Music changed, thanks to an album released 45 years ago. Now it may be changed back.
The Beatles' Rubber Soul, released in the UK on December 3rd, 1965, is one of the seminal albums in the history of popular music. For one thing, it marked the emergence of the album as a conceptual whole beyond simply a compilation of songs or accompaniment to a movie. For another, it was the Beatles' first album recorded in more than snatches of time stolen away from touring or making a movie.
"Norwegian Wood", with behind the scenes video of the Beatles.
Prior to Rubber Soul, pop musicians in their recordings focused mainly on the single. Rubber Soul marked an evolution to a new sophistication, with artists and audiences paying more sustained attention to songs as part of a larger statement.
Ironically, the contemporary music scene is returning to the more fragmented reality that existed prior to the rise of album rock. Very much in keeping with the ADD, narrative-free nature of our current media culture, the emphasis is back to the single, stripped from larger context.
If it seems at all odd to be discussing music from going on half a century ago, offered up by a rock group that split up over 40 years ago, consider this: The best-selling musical group of the decade just past, the Naughties, was the Beatles. When they finally went on iTunes last month, the Beatles quickly flooded the best-seller lists for singles and albums, at least at first.
While boomer nostalgia is undoubtedly a big part of the ongoing Beatles vogue, the fragmentation and evanescence of the current scene is probably an even bigger part. Then there is the quality of the music.
Truth be told, I was not a huge Beatles fan growing up. They were a bit before my time.
As a dyed-in-the-wool Californian, I was more into California artists. Such as Santana, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead from San Francisco. And the Doors, Eagles, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield from LA.
I liked the Beatles, and had their classic albums Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club, and the White Album, but didn't know their earlier work except from compilations. I had little sense of the context of the earlier music, either as the Beatles themselves intended it in their album releases, or in the the actual times themselves in which the music was released.
"Nowhere Man", from the movie Yellow Submarine.
But as many readers know, I write about Mad Men, and that brilliant show's in-depth excursions into the early 1960s have had me examining the culture and aesthetics of the era. So when the remastered versions of the Beatles' albums were released last September, with Mad Men just underway in its third season, it seemed a good time to get into the phenomenon.
As novelist William Gibson has said, music is perhaps the most atemporal of artistic endeavors. With the advent of digital media, artists can acquire new fans long after their heyday.
In what Gibson would call otaku fashion, I decided to experience my own personal form of Beatlemania, getting only one album at a time, starting from the very beginning with 1963's Please Please Me.
Since I was very unfamiliar with the Beatles' early music, it was like discovering an entirely new band. They were young, raw, powerful, fresh, and powerfully melodic. Their voices blended naturally well together, as well as a later constructed American super-group like Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Last fall in the Mad Men universe, the show's third season, it was 1963. In the sequence of the Beatles' career, that accounted for the group's first two albums. With the Beatles was released, fatefully, in the UK on November 22nd, 1963.
"Drive My Car" brought a new level of the sardonic to the Beatles' love songs.
The Beatles had barely been heard in the US before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But afterwards, with the mood of national mourning turning to yearning, the stage was set for the dramatic entrance of the Beatles in America. With the Beatles from the UK, with the addition of the contemporaneous single "I Want To Hold Your Hand", became Meet the Beatles for the US.
This season in the Mad Men universe, we were up to late 1964 and 1965. The Beatles had already released their stunning 1964 movie and album, A Hard Day's Night, depicting the lads' picaresque adventures in the height of British Beatlemania. The 1965 follow-up, Help!, was also a smash.
That's a terrific album, too, though much more uneven, not to mention decidedly less engaging as a movie.
Then came Rubber Soul. Spurred by a sense of competition with Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys, the Beatles unleashed a corker.
Here are the track listings on the album. All of them, aside from the two specifically designated otherwise, were written by the legendary John Lennon/Paul McCartney songwriting duo.
1. "Drive My Car"
2. "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)"
3. "You Won't See Me"
4. "Nowhere Man"
5. "Think for Yourself" (George Harrison)
6. "The Word"
1. "What Goes On" (Lennon/McCartney/Starkey)
3. "I'm Looking Through You"
4. "In My Life"
6. "If I Needed Someone" (George Harrison)
7. "Run for Your Life"
"In My Life" provided a surprising new level of introspection and nostalgia.
Of the 14 songs on the album, five are undeniably great: "Drive My Car", "Norwegian Wood", "Nowhere Man", "Michelle", and "In My Life". And the rest are good.
As was usually the case with the US releases of Beatles albums, Rubber Soul was put out by Capitol Records with changes to the song line-up. In this case, de-emphasizing the "soul" part of the record in favor of the burgeoning folk-rock sound of the time. The effect was to make one of the Beatles' softest-sounding albums even softer.
But whether the original UK version, now the standard in the remastered albums of 2009, or the slightly different US version, Rubber Soul marked a major advance in lyrics and instrumentation, even pointing the way to world music with its use of the sitar. The simple love songs became more textured, ambiguous, even sardonically negative at times. "In My Life" brought a new level of introspection, and was surprisingly elegiac coming from songwriters still in their early twenties. And "Nowhere Man" prefigured an emerging questioning of authority, and existential crisis, in the '60s.
From then on, the Beatles became an album-oriented group, spending ever increasing amounts of time in the studio, with the major statements of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club coming up in the next 18 months.
Before Rubber Soul, Beatles' albums were a blend of original songs and covers, the albums recorded in very brief periods in between other gigs. (With the exception of the great A Hard Day's Night, comprised entirely of original songs, which was itself the soundtrack to the seminal Richard Lester movie of the same name.)
Paul McCartney performs "Drive My Car" live in Kiev before 350,000 people in 2008.
I wasn't ever a huge Beatles fan, until very recently. Though I am glad that I saw each of the Beatles live in concert in the 1970s. Given how much I've come to like the Beatles, I would feel sad had I missed seeing John Lennon live before his assassination, nearly 30 years ago, on December 8th, 1980.
Or George Harrison live before he died from cancer in 2001. (Though all the time devoted to Ravi Shankar and his sitar music in his show, well before the term "world music" became current, was baffling to me in my still thoroughly Westernized sensibility.)
Ringo Starr, the only Beatle I've ever met, put on a fun show. A heck of a nice guy, and the best actor of the four as is clear from both the Beatles movies and other pictures he's appeared in, Starr had the best line about the Apple-Beatles deal that finally put the group on iTunes: "I am particularly glad to no longer be asked when the Beatles are coming to iTunes."
The best show was put on by the best showman, Paul McCartney, then touring with Wings. Friends who've seen his recent shows, including at the Obama White House, tell me that the 68-year old billionaire still puts on a great, highly energetic concert.
Of the early Beatles albums, my favorite is A Hard Day's Night. It has an urgency and an energy that transports me to London 1964 and the height of Beatlemania.
It also has that great anticipatory feeling that you get with some works produced by artists who you know are on the verge of becoming all-time greats.
With Rubber Soul, the apotheosis of the Beatles began in earnest.