An album that left a footprint

Fifty years ago this week one of the most important records in rock history was winging its way to music stores across North America.

Rubber Soul was a major pivot by The Beatles—a distinct turn towards more sophisticated songwriting and eclectic instrumentation. (The album was considered by some to be their first “work of art.”) It was their answer to a string of signature hits—all blockbusters—by their competitors in the previous months: “Tambourine Man” by The Byrds; “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones; and “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan.

The day after RS was released, the Byrds’ second monster hit, “Turn Turn Turn,” became the #1 single, soon to be followed by “The Sound of Silence,” sung by an unknown folk duo named Simon & Garfunkel. Rock had come of age! (It’s true that The Beatles had recently scored a #1 hit themselves—with “Yesterday”—but it was time for them to assert their mastery of the album format.)

Rubber Soul soon became #1 (displacing The Sound of Music as the top-selling album!) and remained on the US charts for most of 1966. A work that greatly expanded the bounds of pop music at the time—featuring inventive lyrics, exotic sounds, and creative production techniques—Rubber Soul remains one of the most critically acclaimed rock albums and is ranked #5 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Tracks such as “In My Life,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Michelle” still stand the test of time.

But to those in business—who live in a world of projects, deliverables, and deadlines—Rubber Soul should represent another kind of achievement, as mentioned here. No other business author or music writer has picked up on this, so I’ll continue to trumpet it: RS was one of the most amazing time-to-market breakthroughs in the history of the music business—and perhaps in business at large—especially considering the quality and originality of the product.

At the beginning of October The Beatles had less than two weeks to write (mostly from scratch) an album’s worth of songs (14 new compositions) plus two more for their next single. Recording sessions had to begin by October 12 so that in November the tracks could be mixed, mastered, pressed, packaged, and distributed for the early December release date, in time for the Christmas rush.

They delivered on time, despite running late at key stages of the project. The recording spilled into November and they still needed more songs. Discarded compositions were revived, such as “What Goes On” and “Wait.” New songs were whipped up almost on the spot, such as Lennon’s “Girl” and “The Word” and McCartney’s “You Won’t See Me” (which was brilliantly arranged—and nailed in two takes!). Sessions routinely ran until 3:00 am or later. But by November 15th they had finished recording and mixing the tracks, just in time for the manufacturing cycle to kick in to get the album into the stores in the UK on Dec 3rd and in North America on Dec 6th—as scheduled. And their soon-to-be smash hit single “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out” was also released the same day!

So how was it that the Beatles could deliver such a breakthrough product in breakthrough time?

Well, when it comes to the Beatles I’ve usually focused on two differentiators, as I’ve done previously:

1. The Beatles were results-obsessed. This was a small business team with a long track record of performance. John, Paul, and George had already been together for eight years so they knew a few things about collaboration under pressure. In Hamburg clubs in late 1960 the band was required to perform 4 to 6 high-octane sets a night, often seven days a week. Once manager Brian Epstein took over a year later they had to play over 30 gigs a month. In the two years running up to their first recording session they played over 700 performances. And they loved impossible deadlines.

In 1963 The Beatles recorded a world-class rock & roll debut album in one 13-hour session (recording instrumentals and vocals the same day), an impressive feat at the time. Much more was expected of a Beatles’ album by 1965 and the competition—including the Beach Boys, Stones, Byrds, and Kinks—had significantly raised the bar. To achieve maximum quality, albums were rarely recorded “live” anymore—that is, with band members singing and playing at the same time. In the studio artists laid down the instrumental “basic tracks” first (e.g., guitar, bass, drums), then vocal tracks (lead and background), then instrumental overdubs (guitar leads, keyboard additions, hand claps, whatever). In the world of multi-track recording, producing 16 cuts of top notch material in a few weeks was a lot to ask, but the lads responded.

2. The Beatles embodied breakthrough innovation—before the term existed. As I’ve said many times, their off-the-charts creativity kept them on the charts. They were determined to stand out from the pack in everything they did. They broke the mold in song craftsmanship, vocal arrangements, musical accompaniment, engineering and production, and more—eventually revolutionizing album artwork and packaging as well. They even set fashion trends and advanced a consciousness movement (based on meditation and medication). As Newsweek reported, “What the Beatles did in the '60s remains the most thrilling surge of creativity in the history of pop culture.”

That the Fabs intended to be the most innovative force in rock & roll may be a contentious claim, but it’s one I’ve repeatedly made, especially when arguing with Ken Melville, my late pal, as captured here in a 2012 post and commentary thread. They certainly wanted to be different—and they succeeded.

