Rubber Soul Deep Dive Part 2: Norwegian Wood

Side One, Track Two

 

“Norwegian Wood”: A “Roll” Reversal

 

By Jude Southerland Kessler and Bruce Spizer

 

Throughout 2021, The Fest for Beatles Fans blog will take a deep dive into the songs that comprise 1965’s innovative, transitional Beatles LP — a record that Mark Lewisohn dubs “a major turning point in The Beatles’ career” — Rubber Soul. (The Complete Beatles Chronicles, 202) In our second of the series, Louisiana natives and Beatles authors Bruce Spizer and Jude Southerland Kessler look at what we already know about this edgy song, “Norwegian Wood,” and what we can discover in a fresh, new look! Enjoy!

 

What’s Standard:

Date Recorded: 12 October and 21 October 1965

Time Recorded: 7.00 – 11.30 p.m. on 12 October

                            2.00 – 7.00 p.m. on 21 October

Studio: EMI Studios, Studio 2

 

Tech Team:

Producer: George Martin

Engineer: Norman Smith

Second Engineers: Ken Scott and Phil McDonald

(Margotin and Guesdon add Ron Pender)

Original Song Title: “This Bird Has Flown”

 

Stats: Recorded in 4 takes on 12 October and then completely re-made in 3 takes on 21 October.

 

Instrumentation and Musicians:

John Lennon, the composer, plays acoustic rhythm guitar and sings lead vocal.

Paul McCartney plays bass, piano, and supplies backing vocal.

George Harrison plays lead guitar and sitar. This is the first time the sitar has been used in a pop recording, according to Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions, 63, and Spizer, The Beatles for Sale on Parlophone Records, 201.

Ringo Starr plays tambourine, maracas, and finger cymbals. (In the 12 October session, Ringo played bass drum and on 21 October, he also played bass drum at the end of Take 3. Winn, 362 and 366.)

 

Sources: The Beatles, The Anthology, 194, Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Chronicle, 202-203, Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions, 63, Spizer, The Beatles for Sale on Parlophone Records, 200,  Margotin and Guesdon, All the Songs, 278-281, Winn, Way Beyond Compare, 362, and 366-367, Hammack, The Beatles Recording Reference Manual, 63-65 and 73, Turner, A Hard Day’s Write, 89, Riley, Tell Me Why, 158-159, Spignesi and Lewis, 100 Best Beatles Songs, 139-141, Miles, The Beatles’ Diary, Vol. 1, 212, Babiuk, Beatles Gear, 169-173, Badman, The Beatles: Off the Record, 147-148, Norman, Shout!, 155, and Goldman, The Lives of John Lennon, 184-185.

 

What’s Changed:

  1. Musical Maturity – Despite one’s personal feelings about Albert Goldman, he most aptly observed, “When John Lennon finished recording ‘Norwegian Wood,’ he was no longer Beatle John, the Man in the Bubble Gum Mask. He was now the brilliant, young innovator who was doing more than anybody in the music business to transform the rock’n’roll of the Fifties into the rock of the Sixties.” (The Lives of John Lennon, 185) Similarly, Mark Lewisohn calls even the first iteration of “Norwegian Wood” (from 12 October) a “brilliant recording,” and he quickly adds that the final version (from 21 October) is “quite different but equally as dazzling.” Indeed, Lewisohn sees the whole of Rubber Soul as “excellent musicianship with a new lyrical direction.” (The Complete Beatles Chronicle, 203)

 

By the autumn of 1965, The Beatles were no longer the innocents of “From Me to You” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” They were multifaceted in their mastery of the studio, technological production, and lyrical composition. In “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” composed very early in 1965 (and performed by John for George Martin on a skiing holiday in February 1965), John had progressed eons past his ingenue status. Indeed, he had become so introspective about his work that he could record a successful initial offering on 12 October — heavily laced in sitar and boasting superb harmony as well as an honest, raw Lennon vocal — and then reject this version to start all over again on 21 October, producing a cleaner, more commercially viable work. All of The Beatles were coming into their own as musicians, but even very early in 1965, Lennon seemed to be surging forward into the experimental “studio era.”

