eric Burdons, Keith Moons and all of bloody Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch are mute and awestruck at what they are hearing. 'By the way,' says Macca. 'We're just a little beat combo from The 'Pool. You can better this, surely?' 1966, the best year for music since Brahms and Liszt went head-to-head starts here. And, just in case you thought they couldn't follow it up, remember, Revolver was just seven months away. That wasn't a bad LP either.