Sunday, August 5, 2018
The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe - Rubber Soul (1965)
RECOMMENDED [grade for this bootleg, not the album Rubber Soul]
In 1965, the Beatles grew up. It surely wasn't a sudden, abrupt movement for them -- not the way it felt, or feels, to us. There is of course evidence earlier in their recorded output of what's bound to happen: the traces of anguish throughout the album A Hard Day's Night and the song "Help!", the intoxicating, poetic romance of "I've Just Seen a Face," the melancholy textures of Beatles for Sale. But after a career of incremental evolution, Rubber Soul is such a massive, stunning leap away from what then was the perception of who the Beatles were and what they did for a living, bearing almost no superficial resemblance to any of their previous work on LPs or singles, that it can feel like a line drawn in the sand.
The Beatles themselves, consciously or not, reinforced that sensation with the help of George Martin and (to a lesser extent) EMI. In the United Kingdom, it was the second Beatles album entirely free of covers, and Help! would remain the last LP they issued with any non-originals (unless you count the brief extract of the traditional "Maggie Mae" on Let It Be). Apart from the possibly satirical "Drive My Car," it's also free of any "teenybopper" extracts, moments of simple catchphrase-driven pop along the lines of their previous hit singles. For the most part, the album is comprised of heartbreakingly sincere, captivating original portraits of love and loss -- sometimes acerbic, sometimes warm, always deeply compelling -- by John Lennon, for whom the record is an unqualified triumph (discount "Wait," whose stilted urgency evokes Motown, and "Run for Your Life," a nasty confession of abusive tendencies, at your own risk, for without them "In My Life" and "Nowhere Man" cannot be truly authentic); and stark depictions of relationship turmoil by his partner Paul McCartney, who seldom let an audience of millions see directly into his soul the way he did on "I'm Looking Through You" and "You Won't See Me," his two big showpieces here ("Michelle" be damned; it's excellent, but not a spot on those two). Even George Harrison contributes a credibly plaintive expression of unrequited love on "If I Needed Someone," even if the arrogance so often imbuing his lyrics doesn't entirely go away even then; and Ringo, for his part, sings more sweetly on the country music homage "What Goes On" than anywhere else on record.
The change of image goes beyond the album's content to its promotional and supplemental ephemera: the cover, the four of them glowering down from some untouchable height (actually distorted from a normal photo into a psychedelic yet minimalistic pose that's somehow evocative, in colors and facial expressions, of the record's largely muted but incalculably inspired acoustic content), couldn't be farther from the mugging of Help!. Serious as they'd looked on Beatles for Sale, they still looked like boys -- boys who'd seen a lot by now, but boys all the same; now they appear just barely human, separated from us by more than mere fame and experience, and John's stare directly into the camera serves as an oblique challenge. They still played it relatively safe on the radio, with a simultaneous double-A of songs excluded from the record, and yet you could tell a major difference even from the markedly sophisticated singles they'd issued prior in 1965, "Ticket to Ride" and "Help!"; "Day Tripper" is a brilliant but classically structured rocker, even if its sneering confidence obliterated most everything else on the charts at that moment, while "We Can Work It Out" provides a stark preview of the unsettlingly specific but curiously universal conflicted-love songs Paul was to spend the next two years laying out and exploring. In America, the division was made clearer still, with "What Goes On," "Nowhere Man" and "Drive My Car" excluded from the running and an even heavier emphasis on quiet acoustic pop music interrupted by sudden bursts of Elizabethan beauty (George Martin's piano solo on "In My Life," of which more in a moment) and unrepentant anger (the electric guitar breaks on "I'm Looking Through You"); there, the progression from frivolity seemed even clearer, with the album preceded by a goofball soundtrack record and some nutty concoction called Beatles VI, which hardly could have seemed less coherent as an artistic creation in comparison to this.