 

  1. Employment of Double Entendre – John Lennon loved wordplay. This propensity was evidenced in his first book (proclaimed by Foyles Bookstores to be 1964’s finest work in British literature), In His Own Write. During the spring of 1965, when he was composing “Norwegian Wood,” John was completing his second volume of prose and poetry, A Spaniard in the Works. So, phrases lavishly imbued with double meaning such as “Norwegian Wood” and “I lit a fire” (although after John’s death, Paul asserted that he had coined this famous phrase) came naturally to the Author Beatle.

 

Furthermore, in the manipulation of the melody, John also artfully added a second level of meaning to the song. In “Drive My Car,” the powerful and independent female “running the show” speaks on one note only. Thus, she emerges as a powerful but one-dimensional character. We can’t “see” her; she exists in caricature. But the woman in “Norwegian Wood” is vividly depicted as an alluring and mysterious female — through John’s exotic melody and use of remarkable instruments. In the song’s opening waltz tempo, she beckons. In the sexy sitar sound, she seduces. She serves wine in her own boudoir and dominates her potential sexual partner. Throughout her seduction, the lilting music flows as freely as the wine, but when she resolves to sleep alone, the bridge becomes sharp, staccato, hard-hitting. John not only uses words to portray his glamorous femme fatale, but he also adds the music itself to, in clever double entendre, reveal her nature through her emanating “siren song.” Quite clever. Quite Lennon.

 

  1. Inculcation of International or “World Music” – In The Anthology, Ringo is quoted as saying that on “Rubber Soul, [we] began stretching the writing and playing…This was the departure record. A lot of other influences were coming down and going on the record…We were really opening up to a lot of different sounds.” (p. 194)

 

Rubber Soul is indeed replete with finger cymbals, a ching-ring (in “In My Life”), maracas, tambourines, and a “wound-up piano” (to imitate a harpsichord, in “In My Life”). (Babiuk, Beatles Gear, 169) In “Norwegian Wood,” we hear the curious and exciting sound of a sitar. Most Beatle fans know that George Harrison had been introduced to the sitar in the spring of 1965, when Director Richard Lester employed musicians to play the instrument for “comical purposes” in Help! (Norman, Shout!, 255) Badman quotes John as saying, “On the set [of Help!]…an Indian band [kept] playing in the background, and George kept staring and looking at them.” (The Beatles: Off the Record, 147-148)

 

Almost immediately, Harrison purchased his own sitar — “a 1940s or 1950s Kanai Lal & Brother sitar…[from] India Craft in London (Hammack, The Beatles Recording Reference Manual, 63, and Babiuk, Beatles Gear, 169) and began learning to play it. Only seven months later, in October, we find both George and John willing to incorporate this unique, “funny sound” (as George Harrison refers to it in Badman, The Beatles: Off the Record, 147-148, and Babiuk, Beatles Gear, 169) into their catalogue. The Beatles’ increasing willingness to embrace international or “world music” decidedly enriched their already matchless melodies. While many of the bands of the 1960s were intent upon producing a “signature sound,” The Beatles were unafraid to push boundaries. They kept expanding horizons rather than limiting themselves to what they’d done before. The result was a thrilling, melodic lushness that never grew stale.

 

A Fresh New Look:

 

Recently, I was honored to confer with the Guru of Beatles Music History and the author of the new book, The Beatles Finally Let it Be, Bruce Spizer, about the depth and intricacies inherent in “Norwegian Wood.” Here is our conversation:

 

Jude Southerland Kessler: Bruce, I know that one of the new books in your successful Beatles Album Series that you are working on right now takes a look at The Beatles’ 1965 Help! LP. How did the recording techniques employed on Help! pave the way for what was to come on the revolutionary LP that was late 1965’s Rubber Soul?

 

Bruce Spizer: The Beatles’ first two albums were recorded on a two-track recorder, most often with vocals on one track and instruments on the other. The two tracks were then mixed down for a mono mix in which the vocals and instruments were balanced for maximum effect. These performances were live in the studio, with The Beatles playing their instruments and singing at the same time. Sometimes an instrument, such as keyboards by George Martin or harmonica by John, would be overdubbed to enhance the track. Other times, a vocal would be double-tracked. But for the most part, the recordings were vocals backed by two guitars, bass and drums.

 

By A Hard Day’s Night, the group was recording on a four-track recorder. This gave them the opportunity to break up the vocals and instruments onto separate tracks. For example, they could record the bass and drums on track one, the guitars on track two, the lead vocal on track three and leave four free for overdubs. They could then play back the tape and record a second vocal and another instrument, such as tambourine, on the fourth track of the tape while listening to the already recorded vocals and instruments.