And with Rubber Soul, we might say, they left a huge footprint.

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  1. They was do or die. Produce or fall by the wayside. And such hard work rendered them successful. One of my more fave Beatles albums.

    1. My thesis: Boomers tend to pick RS (or Revolver or Pepper) as their favorite Beatles' album. Gen X'ers tend to go for the later ones. And Millennials usually like Abbey Road best (because it has the heavier, more distorted—and therefore more contemporary—guitar sound).

      1. I'm still pushing for a new generation, Generation Jones (55-64), those of of who feel almost nothing in common with the Boomers.

        I'll wager a bunch of us in GenJones will choose their 2nd album as the crush. Definitive versions of a boatload of covers (they out-Chuck Chuck and out-Richard Little Richard), but enough stunning new material to make their superior writing chops obvious.

        And here's my blasphemy outlier for the day: the Beatles album least likely to end up on my turntable is . . . Rubber Soul. One or two tracks end up on homemade playlists, but as an album, it doesn't touch me emotionally.

        1. The Beatles' second (American) album was a good one, combining stuff from 4 UK releases, but mostly from With the Beatles, the second UK album. I love the Marvelettes' Please Mr. Postman from that.

          I'm not sure, as a picky listener, that I can listen to any complete album anymore. In the case of the Beatles I go for the tunes I love. RS has one of their most sublime: "In My Life." "I've Just Seen a Face" is a fun one. And I can't believe they knocked off "You Won't See Me" in two takes. (That's got so many cool things in it, from the "oo-la-la" harmony parts, to the inventive percussion, to the contrary motion between the descending bass and ascending vocals in the chorus.)

  2. Two footnotes, then I'll shut up...

    Naming the album “Rubber Soul” was McCartney’s idea after hearing African-American artists dismiss Mick Jagger’s rendition of black music as “plastic soul” or “rubber soul.”

    For rock aficionados, there’s a fun debate as to the superior merits of the UK release of the album on Parlophone, versus the North American release on Capitol. The former had 14 tracks; the latter 12. The UK version had four songs not found on the North American version: “Drive My Car,” “What Goes On,” “Nowhere Man,” and “If I Needed Someone.” But the Capitol version had two songs not found on the other: “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love.” Capitol saved “Nowhere Man” and “What Goes On” for its next Beatles’ single in January.

  3. Can't say as I've ever had a favorite Beatles album. I like them all, for different reasons.

    It's just too bad that Capitol felt the need to 'slice & dice' their works, up until "Pepper's". I'm sure, at the time, most of us liked the idea of more records being available, and having 12 instead of 14 tracks per album would have been inconsequential to one's listening experience. I think the problem came down to the fact that this practice stole from the integrity and general 'feel' of the album, all in the name of marketing (and profit).

    Just to be picky: According to Mark Lewisohn, their first album was recorded on Feb. 11, 1963. Eleven songs were recorded in 10 hours and 45 minutes. One song was not used for that album. 4 additional songs for the album had already been recorded for their first two singles, in late 1962.

    1. Yes, to your specific points. There are many different opinions on the length of time of the Please Please Me recording session but Jude Southerland Kessler—who's the Beatles' author I trust the most—agrees it was 12 hours and 45 minutes. (Her detailed accounting of that session in her book Shivering Inside is worth the price of the book.)

      There's an article that just came out yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that defends the slicing and dicing of Rubber Soul by Capitol, in part to make it appeal to the new folk-rock sensibility of the American listener in late 1965. Also, because of licensing costs Capitol usually kept the number of cuts to 11, but made an exception here.

  4. Great piece, John. I've always loved RS as an album and never quite appreciated it's importance in trailblazing the idea of albums as coherent albums. I took a look on wikipedia at the key albums of 1965 and whilst there are good albums by The Who, Kinks, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Otis Redding and a few others, I don't think any of them are as coherent or mature an album as RS.

    Intriguingly, if you look at 1966 to see what follows there aren't that many bona fide classics (Dylan, Mothers of Invention and a few others apart): it's as though everyone thought, "Wow, we need to up our game a bit now" and you have to cut to 1967 to see a whole load more classics emerge.

    But one things I did notice: if you think The Beatles were on a bit of a run, look at the John Coltrane releases around 1965 / 66. Now that rates as a ming-bogglingly astonishing run of creativity. (And of course, he even influenced The Byrds for the brilliant '8 Miles High.')

    1. There was one bona fide classic in 1966: Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, which Brian Wilson started in on after Rubber Soul shook him up. Pet Sounds, in turn, inspired Sgt Pepper in 1967.

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