What we learn from Purple Chick's deconstruction of Rubber Soul, though, is that the division is more organic than it seems from all outward appearances then available; the contrast with the band's stage act, slogging through old material night after night to crowds that can't hear them, is indeed shocking... but there's every reason to believe that the frustrations of playing live fed into the need for the Beatles to find far more creative fulfillment in the studio than was available to them elsewhere, and the sheer radicalism of unleashing such a remarkably mature and intelligent album on a market in which it had very little precedent outside of Dylan is now hard to fathom as something they might just elect to do, and as something the public would be so quick to accept and embrace (indeed, it directly inspired Brian Wilson to begin work on Pet Sounds, and while Ray Davies denies paying much attention to what the Beatles were doing at the time, it's extremely difficult to imagine Face to Face existing without Rubber Soul). The sessions for the record on this collection depict a band still in transition, still not quite convinced it's okay not to constantly goof on everything, still just kids (all 25 and younger), but kids at the helm of something that feels -- tantalizingly, now -- bigger and more powerful than any of them. And identifiably, by the way, the same kids that killed it every night in Hamburg five years earlier, now still tirelessly ambitious and finding new ways to express it.
The definitive version of the Beatles' most beautiful album is the mono mix -- now, always, forever. There has never been a satisfactory stereo mix; the original 1965 stereo album suffers from the same bizarre balancing as Please Please Me, except now without the excuse of being a twintrack recording. In 1987, George Martin remixed the record and unfortunately added layers of reverb and now-dated "modernizing" effects that, while subtle, color the now-canonical version as a failed experiment; unfortunately, this is the version of the album that streams everywhere and is most widely distributed on CD and (now) vinyl. To those of us who grew up with Rubber Soul in stereo, mono is an absolute revelation, and not just because of weird quirks like Paul's single-tracked, intimate vocal on "You Won't See Me," the coughing in "Norwegian Wood," the longer fade on "I'm Looking Through You" and little flaws on "What Goes On" and "Michelle." Rather, it's because the entire record is vastly more enveloping, a major achievement of George Martin's in rendering its largely skeletal arrangements into room-filling lushness that never overreaches with the kind of schmaltz he fell back on for "Yesterday" one album earlier. "Nowhere Man" suddenly surrounds you more than it ever could with the separation of elements wrought by multiple channels; and the crunching, grinding guitar on "Think for Yourself" isn't cut at the knees by being shoved over stage left. The only distraction with the mono Rubber Soul is the piano part on "Drive My Car" sounding distinctly spliced-in, like a transmission from a different room; that aside, it's truly definitive. "Day Tripper" too is lovely, warm and organic in mono (though there is also, included here, an alternate stereo mix for the U.S. Yesterday and Today album that exhibits these same qualities, and better balance and sound than the canon stereo version), but the same can't be said of "We Can Work It Out," which is nearly drowned out by a tambourine overdub that sounds like a cricket and is easier to cope with in stereo. That song's U.S. stereo mix (prepped, it seems, for the Yesterday... and Today stopgap LP) is also a bit of a curio, with the harmonium bumped up and sounding strange.
The first two discs offer the usual mix oddities gathered from around and about: the American stereo mix of "The Word" is surprisingly different from what we're familiar with, rebalanced in a way that changes the song's character, and not to its detriment. We also get the famous "false starts" on "I'm Looking Through You," which were long seen as adding to the off-the-cuff charm of the American stereo Rubber Soul; and, from the same release in mono, a bit of extra echo on Paul in "Michelle." And among the modern DVD remixes are great versions of "We Can Work It Out" and "In My Life" (the latter is perhaps a bit too slick), and a dreadful one of poor "Day Tripper," which can't seem to be left alone. (We also get -- superfluously -- what are evidently early mono mixes of both sides of the single from the BBC, with an audience present, for a special program on John and Paul's career as songwriters.)