 

For Beatles For Sale, George Martin and the group took greater advantage of the four tracks, routinely double-tracking vocals and using exotic percussion instruments.

 

On the “Help!” LP, the process evolved even more, and the group began experimenting with different instruments and effects. George Martin added a string quartet to “Yesterday.” The Beatles were also moving towards more of a folk-rock sound, as could be heard on some of the later tracks recorded for Help!, including “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and “It’s Only Love,” both of which would end up on the Capitol version of Rubber Soul in the U.S.

 

And it wasn’t just the recording of the Help! album that influenced Rubber Soul and well beyond. On the set of the movie Help!, as Jude mentioned, George became acquainted with the sitar, an Indian string instrument. There was a scene in a restaurant where musicians were playing Beatles songs on Indian instruments. This was the idea of the film’s musical director, Ken Thorne, who was used instead of George Martin, who did not get along particularly well with the film’s director, Richard Lester. Had Martin been the film’s musical director, he may not have chosen the Indian instruments and Harrison may not have been introduced to the sitar on the movie’s set. On the other hand, Martin had used sitar on a Peter Sellers’s recording, so he may very well have used Indian instruments in the film’s soundtrack. We will never know if Harrison would have picked up the sitar had Martin done the score. We do know that it was Thorne’s use of Indian instruments that exposed George to a whole new world of music.

 

Anyway, by the time The Beatles recorded Rubber Soul, they had mastered the recording techniques on the four-track and were branching out to different instruments, going way beyond the two guitars, bass and drums line-up. They were looking for new sounds and were using different instruments to get those sounds.

 

Kessler: You mentioned the sitar…let’s talk a bit more about that emerging instrument. From its debut on Rubber Soul, the sitar became a staple with The Beatles, specifically with George Harrison. But learning to control the sound of this exotic, new instrument was a journey. How did the sitar’s presence alter and develop on “Norwegian Wood” from Take 1 to Take 4? What were the technical difficulties inherent in recording the sitar?

 

Spizer: As Jude has pointed out, The Beatles recorded “Norwegian Wood” at two separate sessions. Take 1 was recorded on 12 October 1965, under the title “This Bird Has Flown,” during the first day of recording for the album. Although it was completed in one take, the song was given several overdubs. The finished master featured John’s lead vocal, his and Paul’s backing harmonies, acoustic guitar and bass, percussion (finger cymbals, tambourine and maracas) and George on sitar. While the sitar adds a new sound for The Beatles, George’s playing is a bit labored. He is gaining familiarity with the instrument, but still has a long way to go.

 

Although Take 1 was remarkable and could have been issued “as is,” The Beatles decided to completely re-record “Norwegian Wood” on 21 October. John had difficulty with his acoustic guitar part on Takes 2 and 3, but nailed it on Take 4. The basic backing track included John on lead vocal and acoustic guitar, Paul’s backing vocal and bass, and George on 12-string acoustic guitar. George overdubbed a much-improved sitar part. Knowing George Harrison’s dedication to getting his solos exact, I am sure he practiced it many times over before the re-recording of the song. Other embellishments included tambourine, a clapping sound, Ringo’s bass drum, and a crash cymbal at the end of the song.

 

The sitar must have posed issues for the Abbey Road engineers. The sitar does not have an electric pickup, so its sound signal is not sent directly from the instrument to an amplifier like an electric guitar or bass guitar. It must be recorded through a microphone. The trick is where to place the microphone as it needs to pick up the strings on which the melody line is played as well as the drone strings.

 

Based on the recording appearing on Rubber Soul, I think George and the engineers did an excellent job, particularly considering their relative unfamiliarity with the sitar.

 

Kessler: In Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald claims that “Norwegian Wood” is “the first Beatles song in which the lyric is more important than the music.” (p. 130) Do you concur? We know John was a master of wordplay, especially double entendre. How did he use that tongue-in-cheek literary technique in this song?

 

Spizer: I wouldn’t go as far as Ian on that one. I would say that the lyrics and the words are equally important. And while the words to “Norwegian Wood” are a long way from “Love, love me do/You know I love you,” John had already showed his fondness for the double entendre on “Please Please Me,” way back on the group’s second single. Similarly, the lyrics on “There’s A Place” from the group’s first album go way beyond the simple love songs of the day, hinting at John’s reflective nature that would find its way into later songs, such as “I’m A Loser,” which also was recorded before “Norwegian Wood.” The song was not even the first by John to tell a story. That distinction goes to “No Reply.” No doubt the words to “Norwegian Wood” are among John’s best from 1962 – 1965, but I would not consider the song to be the first where the words were more important than the music.