The lone unreleased song to surface on these sessions is the "Green Onions"-derived instrumental "12-Bar Original," which was eventually issued in severely truncated form on Anthology 2, where it seemed to stop the fun dead in its tracks; the original track is four minutes longer and, while one can appreciate the accusations that it's a terribly dull failed jam session, at least the presence of the loose jamming justifies the song's existence more cogently than an attempt to cut it down to the size of a 7" from the period. Besides, Anthology edits out the best part, a great, wildly distorted guitar solo evocative of Dave Davies (I can't seem to conclude whether this is John or George; I lean toward the latter, though it's alleged that John did play some lead guitar at this session). The session disc offers two additional takes, one an unnumbered excerpt in a monitor mix and one a false start that John openly addresses as his own fault, in a bit of personal progress from earlier sessions.
As for that third disc, the available sessions for Rubber Soul are only out in the world for our perusal in strange fits and starts, but with the rightly tuned ears they're deeply intriguing at their best. By this point the Beatles were, with scattered exceptions, laying down basic tracks and then recording on top of them, so except for songs that were wholly remade after being nearly complete -- and we have two examples of that here -- there aren't really a lot of "alternate versions" to hear per se, more slight variations and brief extracts of material unintended for public consumption. Start with the first session, for "Run for Your Life," where we get a bit of John playfully chatting about overdubs before we're given about half a full take of the song (the fifth), the main point of interest of which is an echo-drenched, single-tracked vocal on John that sounds like an attempt to pay homage to the song's inspiration, Elvis Presley's "Baby Let's Play House"; like Elvis on that track, Lennon here is manic, and significantly less cold-blooded in affect than on the master.
"Norwegian Wood" -- at this point simply labeled "This Bird Has Flown" -- is one of the two Rubber Soul songs that was drastically remade after being fully recorded and overdubbed. Take 1 of the song was later issued on Anthology 2 but does bear analysis as a fascinating, more sardonic dry run for the more reflective, sad master recording. (That first take is exhaustively documented here, with its dry original mix as well as the Anthology version on top of the "ASP mix" -- what is ASP, you ask? Why, it's an obscure bootleg called Another Sessions Plus that apparently boasted a slightly different mix dutifully canonized here by PC.) Less renowned is the unreleased second take, an extremely weird sitar-heavy arrangement, the entire song bearing a resemblance to the rather crowded bridge on take 1. Finally, the master recording -- take 4 -- is included without editing, so that we get to hear charming guitar false starts and the song tracking all the way to its actual conclusion, one of a number of such privileges on offer here.
The other vast diversion we can hear, as on Anthology 2, is "I'm Looking Through You" in its (now-beloved) intimate, slightly psychedelic alternative arrangement, presented in a rawer mix with leader, hard-panned stereo and weird volume issues... but boosted here by the amazing scream-laden finish by Paul, along the lines of his wilder "She's a Woman" takes, which the Anthology 2 compilers inexplicably faded. This is both one of Paul McCartney's finest songs and one of the most mature, knowing breakup songs in rock & roll, in terms of its flawless verbal and emotional presentation of what a betrayal feels like, a case in which Paul's more sophisticated, carefully engineered, even cerebral impulses as opposed to John's brazenly impulsive ones (the cartoon of a wife-beater on "Run for Your Life") allows him to sound like more of an adult than his partner; because in either version, even if the released master is considerably more passionated and well-considered, its resignation speaking volumes, the experience of losing someone and something previously beloved is palpably rendered as a source of anger and disappointment, sharply contrasted to the pop song's (and Paul's) typical morose lament. The absence of the bridge hurts a bit, but then again, the re-entrance of "the only difference is you're down there" after the instrumental break may provide more emphasis, thus resonance, to that verse in the song. As noted in the Anthology 2 review, I understand why this song was remade and this version discarded, but it's really a pleasure. (Once again, PC also provides both the released mix of this take, prepared for the unissued 1980s disc Sessions, and a very full-sounding sample of the song from a 1980s exhibit at the Abbey Road studio.) The complete recording of take 4, iconic false starts included, is also present here, and once again the absence of a fade lets Paul go on a surprisingly credible R&B tangent. It should be reiterated here: both of Paul's vocal performances on this song are sublime.