 

Also, as I’ve already said, the music on “Norwegian Wood” is equally important. It has a catchy melody line and excellent guitar playing by John and George. And it provides a new sound for the group through George’s sitar playing. As Jude pointed out, it represented the first time the sitar was featured in a released rock song. (The Yardbirds tried sitar on their 1965 recording of “Heart Full Of Soul,” but it didn’t sound quite right. Instead, Jeff Beck played his guitar part to emulate the sitar.)

 

John’s lyrics were in and of themselves a double entendre in the sense that there is more than one thing going on. John was trying to write about an affair, but to disguise it so that his wife Cynthia wouldn’t catch on. John had a great opening line that lent itself to telling a story: “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.” Now that’s really tongue-in-cheek! From that line, the song evolved into a story of an evening in a woman’s flat where the principal décor was wood—cheap pine, often referred to then as Norwegian wood. (Thus, the tile of the song refers to the apartment’s furniture.) After being led on by the girl and then forced to sleep in the tub, the singer awakes to find himself alone. Although the ending words, “So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood,” could be interpreted to mean lighting a fire in the fireplace to keep warm, Paul has said it meant that the singer burned down the house as an act of revenge.

 

Kessler: Bruce, can you tell us something about “Norwegian Wood” or about Rubber Soul that we haven’t considered or discussed?

 

Spizer: “Norwegian Wood” is the second song on both the Parlophone U.K. version of Rubber Soul and the Capitol U.S. version of the album. Interestingly, however, it follows two completely different style opening tracks.

 

On the U.K. album, the song follows “Drive My Car,” which is a hard rocker. It sounds totally different than “Norwegian Wood,” but the two songs work well together because of their lyrics. “Drive My Car” is not a typical pop love song. It has a story line about an interesting girl who want to be famous, but is not quite there yet. She doesn’t even have a car! And, of course, the phrase “drive my car” is one that serves as sexual double entendre. And even though, musically, the first two songs on the album are worlds apart, the “Beep beep beep beep, yeah!” ending of “Drive My Car” flows nicely into John’s lovely acoustic guitar intro to “Norwegian Wood.”

 

On the Capitol album, “I’ve Just Seen A Face” is the perfect musical lead into “Norwegian Wood.” Both have intricate acoustic guitar parts and have that same folk-rock sound that dominates the Capitol version of Rubber Soul. As for the lyrics, “I’ve Just Seen A Face” is a typical pop love song, whereas “Norwegian Wood” certainly is not.

 

The bottom line is that “Norwegian Wood” is such a great song that it works well as the next track to two completely different sounding songs!

 

An oddity: The song was originally titled “This Bird Has Flown.” Then, it was nearly called “This Bird Has Flown (Norwegian Wood)” before the final title became “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).”

 

A remarkable achievement about the Rubber Soul album in general: The recording sessions were rushed as The Beatles needed to complete 14 songs for an album plus two more for a single in time for release for the 1965 Christmas season market. Yet these sessions yielded the best crop of songs for any album. Out of the 16 tracks recorded during the session, eight (one-half) appear on the red hits collection! No other album session comes even close!

 

To learn more about Bruce Spizer and his remarkable Beatles Album Series, including the new book, The Beatles Finally Let it Be, CLICK HERE

 

And follow Bruce on Facebook HERE

Share

Rubber Soul Deep Dive Part 1: Drive My Car

Rubber Soul

 Side One, Track One

“Drive My Car”: And Suddenly, Everything Changed!

 

by Jude Southerland Kessler and Ken Womack

 

Throughout 2021, the Fest for Beatles Fans blog will explore the intricacies of The Beatles’ astounding 1965 LP, Rubber Soul. This month, Kenneth Womack, author of Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of The Beatles, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer, George Martin, and his new best-seller, John Lennon 1980 (among many others) joins Jude Southerland Kessler, author of The John Lennon Series, for a fresh, new look at the exciting opening track of this pivotal LP.

 

What’s Standard:

 

Date Recorded: 13 October 1965

Time Recorded: 7.00 p.m. – 12.15 p.m.

Studio: EMI Studios, Studio 2

 

Tech Team

Producer: George Martin

Engineer: Norman Smith and Ron Pender

Second Engineer: Ken Scott

Stats: Recorded in only four takes. “Best” take was Take 4. However, a plethora of overdubs completed the song in later sessions.

 

Instrumentation and Musicians:

Paul McCartney, the composer, sings lead vocal, plays bass on his Rickenbacker 4001S, piano, and possibly, lead guitar on his Epiphone Casino (Margotin and Guesdon).

John Lennon sings accompanying lead vocals and some sources say he plays piano on Studio 2’s Steinway Grand. Some sources attribute the tambourine to John.

George Harrison sings backing vocals and plays his Fender Stratocaster Sonic Blue.

Ringo Starr plays one of his Ludwig Oyster Black Pearl Super Classic drum sets, mans the cowbell, and possibly the tambourine.

 

Sources: The Beatles, The Anthology, 194, Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Chronicle, 202, Lewisohn, The Beatles: Recording Sessions, 63, Margotin and Guesdon, All the Songs, 276-277, Winn, Way Beyond Compare, 363, Hammack, The Beatles Recording Reference Manual, 66-67, Turner, A Hard Day’s Write, 88, Riley, Lennon, 287, Spizer, The Beatles for Sale on Parlophone Records, 200, and Babiuk, Beatles Gear, 169-173.

 

What’s Changed:

 

  1. Later Recording Sessions – Beginning with the work done on Rubber Soul’s opening track, The Beatles began recording at times conducive to their best work…at night. In his The Beatles: Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn notes that prior to “Drive My Car,” only ONE other recording session went past midnight. That occurred on 10 May 1965, but Lewisohn rapidly points out that this was not truly a “recording session,” but was a mixing session. (The Complete Beatles Chronicles, 202) On 13 October 1965, the famous four assume mastery of their work environment. Henceforth, they will record at times best suited to them. [Note Womack’s remarks in answer to interview question 1.]

 

  1. Unique Instruments and Unique AssignmentsRubber Soul is replete with Beatles happily playing instruments that they do not ordinarily play, and “Drive My Car” is no exception. John is generally given the nod for manning the tambourine and, most sources state that he is not playing his accustomed rhythm line.

 

There is much debate among experts about whether George is playing the song’s lead line or whether it is performed by Paul McCartney. In 1977, George said in an interview: “I simply played a guitar line that was, in fact, very close to ‘Respect’ by Otis Redding. I played this part, and Paul followed me on bass.” However, in The Anthology, George said, “I played the bass line on ‘Drive My Car.’ It was like the line from ‘Respect’ by Otis Redding.” (p. 194) Many experts feel that Paul played the bass line and also played the lead solo. (Winn, Way Beyond Compare, p. 363, Hammack, The Beatles Recording Reference Manual, p. 66)

 

There are two schools of thought on the introduction and coda. In All the Songs, Margotin and Guesdon, assert that the song’s opening intro was played simultaneously by George and Paul. (p. 277) Winn, however, credits the lead solo, intro, and coda to Paul alone.

 

One thing is certain: no longer were there inviolable “roles” in the creation of Beatles songs. The boys were beginning to branch out and play what was needed when it was needed. From henceforth, nothing would be the same.

 

  1. Evolving Attitude Toward Women – The women of Rubber Soul are not the demure, adored women addressed in “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Do You Want to Know a Secret” or “I Need You” or even the somewhat reticent “If I Fell.” The women of this late 1965 LP are no longer placed on pedestals, longed for, or revered.

 

Instead, they are the “unkind” female of “What Goes On.” They are the female “who puts you down when friends are there” in “Girl.” In “Think for Yourself,” we see them telling lies. And in “Run for Your Life,” they are suspected of being unfaithful. Even the least offensive female, in “You Won’t See Me” practices avoidance techniques and “refuses to even listen.”  Hard-hearted women, all.