Next up chronologically is "Day Tripper," kind of an interesting case; it's another piecemeal recording, but one unusual element is that the bootlegged sessions imply that the master is an edit of two takes: take 1 sounds nearly identical to the released single sans vocals and tambourine (and you can get a full sense of how rocking and tight the performance itself is), with their absence giving an opportunity to hear the distinctive guitar line in all its glory, but the band breaks down at just the point when -- on the single -- you can hear a brief dropout covered up by tape trickery, typically thought to have been a masking of an error on the guitar track. But a close listen to take 3 -- the vocal and percussion overdub, here unfaded -- reveals what sounds like a tape splice at the dropout point. Lewisohn makes no mention of this in Recording Sessions so maybe it's just my ears, but if so, that just points up to how well-rehearsed the Beatles were, since I honestly can't tell that take 1 is a different performance from the familiar one. ("Day Tripper" is also on offer in an alternative monitor mix, which isn't really anything.) The other side of the single seems to have enjoyed a particularly smooth recording process; on the take 1 backing track of "We Can Work It Out," you can really hear how ambitious and unusual the acoustic guitar-heavy arrangement of the song is without vocals distracting. Take 2 provides a dry vocal overdub, and a separate overdub track adds the harmonium, mixed rather loudly with a funeral-like sustained note at the end.
One of the best songs from the Rubber Soul sessions, and one of the best compositions in the Beatles' catalog, is "In My Life" -- arguably the last great, true collaboration between John and Paul, if we're to believe musicologists and McCartney himself that he played a large role in writing its music -- which unfortunately is represented here strictly by some modest delving into the Bach-like piano solo by George Martin, which can here be heard at its original speed, or as presented on the record but isolated, or in an entirely different recording on a Hammond organ. It's interesting but dispensable. (Only the second descriptor applies to the presence here of "Nowhere Man," which is just an isolated instrumental version made very crudely, and "Girl," an instrumental monitor mix which does reveal how hypnotic the song is musically, a precursor to "I'm Only Sleeping," but is quite possibly not genuine and just poorly fan-made.)
Rounding on the third disc is the weirdest Beatles outtake yet, an eighteen-minute fly-on-the-wall document of a vocal overdub session for "Think for Yourself" that captures frequently vulgar conversations among the band -- or at least John, George and Paul -- though they are not entirely unguarded, as they were aware that George Martin was recording this for potential future use, possibly for one of the band's Christmas flexidiscs. (As it happened, a portion of the tape -- rehearsing the "you've got time to rectify" line -- was used in the film Yellow Submarine three years later. It's what the Beatles sing to wake up Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.) You'll gobble this up if you're a certain type of person; if you're a certain other type of person, it will monumentally frustrate you that the tape cuts out every time actual music starts. The most interesting moments are when the Beatles experiment with a major-key version of the vocal. The ugliest is John's unfortunate remark about being shot. John, broadly, is extremely aware of the microphone. He makes some ribald comments about his wife as well, but I've always loved the moment when he rewrites an old chestnut from the Beatles' first album as "Do You Want to Hold a Penis?". Very often in the endless discussions and conversations, they seem to be referring to films they've recently seen or events they've recently attended, and some of their jokes ("I would be pleased to see the earth men disintegrated") are downright impenetrable, though don't underestimate the strange delight in the three of them exchanging renditions of the Woody Woodpecker catchphrase. George tries to keep everyone on task but isn't generally successful (he refers bemusedly at one point to a portion of the song as "that bit that John finally got"). If you've ever wanted to hear the Beatles make dadaist, stoned dirty jokes and say "fuck" a lot -- and who hasn't? -- this is the tape for you. Just don't trust that it's a totally pure documentary moment.
I'll take any opportunity to talk about Rubber Soul as long as anyone will listen to me, and this bootleg has given me an excuse to delve into it some more. I've listened to the album something like four times this week. It never seems to grow old. And these fascinating angles from which to explore it, from which to hear how modestly the Beatles -- the same old Beatles, goofing off as always -- fell into creating such an out-of-nowhere masterpiece, only reinforce the power of the original record. These alternate takes and mixes just make you want to hear the record itself again, which is as good a reason as any to recommend them.