 

The female protagonist of “Drive My Car” is no exception. She is an aggressive, aspiring actress with her own agenda.  This woman is determined, and her saga sets the attitude for the rest of the LP. The Beatles’ altering attitude toward relationships demonstrates the boys’ new, wide-eyed maturity. As Tim Riley observes in Lennon, “The Beatles had outgrown the teen market that once defined them and reshaped rock…with adult characters, situations, and inner lives.” (p. 287)

 

“Drive My Car” may make us smile, but its quirky ending makes that smile a wry one. Since the phrase “drive my car” is blues slang for sex (Margotin and Guesdon, 276), fans here observe the “dominant male” role shifting in Rubber Soul’s opening track. (Of course, The Beatles quickly doubled down with a second woman-dominated encounter in “Norwegian Wood.”) Betty Friedan’s 1963 work, The Feminine Mystique, championing the female’s “fully equal partnership with men” had fashioned a remarkable change in society. Here, The Beatles (who were always, as Lennon observed, in “the crow’s nest”) inculcated this emerging mindset into Rubber Soul.

 

A Fresh New Look:

 

Recently, we sat down with noted Beatles expert (author of John Lennon 1980) and biographer of Sir George Martin, Dr. Kenneth Womack, to discover what is going on behind the scenes in “Drive My Car.”

 

Kessler: Ken, as you know, John Lennon had traditionally been the Beatles’ “official/unofficial” LP opener. On With The Beatles, John opened the album with “It Won’t Be Long,” and on the A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack, it was John’s “A Hard Day’s Night” that led listeners into the grooves. On Beatles for Sale, John once again led the way with “No Reply.” And naturally, with the Help! LP, fans commenced their musical journey with John’s “Help!” Then came Rubber Soul, and fans discovered an LP opened by Paul McCartney singing “Drive My Car.” Is this new role for McCartney perhaps a “clue to the new direction”? Are the band’s leadership roles shifting by late 1965?

 

Womack: “Drive My Car” marks a number of intriguing shifts in the group’s internal calculus. In the case of the song’s placement on the LP, Rubber Soul was the first Beatles album in which the band members themselves had input into the sequencing of the record’s contents. Prior to Rubber Soul, George Martin held sway over most of the presentation of the Beatles’ work. To my mind, Rubber Soul is the turning-point LP where the Beatles take charge of their music as an artistic body of work. As Paul later remarked, “We gradually became the workmen who took over the factory. In the end, we had the run of the whole building. It would be us, the recording people on our session, and a doorman. There would be nobody else there. It was amazing, just wandering around, having a smoke in the echo chamber. I think we knew the place better than the chairman of the company because we lived there. I even got a house just ’round the corner, I loved it so much. I didn’t want ever to leave.” (The Anthology, p. 93) In short, Rubber Soul marked a new direction for the band in more ways than one.

 

Kessler: One of the elements of early Beatles music that attracted female fans was The Beatles’ admiration for songs written by females. They covered hits by the Shirelles, Donays, Marvelettes, etc. and in doing so, expressed a unique feminine voice, a singularly feminine point of view. How does Paul successfully achieve this, once again, in “Drive My Car”?

 

Womack: I’ve long interpreted “Drive My Car” and “Norwegian Wood” as being cut from very similar cloth. As with such compositions as “Ticket to Ride” and “Day Tripper,” “Drive My Car” and “Norwegian Wood” are key examples of Lennon-McCartney’s proto-feminism. In these particular songs, they depict very strong, self-assured female characters. In each instance, these female characters call the shots, refusing to be subservient to their male counterparts. To my thinking, these are revolutionary songs in terms of the Beatles presenting female-positive characters. As songwriters, Lennon and McCartney were ahead of the curve in terms of the ways in which they presented these strong female characters—and pointedly, for a very large female audience across the globe.

 

The band deserves great credit for their egalitarian approach to the world in an era when they were clearly on the vanguard. This was true both in terms of issues associated with feminism and race. With “Drive My Car,” McCartney was clearly speaking directly to a large segment of the group’s demography. From their earliest days as hitmakers, John and Paul understood the immense power of their bully pulpit as members of the Beatles. As McCartney later noted, “We knew that if we wrote a song called ‘Thank You Girl’ that a lot of the girls who wrote us fan letters would take it as a genuine thank you. So a lot of our songs—’From Me to You’ is another—were directly addressed to the fans. I remember one of my daughters, when she was very little, seeing Donny Osmond sing ‘The Twelfth of Never,’ and she said ‘he loves me’ because he sang it right at her off the telly. We were aware that that happened when you sang to an audience.” (Lewisohn, The Beatles: Recording Sessions, p. 9) With “Drive My Car,” McCartney moved beyond romantic love to depict a female character who is comfortable being herself and not waiting for any man to validate her existence.

 

Kessler: Paul McCartney said that on Rubber Soul, the group had “written some funny songs — songs with jokes in.” Certainly, “Drive My Car” produces a chuckle. Do you see “Norwegian Wood” in that same vein, or is it, from your perspective, a bit darker?

 

Womack: McCartney liked to refer to these songs as “comedy numbers,” which I’ve always found rather charming, given that the comedy is largely sexual in nature. “Drive My Car” and “Norwegian Wood” are not humorous songs, per se, but rather, compositions in which the male characters discover, somewhat belatedly, that they’ve been had. In the case of “Drive My Car,” the female character is all business, all the time. The song is loaded with sexual innuendo, with “baby, you can drive my car” being one of Paul’s more obvious come-ons. The same can be said for “Norwegian Wood,” which is somewhat playful at the beginning: “I once had a girl, / Or should I say, / She once had me.” By the end of the song, the female protagonist has, quite literally, laughed out loud at the male narrator, who very obviously pines for a sexual liaison, only to find himself consigned to a night alone in the bath. The latter song may very well be darker, especially with McCartney’s suggestion that the narrator has committed arson, having woken up alone the next morning.

 

Kessler: Finally, Ken, what don’t we know about “Drive My Car”? Is there anything you’d like to share with us about this late 1965 LP-opener?

 

Womack: To my ears, “Drive My Car” is the finest example of the Beatles’ performance of “plastic soul,” the phrase from which the Rubber Soul LP draws its title. As Beatles fans well know, at the end of the first take of the raucous “I’m Down,” Paul famously described the band’s sound as “plastic soul, man”—an ironic reference to the sonic textures of American rhythm and blues that the Beatles had become veritable masters at emulating. From their earliest days together, the Beatles—four ethnically homogenous Englishman—thoroughly imbibed American R&B and remade it in their own image. “Drive My Car,” with its funky, blues-oriented sound, epitomizes the ways in which Rubber Soul acts as the group’s valentine to their American rock and roll roots.

 

To learn more about the work of Dr. Kenneth Womack, including his new book, John Lennon 1980 and his “Everything Fab Four” podcast, go to https://kennethwomack.com/

 

Follow Ken on Facebook HERE and on Twitter @kennethawomack

Share

Rubber Soul: The Back Story

For the next 12 months, the Fest for Beatles Fans blog will each month move track-by-track through the magical LP that was Rubber Soul. Many people consider Revolver to be The Beatles’ “transitional” LP. Others, including myself, think the pivot point in The Beatles’ career was Rubber Soul. John Lennon, in fact, stated that Rubber Soul was “the album on which The Beatles began dominating the recording process.” (Hertsgaard, 168-169) In almost every way, the late 1965 LP was a bold directional change. Let me explain…

 

They had more than a month to devote to the new LP — a luxury never before afforded to the lads. Please Please Me — comprised of a few original songs and a plethora of numbers from their old Cavern Club show — had been honed on the Helen Shapiro Tour bus and recorded in a single day. The songs for A Hard Day’s Night had been written in between concerts in a Georges Cinq hotel room in Paris, January 1964. And the country-and-western themed tunes for Beatles for Sale had been hastily churned out prior to the 1964 North American Tour, refined in “catch-as-catch-can” moments on tour, and recorded in a handful of days immediately following the tour. Never had the boys ever been given a full month dedicated solely to the planning, writing, polishing, and recording of a new LP.

 

But the results of such an extravagance were well worth the wait…and the devotion. Rubber Soul was, according to New York Times and Rolling Stone journalist/author Mark Hertsgaard in A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of The Beatles, “…the finest album to date, and some say, [The Beatles’] finest album ever. With Rubber Soul, The Beatles offered, for the first time, an album with virtually no weak spots. It was made up of songs that were immediately captivating and enduring.” (p. 167)

 

The motifs of the late autumn 1965 LP were significantly more mature than the subject matter found on earlier albums. The popular themes of “she loves you,” “I love you,” and “you love me” were superseded by complex, mature, adult themes: struggling relationships (“Think for Yourself,” “What Goes On,” “Girl,” and “I’m Looking Through You”), casual dalliances (“Drive My Car” and “If I Needed Someone”), adultery and female-scorned liaisons (“Norwegian Wood” and “Drive My Car”), deep-seated jealousy and anger (“Run for Your Life”), and lingering self-doubt (“Nowhere Man”). But the album’s catalog was also graced with emotional songs of friendship and love, such as “In My Life,” “Wait,” and “Michelle.” And there is even a track, “The Word,” which celebrates agape love, that universal bond that could ultimately bring us all together.

 

Not only are the themes of Rubber Soul more developed and considered, but the music itself is also enriched with variety. The enchanting harmonium work in “The Word,” “We Can Work It Out,” and more subtly, in “If I Needed Someone” is sublime, as is the harpsichord-sounding piano in “In My Life.” Harrison’s sitar work (once pared down a bit from the overpowering first takes) makes “Norwegian Wood” soar. And McCartney’s fuzz bass in “Think for Yourself” enhances the power of Harrison’s lyrics. Wonderfully, the Beatles signature techniques, such as handclaps and three-part harmony, are still present and still viable as the boys retain their unique identity. Indeed, in Rubber Soul, nothing is abandoned but much is added.

 

Given the opportunity to focus entirely on their work, the late 1965 Beatles raised an already-elevated bar. Their lyrics became edgier, allowing the listener to investigate myriad levels of meaning. Their story songs offered multiple conclusions. And as they embraced global influences (such as The Byrds in “If I Needed Someone,” The Yardbirds in “Norwegian Wood,” and Dylan on many of the new tracks), the boys rose to equal their peers and surpass them.

 

Noted Beatles music experts have widely varying theories about why Rubber Soul affected (and still continues to affect) listeners so powerfully. Some point to the music; others, to the unique Scouse wit, and still others, to poetic lyrics. And all of this mattered. But one can’t ignore the importance of the record’s inherent vulnerability as a tremendous point of connectivity.

 

In almost every song on the Parlophone LP, one or more of The Beatles is admitting weakness. And in the words of St. Paul, “…when I am weak, I am strong.” John, Paul, George, and Ringo find a universal connection to their fans in simply confessing that they — just like the members of their audience — often feel isolated, lonely, afraid, frustrated, angry, and unfulfilled. The Fab Four are no longer “fab.” In Rubber Soul, they become human. They emerge “a bit like you and me.”

 

In his classic work, Tell Me Why, Tim Riley states, “Rubber Soul intensified the bond with the audience…it drew [The Beatles] closer to their listeners, as the frenzy of their tours continued to isolate them.” (p. 153) By freely admitting their own flaws, failures, and fears, The Beatles bridged the gap that the stadium fans were always trying to hurdle. The band dismantled that barrier. In Rubber Soul, the fans and The Beatles find an avenue to “come together.”

 

I can’t wait to explore this album with you as over the next twelve months we walk, track-by-track though Rubber Soul. Up first, we’ll take a fresh look at “Drive My Car” with noted author, Dr. Kenneth Womack (author of the best-selling new work, John Lennon 1980) about this clever opening track. Join us in just a few days, and our Rubber Soul adventure will begin!

Share

Live Rubber Soul

With today being the 49th anniversary of the release of Rubber Soul in the UK, we’ve put together “Live Rubber Soul” – the nine Rubber Soul tracks that have been performed live either by the Beatles or solo Beatles.
 
The Beatles’ decision to retreat full time into the studio after their concert at Candlestick Park in 1966 was a deliberate one. However, as we all know, the group was churning out songs that were either impossible to play live or nearly impossible to duplicate live well before late-1966.
 
Of the 14 tracks on Rubber Soul, nine have been performed live. Two of the songs were regulars on the Beatles’ set list during their final US tour, five have been performed live by Paul McCartney (solo), one was performed live by George Harrison, and one has been performed live by Ringo Starr (solo).
 
The songs on Rubber Soul that have never been performed in concert by the Beatles or solo Beatles: Norwegian Wood, Think For Yourself, Girl, Wait, and Run For Your Life.
 
Drive My Car (Paul McCartney solo)

 
You Won’t See Me (Paul McCartney Solo — first time since 1965 on record)

 
Nowhere Man (at the Circus Krone)

 
The Word (Paul McCartney Solo — first time since 1965 on record)

 
Michelle (Paul McCartney Solo)

 
What Goes On (Ringo Starr Solo)

 
I’m Looking Through You (Paul McCartney Solo)

 
In My Life (George Harrison Solo in 1974)

 
If I Needed Someone (Live in Japan)

Share